Key Issues at Climate Conference How the Worst Can (Maybe) Still Be Averted
Britain’s Cambo oilfield is located around 600 kilometers from Glasgow. One kilometer beneath the waves, it holds approximately 800 million barrels of oil. If all of it is ultimately burned, this oil will emit as much CO2 as all of Spain does in one year.
And now, just a few days before the beginning of the World Climate Conference in Glasgow, British Prime Minister Boris Johnston is clearing the way for the oil in the Cambo field to be extracted.
The timing could hardly be worse. The British government hopes to be a successful host of the 26th UN climate summit, at which 30,000 participants from around the world will search for ways to decrease global greenhouse emissions as rapidly as possible. And phasing out oil, coal and natural gas is certain to be a key part of any solution.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 44/2021 (October 30th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
Indeed, Johnson and his diplomats have been announcing one big climate-protection scheme after another in recent months: They submitted ambitious climate goals to the UN, suggested a coalition for phasing out the combustion engine and positioned themselves to end subsidies for oil and gas.
But the Johnson-Cambo dilemma shows the contradictory nature of climate conferences. For the host country, they are above all else an opportunity to shine on the world stage – ideally as brightly as France did in 2015. In Paris, the world community signed the first truly global climate agreement. After years of unsuccessful climate summits, the French government, under the leadership of then-President François Hollande, achieved a breakthrough: Fully 195 countries signed a deal to reduce greenhouse gases and thus limit global warming to significantly below 2 degrees Celsius – ideally to just 1.5 degrees – relative to pre-industrial times. Hollande went down in history as the president of the Paris Agreement.
It is expected that the climate summit will be accompanied by massive protests.Foto: Andrew Milligan / dpa
Boris Johnson has similar plans in Glasgow – oilfield or not. And, indeed, the 26th Climate Conference offers at least the potential for a showdown: Climate activists see Glasgow as the last chance to make the changes necessary to slow global warming. For the International Energy Agency, a UN organization, the conference is a test for whether countries are prepared to truly act and present ambitious goals. Endangered island nations, meanwhile, are warning that the 1.5-degree goal will not be achievable if the world doesn’t get its act together in Scotland.
To achieve a breakthrough, Johnson needs to overcome several obstacles as negotiator:
Industrialized countries have pledged to make at least $100 billion per year available to poorer countries to help them adapt to the climate crisis and transition to clean energy. But according to the OECD, the countries fell around $20 billion short of that goal in 2019. If industrialized countries don’t live up to their obligations, others could lose their trust in the Paris process.
Economic damage caused by severe weather phenomena like hurricanes or droughts is overwhelming many African and Asian countries. They are calling for the wealthiest countries to pay for these losses, since they are historically responsible for climate change. Wealthy countries, though, don’t want to be made legally liable. Because climate change is likely to become far more expensive in the future, an initial compromise will have to be presented in Glasgow – and the primary question it must address is where the money should come from.
The Paris Agreement’s controversial Article Six is meant to enable international compensation for CO2 and other greenhouse gases. It would allow countries to buy CO2 credits from one another, generated, for example, through wind farms or the reforestation of woodlands. But even at the last UN Climate Conference in Madrid in 2019, countries were unable to agree on binding rules. The hope is that a solution will be found in Glasgow.
Participating countries also need to agree on rules for evaluating progress in fighting climate change and in addition to standards that can be used to appraise the climate goals set by individual countries.
At the same time, Boris Johnson and his team would need to motivate countries to set higher targets – at least on the long term. After all, none of the largest countries have made appreciable improvements to their climate plans.
British Prime Minister Boris JohnsonFoto: Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP
The sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was published in August, shows that the window for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is closing faster than expected. It’s very likely that the 1.5-degree limit will already be passed in the early 2030s, according to the IPCC report. This means we only have about 10 years left. And the report makes it clear that beyond that limit, extreme weather such as droughts and heavy rainfall will become more frequent.
But the starting point ahead of this summit is grim. COVID has made the negotiations more difficult, and the last UN climate summit in Madrid two years ago was a disaster. According to one observer, "we could have done without it.” In late 2020, several countries – including the European Union and, a few weeks later, the U.S – announced plans to curb emissions further. But things have gone quiet since then.
The reason for the dark mood can be found in the numbers: For the world to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees, global greenhouse-gas emissions would need to be cut by 30 billion tons per year by 2030. According to the UN Environment Program, countries currently emit over 50 billion tons per year.
