The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) now under way in Glasgow might conclude with a big international agreement. But whatever tactical successes are achieved at COP26, the results are likely to mark a strategic setback for humanity – at least when compared to the hopes of climate activists.
The world is missing target after target. This should not be surprising: while a growing number of countries have set net-zero targets, for example, very few have credible plans to meet them. And, even if we did meet existing targets, that would not be enough to achieve the 2015 Paris climate agreement’s main goal: limiting global warming to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels.
In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report warns that the planet is likely to reach the 1.5℃ limit in the early 2030s. As long as multilateral engagement is defined by nationalism, power politics, and emotion rather than solidarity, law, and science, our future will continue to grow bleaker.
At the height of the cold war, the American television series The Outer Limits told the story of an idealistic group of scientists staging a fake alien invasion of earth, in the misguided hope that they could avert nuclear Armageddon by giving the world a common enemy against which to unite. When faced with the prospect of extinction, the logic went, the Soviet Union and the United States would turn their attention from competition to shared survival.
Today, nobody needs to contrive a common cause. Climate change poses as great a threat as any alien invasion. But, far from shocking national leaders out of their petty competition, it is being wielded as a weapon in a many-sided propaganda war. From Brazil and Australia to China and the US, countries are trying to game climate negotiations in order to shift the costs of adaptation onto others.
For example, the Brazilian government is trying to get the world to pay it to stop destroying the Amazon rainforest. Chinese President Xi Jinping will participate in COP26 only by video link, and Russian President Vladimir Putin might not attend at all.
Meanwhile, the advanced economies – including those that proudly claim to be committed to climate action – have broken their promise to provide $100 billion annually to support the climate transition in the global south. And even if they did deliver, it wouldn’t be enough.
Developed economies are finding increasingly coercive ways of shaping other countries’ behaviour. Commitments by most of the Western and multilateral development banks to stop financing coal (now joined by China) restrict options for grid expansion in developing countries where demand for power is growing rapidly.
Influential countries have also urged the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to attach green conditions to debt relief for poor countries, as well as to its new allocation of special drawing rights (the IMF’s reserve asset). And the European Union’s carbon border adjustment mechanism – a non-trade barrier intended to force exporters to Europe to shift to green production – disproportionately hurts small emitters in Africa and eastern Europe with a lot to lose.
This is not to disparage coal bans, green financing, and carbon pricing. On the contrary, these tools have a crucial role to play in changing how the global economy works. But that doesn’t mean we can disregard the (very serious) consequences for developing economies. Instead, we need to create a new grand bargain focused on supporting adaptation in the developing world.
More broadly, we must ensure that any multilateral agreement for tackling climate change is governed by international law, rather than dependent on the will of individual countries. And decision-making should be driven by scientific truths, not political slogans.
The Paris climate agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, was broadly in line with this approach: it was a multilateral treaty, with legally binding international targets determined by the world’s best scientists. But the protocol also had many flaws, and it didn’t end up going far.
The Paris accord took a very different tack. It was hailed as a triumph, because hopes for any agreement were so low. But it entailed a major compromise: it was based on non-binding commitments known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Countries could simply pursue the energy policies on which they had already decided, while pretending they were working together to tackle climate change. Not surprisingly, current NDCs are wholly inadequate to achieve the agreement’s stated goals.
To be sure, climate-change COPs have often made important – if often procedural, boring, and technical – contributions to the climate fight. But showboating and power politics have stood in the way of real progress. And the media and civil-society circus that surrounds the conferences – intended to enforce accountability and transparency – has often impeded negotiators’ ability to get things done.
More fundamentally, COPs have failed to produce a model of global governance that can tame power politics, let alone forge a sense of shared destiny among countries. And there is little reason to believe this time will be different.
Of course, the problem extends beyond UN Climate Change Conferences. While economic globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty, it has led to an increasing concentration of wealth. In this context, efforts to advance shared interests can become less appealing, because they produce asymmetrical rewards.
Add to that the psychology of envy unleashed by social media, and it becomes all the more difficult to shift people’s focus from their relative position in the global pecking order to the common good. These trends have undermined faith in the power of government, and fuelled pessimism about the possibility that any solution will emerge.
The result is what social scientists call a collective action problem. Leaders and citizens alike conclude that the most rational short-term strategy is to pay lip service to the cause and hope others will solve the crisis. Meanwhile, the planet burns.
This article was first published in Project Syndicate on November 2, 2021.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.