In Glasgow and in Washington, D.C., Climate Failure Is Not an Option

The stakes are high. But so is the opportunity.

A message to world leaders on New Brighton Beach in Merseyside, England.

Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

We’ve entered the most critical weeks yet in the most important year to date for determining whether this generation confronts the climate crisis in time to avert global catastrophe and build a healthier, more equitable, and more promising world.

It’s a moment of opportunity we dare not squander.

Global climate talks next month in Glasgow offer the best chance yet for global action to move beyond fossil fuels and deforestation quickly enough to stem the worst consequences of climate change.

And the ability of the United States to help lead at Glasgow depends largely on congressional agreement to enact the robust climate initiatives President Biden has called for in the Build Back Better agenda. As an October 31 decision point looms in Congress, the fate of the agenda hangs very much in the balance and, with it, the fate of our future.

With stakes this high, and time this short, failure is not an option—in Washington, D.C., or in Glasgow. Congress must pass the commonsense investments we need to clean up our dirty power plants, speed the shift to electric cars and trucks, and cap the abandoned oil and gas wells that threaten our communities.

Biden must go to Glasgow positioned to shore up global faith in U.S. climate commitments, restore trust among U.S. partners, and lead, by example, in the climate fight.

And the nations of the world—especially the United States, China, India, Russia, and other large greenhouse gas emitters—must deliver on the climate action the crisis demands.

Youth climate activists take the stage to demand world leaders commit to more ambitious action at COP25 in Madrid, December 11, 2019.

Credit: UN Photo

We know what success at Glasgow will require: ambitious global commitments to cut carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases—quickly and at scale; funds and policies that ensure access to the finance and technology developing countries need to embrace clean energy and protect people on the frontlines of climate hazard and harm; and effective measures and mechanisms to hold ourselves and each other to account for making good on the Glasgow pledges.

We know, also, what coming up short would look like, because we’re coming up short right now.

We need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels, to prevent the climate crisis from boiling over into catastrophe. That means cutting the carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels roughly in half by 2030, compared to 2010 levels.

Instead, we’re on track, globally, to increase carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent by 2030, even if countries live up to their existing commitments. That level of emissions is in line with 2.7 degrees Celsius, or nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit, of warming, a level that would cause certain climate calamity worldwide.

The United States and other major emitters must lead the world in closing that gap.

Biden has pledged to cut U.S. carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by 2030. It’s an ambitious but achievable goal that would deliver $150 billion in public health and environmental benefits while raising annual U.S. economic output more than $500 billion by 2030.

To get it done, Biden has called for clean energy investments in his Build Back Better agenda. It’s up to congressional leaders now to enact this grand strategy to cut carbon pollution, create jobs, and drive equitable recovery, at a moment when we must urgently do all three.

President Biden speaking on the Build Back Better agenda at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 324 in Howell, Michigan, October 5, 2021.

Credit: Elaine Cromie/Getty Images

Other developed nations have pledged to cut carbon pollution as well, but the United States and its wealthy partners will need to strengthen their commitment for the world to get on track for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The 27-nation European Union, for example, has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 55 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. That’s roughly equivalent to a 51 percent reduction, relative to the 2005 year that the United States uses as a base.

Japan has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 44 percent to 48 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. That’s an improvement over past commitments, but Glasgow is Japan’s chance to join with other leading economies in pledging cuts of 50 percent or more by decade’s end.

Canada has pledged to cut its emissions by 45 percent, relative to 2005 levels, and Australia is committed to a 28 percent cut.

Again, wealthy countries have a long way to go, as do others among the world’s largest-emitting nations.

China, for its part, has pledged to peak its carbon emissions by “around 2030.” The world’s second-largest economy, though, could make a huge contribution in Glasgow by moving that date up to 2025, for example, and capping coal use this year.

Similarly, India, which is on track to meet, and likely exceed, ambitious targets for cutting carbon pollution as a share of economic output roughly by one-third by 2030, could also seize this opportunity to do even better, by accelerating the growth of wind and solar power, for example, and speeding its shift away from coal.

There’s not a nation anywhere that can’t do more to help cut the global carbon footprint. Each must put plans on the table to do just that at Glasgow.

The United States and other wealthy countries also have a responsibility at Glasgow to make sure people across the developing world have access to the financing, technology, and other resources they need to protect their communities from the ravages of climate change and transition away from fossil fuels.

The climate crisis is a burden that rich countries have inflicted on the developing world. The wealthy and upper-middle income nations that make up 51 percent of the world’s population, after all, account for 86 percent of the global carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, people living in lower-income nations are often suffering frontline climate impacts, from deadly heat waves, drought, and floods to rising seas that threaten their communities and livelihoods.

A boy stands beside a shelter built after previous floods on the eroding banks of the Meghna River in Bangladesh, September 2019. By the end of the century, sea levels are expected to rise along the Bangladesh coastline by up to 1.5 meters.

Credit: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Alamy

It’s fundamentally unjust that the people who’ve done the least to cause the climate crisis are too often paying the highest price for its consequences.

The United States and other wealthy nations have pledged $100 billion a year to help developing countries invest in climate resiliency, protection, and clean energy. This critical assistance, though, has fallen short by roughly $20 billion a year.

Glasgow must be about making good on the full pledge—right away—and ensuring that this assistance be evenly split between the investment that low-income nations need to protect their people and what’s required to expand clean energy. That’s what the countries most vulnerable to climate impacts have asked for, and it’s only just and fair.

At the same time, wealthier nations need to commit to greater climate assistance for the developing world going forward while putting in place policies to help unleash and support trillions of dollars in private investment to further advance this critical work.

Biden vowed last month to double U.S. climate assistance to low-income countries, raising that aid to $11.4 billion a year by 2024. It’s the right thing to do. Congress should fully fund the increase, and Biden should continue to press for even greater such support, both at home and abroad.

What happens at Glasgow, ultimately, is only as good as the actions that follow. That’s why leaders must put in place mechanisms to make sure we turn the promises of Glasgow into progress on climate.

That starts with transparency, monitoring, and public reporting so that, together, we can track the gains we’re making, help each other out with what works best, and keep moving forward on the way to our goals.

It means coming back together, as a global community committed to keeping up the fight, in another five years, to raise our ambitions once more. And it means working at the national, subnational, and nongovernmental levels to hold ourselves and each other to account for the commitments we make.

Leaders celebrating the adoption of the Paris Agreement during the plenary session of COP21, December 12, 2015.

Credit: Mark Garten/UN Photo

The landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement provided a roadmap to accountability, setting out a framework for tracking the progress of nations and ratcheting up carbon reduction targets. Glasgow must build on what we’ve learned since Paris, to make sure we establish a rules-based system that works to make certain that countries meet their individual commitments. This way, globally, we can stay on track to ensure a 1.5-degree world.

Ambition. Access. Accountability. These are the measures of success in Glasgow, where failure cannot be an option.

Because, if the stakes are high, so is the opportunity. By rallying around the concerted and ambitious climate action we need, global leaders can confront at last the existential environmental challenge of our time in a way that helps to create a more equitable, more prosperous, and more promising world.

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