Niklas Höhne, New Climate Institute
According to a current UN report, however, the climate plans that have thus far been submitted to the UN only amount to global reductions of 5 billion tons. The gap is gigantic. Even limiting warming to 2 degrees, which would have incalculable consequences for the global climate, greenhouse gas emissions would have to be cut by 11 billion tons by 2030, more than twice the 5 billion tons in reductions already announced.
"We can only hope that the G-20 countries will boost their pledges,” says Jennifer Tollmann of E3G, a European think tank. "It is likely that India and China will pledge more, but that still won’t close the gap to the 1.5-degree goal.” To do so, China alone would need to cut emissions by at least 3.5 billion tons, she says. To save the summit, she says, vanguards like the EU would need to try to create new "momentum” – by motivating laggards to improve their emissions reduction goals by 2023 at the latest. "Either way, we can’t wait until the next Paris cycle in 2025. By then it will be far too late to redirect investments in fossil fuel projects so that we can achieve a halving of emissions in this decade,” says Tollmann.
Climate activists began protesting in Glasgow well ahead of the start of the summit.Foto: Andrew Milligan / imago images/ZUMA Press
German climate expert Niklas Höhne is also frustrated. He oversees the Climate Action Tracker platform, which regularly ranks the climate plans submitted by countries around the world. "We have here a giant gap between aspiration and reality,” Höhne says. Many countries have pledged only minimal improvements, and some have even lowered their targets. Seventy of 200 countries have not submitted any updates at all yet. The consequence: "It is now very late for reaching the 1.5-degree goal, and it will definitely be missed if everyone doesn’t switch to emergency mode.”
But the world’s capitals aren’t currently radiating ambition. According to the International Monetary Fund, about $6 trillion in state funds flowed into subsidies for fossil-fuel energy production in 2020 alone. It was oil, rather than coal, that got most of the money from the governments.
Severe flooding in Germany this summer clearly demonstrated the dangers associated with our warming planet.Foto: RHEIN-ERFT-KREIS / EPA
In 2018 and 2019, China, Japan and South Korea pumped the most money into climate-damaging projects. Only 2 percent of the money G-20 states injected into their economies to combat the COVID downturn was invested in renewable energy or climate-protection projects.
This political approach will not prove sufficient to combat the climate crisis. After the COVID dip in 2020, the International Energy Agency is expecting the second-largest rise in human-caused CO2 emissions in history. With the current plans for reducing emissions, the organization’s new annual report finds, the world would only decrease its output by 40 percent by 2050. Many countries have pledged to become emissions neutral by the middle of the century – meaning they will emit zero net emissions into the atmosphere. But in a recent report, the IEA noted that many of those countries have failed to present "near-term policies and measures” to reach that target.
Many diplomats are pessimistic and have already begun looking to the climate conference in 2025. All countries are required to have submitted more ambitious goals by then. That, though, means four more years of waiting – and four more years of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions. For countries already affected by climate change, especially small island nations, such an outcome would be unthinkable. For them, climate change has already become existential.
A Last Chance for Merkel's Climate Legacy
Whether there will be movement or even a new start depends currently on the three big players at the climate summit: the U.S., the EU and China. Chinese climate activist Li Shuo of Greenpeace currently describes the situation as follows: "The truth is that in the 'climate tricycle,’ Europe was always the strong front wheel – but both of the two rear wheels are flat – what’s worse, they are constantly getting in each other’s way.” He argues that climate diplomats don’t have a solution for how this constellation can move forward.
Both "flat tires” – China and the U.S. – have a mountain of problems in advance of Glasgow: U.S. President Joe Biden is struggling to get a majority for his trillion-dollar infrastructure package, which is also linked to his climate promises. Meanwhile, China is struggling with power outages and high energy prices – and the country is eager to maintain its unhindered growth. At least until 2030, at which point it could reach the apex of its emissions.
It is an historic stalemate: If the U.S. doesn’t move, neither will China. Despite the big announcements, Chinese President Xi Jinping does not trust Biden. But experts agree that without China, many emerging and developing countries won’t do anything either.
The only hope in this muddled situation is a chancellor on the verge of retirement: Angela Merkel. She has been in office long enough and has the respect of China and the U.S. and she discussed climate protection in a video meeting with Xi Jinping in October. Glasgow is Merkel’s last chance to go down in the history books as the "climate chancellor.”