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Our climate future is in the hands of a few world leaders

Two weeks of discussions in Glasgow at COP26 came to a close with an agreement, which even if countries fulfill, will still put the world on a dangerous path toward a planet that will be warmer by some 2.4 degrees Celsius by year 2100, compared with preindustrial times

By Somini Sengupta
Published: Nov 15, 2021

Our climate future is in the hands of a few world leadersA march organized by environmental groups and activists during the United Nations global conference on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 3, 2021. In Washington, Beijing, New Delhi and beyond, governments face conflicting forces — political, social and economic — that will shape their next steps in the effort to avert a climate crisis. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

GLASGOW, Scotland — After two weeks of lofty speeches and bitter negotiations among nearly 200 nations, the question of whether the world will make significant progress to slow global warming still comes down to the actions of a handful of powerful nations that remain at odds over how best to address climate change.

The United Nations global conference on climate change closed Saturday with a hard-fought agreement that calls on countries to return next year with stronger emissions-reduction targets and promises to double the money available to help countries cope with the impacts of global warming. It also mentions by name — for the first time in a quarter-century of global climate negotiations — the main cause of climate change: fossil fuels.

But it did not succeed in keeping the world from averting the worst impacts of climate change. Even if countries fulfill all the emissions promises they have made, they still put the world on a dangerous path toward a planet that will be warmer by some 2.4 degrees Celsius by year 2100, compared with preindustrial times.

That misses by a wide margin the target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees that scientists say is necessary to avert the worst consequences of warming. And it sets the stage for worsening storms, wildfires, droughts and sea-level rise as well as the social and economic upheaval that would accompany a widening climate crisis.

A relative handful of political leaders around the world — in capital cities such as Washington, Beijing and New Delhi — hold much of the influence over whether those promises are kept and the arc of warming can be sufficiently bent away from disaster. But they face a complex combination of pressures: industry interests that stand in the way of regulations, demands from developing countries for money to help them transition away from fossil fuels, and an increasingly vocal movement among citizens to rein in emissions more quickly and deliver what they call climate justice.

Chief among the leaders facing such pressures is U.S. President Joe Biden, who is pursuing one of the biggest climate legislation efforts ever attempted in the country, but who faces heavy resistance not only from Republicans, but from key senators within his own party.

At the same time, in China, will Xi Jinping — just recently elevated to the pantheon of Communist Party leaders alongside Mao Zedong — be able or willing to corral provincial leaders to reduce their use of the coal that has powered China’s economic rise? Can Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose representatives weakened the final agreement’s language on coal at the eleventh hour Saturday, achieve his pledge of boosting renewable energy sources fivefold by 2030? Will Brazil keep its promise to join other countries in reversing deforestation in the Amazon?

The pledges have kept the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees “within reach — but its pulse is weak,” said Alok Sharma, the British politician who presided over the summit. “And it will only survive if we keep our promises, if we translate commitments into rapid action.”

The test of rapid action includes what his own government does.

Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and one of history’s largest emitters of planet-warming greenhouse gases, has said it intends to reduce its emissions by 68% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

For businesses, the biggest impact from the Glasgow climate meeting is likely to come from an accord that was announced on the sidelines: A coalition of the world’s biggest investors, banks and insurers that collectively control $130 trillion in assets pledged to use that capital to hit “net zero” emissions targets in their investments by 2050. That push would make limiting climate change a central focus of many major financial decisions.

But lawmakers will probably face industry pressure over the writing of new regulations defining just what constitutes net zero investments.

Success or failure could end up depending significantly on what government regulators come up with, said Simon Stiell, the environment minister for Grenada, a Caribbean island nation that is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. “I expect there will be a significant lag between those pledges and it getting to a point where you have carrots and then you have the stick,” he said. “That piece isn’t part of the discussions that took place.”

Maisa Rojas, a climate modeler at the University of Chile, said researchers need to better quantify the impacts of climate change on vulnerable people and communities. That will help address an issue that was one of the most bitterly argued at Glasgow — “loss and damage,” or the question of what is owed to people who have barely contributed to global warming but are most harmed by it.

“We need a systematic understanding and monitoring of what is going on,” said Rojas, director of the university’s Center for Climate and Resilience Research.

Indeed, one of the most important issues that at-risk countries such as Grenada plan to press in the coming months is financing for loss and damage. These nations did not win their battle in Glasgow, instead getting only a commitment from rich countries to have a “dialogue” on the compensation issue in the future.

Stiell argued that simply offering disaster relief, as some countries including the United States has suggested, is insufficient. Loss and damage funding is also required for the slow attrition of land because of sea-level rise and agricultural losses from long running droughts. “There needs to be outcomes beyond a dialogue,” he said.

Many of the youth activists who protested outside the talks said the promises didn’t go nearly far enough to address a problem that they are already living with. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, an activist from the Philippines who joined tens of thousands of activists on the streets of Glasgow to rally for “climate justice,” said the outcome felt like “a stab in the back from those who call themselves leaders.”

“But the youth climate movement will keep fighting,” she said, “even when we are angry, sad or afraid, because this is everything to our generation.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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