What we learned from the Scotland climate summit
Other than that everyone agrees that someone else should do something about climate change
What’s needed to solve the climate crisis? Poetry? A cartoon? Bagpipes? Let’s hope so, because all those things were present at the COP26 climate summit that just wrapped up in Scotland. The highlight, for me, was the speech by Sir David Attenborough, in which he summarized the planet’s recent environmental past by saying: “In my lifetime I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery.” Which raises the obvious question: What is David Attenborough’s personal culpability for greenhouse gas emissions? Let’s look at the data:
You have to admit: It looks like Sir David has some explaining to do. Of course, correlation doesn’t prove causation, so we can’t definitively pin this on the beloved 95-year-old naturalist. That being said, we also can’t completely rule out the possibility that David Attenborough has personally emitted roughly 1,500 gigatonnes of CO2 in his 95 years on Earth. We have no choice but to leave the question of whether the award-winning maker of “Planet Earth” and other documentaries single-handedly caused the climate crisis as a “maybe.”
It’s easy to forget that the COP26 conference was one of the major talking points produced by the 2015 conference in Paris. The chatter coming out of Paris was “countries have made commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions and are going to meet again in five years to lower them even more!” COP26 was that follow-up meeting (delayed a year because of Covid). How did it go? What did we learn, other than the fact that Comedy Central’s lawyers must suck because the conference blatantly ripped off their logo and got away with it? Look:
Unbelievable. If there’s any justice in the world, Comedy Central will sue the UN and use the money to bring back “Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire.”
But what else did we learn?
In my eight years as a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency (pre-“Last Week Tonight”), I became very skeptical of climate change “commitments.” Many of the speeches I wrote patted a company or city on the back for making an easier-said-than-done promise that no one would be around to verify. We’d travel out to West Birkenstock, New York, population 3,000 (including cows), and give the mayor the Greatest Person In The Universe Award for promising to reduce water use by 10% by 2850.
Some of the pledges coming out of Scotland have a similar flavor. India pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, when Narendra Modi would be 120 years old. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think Modi is too worried about having to explain his actions to disappointed delegates 50 years from now. Not to single out India; China’s target year is 2060, and the U.S. and EU are shooting for 2050. Notably, none of these countries1 have policies in place that put them on track to hit their target. Most of the world seems to be adopting a “lazy graduate student” mentality: They plan to delay, delay, delay, and then pull an all-nighter in which they add a billion kilowatts of clean energy generating capacity right before the deadline.
The pledges coming out of Scotland didn’t exactly — ooooh, this is a good one — set the world on fire! Excuse me for a moment while I accept this:
Paris sought to limit the temperature rise above pre-industrial levels to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees. Pledges from the Paris conference led to predictions of 2.7 degrees of warming by 2100. New pledges made in Scotland lowered that number to … 2.4 degrees. Before the conference, it was thought that we needed to reduce emissions by between 23 and 27 gigatonnes beyond Paris pledges by 2030; post-Scotland, we need to delete 17-20 gigatonnes. From The Economist:
We’ll currently fall well short of 1.5 degrees even if everyone meets their commitments. Reviews of the summit have been similar to reviews of Marvel’s “Eternals”: It wasn’t a total disaster, but it’s also not being hailed as an outstanding use of anyone’s time. Of course, instead of waiting another six years until the next meeting, delegates will meet again in 2022. Which is a bit like having underwhelming sex and then saying: “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”
My reaction to COP26 is more positive than most. And that’s because I care very little about pledges. It doesn’t matter much to me if Politician A makes a big promise and then leaves it to Politicians X, Y, and Z to deliver on that promise while Politician A is safely in the cold, hard ground. To me, these conferences are mostly a chance to — ooooh, here’s another one — take the temperature of the political climate. Hang on, something just arrived in the mail:
I think the summit seems a bit more productive if you focus on attitudes and trend lines than if you look at pledges alone. There’s obviously a large contingent pushing for stronger action. That contingent is split among many groups and political parties in many countries, but it exists. And they’ve had some success: Coal was specifically mentioned for the first time in the final agreement, in the context of calling for a “phase down” of coal. Many wanted to call for a “phase out” of coal, but China and India (especially India) softened the language. Some people were very disappointed by this; personally, I barely care. I don’t think that the wording of a non-binding agreement will ultimately matter much. What’s important is that everyone knows that coal’s days are numbered, and that remains true whether the agreement says “phase down”, “phase out”, “coal sucks”, or even “coal sucks ass on a galactic scale.”
The rift between the West and China and India (especially India) was front-and-center at the conference. Industrialized countries — along with vulnerable countries who, sadly, are mostly too small to do much beyond saying “please help” — have become the main force pushing for stronger action. Developed countries are, of course, the worst possible messengers for responsible climate stewardship; the U.S. and EU have released 47% of historic CO2 emissions while being around 10%t of the global population. The developed world is also dragging its feet on providing money to help poor countries adapt to the changing climate — they came to Scotland about $20 billion short of the $100 billion annual commitment they made in Paris. Having industrialized countries be the mouthpiece for low GHG emissions is like having 1970s Aerosmith be the spokespersons for sober living and strict monogamy.
And yet, here we are. GHG emissions in the West, though high, are starting to trend in the right direction. Meanwhile, most future emissions will come from the developing world. Here’s a projection of OECD and non-OECD CO2 emissions by the US Energy Information Administration:
Americans never like the idea that we’re not at the center of things. Personally, I get offended when the drop-down menu in an online form doesn’t list “United States” first — it just seems wrong that Andorra should come before us in any way, even alphabetically. But when it comes to future emissions, other countries matter more. China and India are, obviously, the big two. China is sending mixed signals; at the conference, they announced an agreement with the U.S. to boost climate cooperation but also declined to join a pledge to cut methane emissions. India is not sending mixed signals; they quite clearly intend to be the last major economy to decarbonize. They are presently all-in on the “you developed dirty, now it’s our turn” argument, and I could spend time poking holes in that logic, but I don’t think Narendra Modi reads this newsletter (he’s more of a Glenn Greenwald guy).
But here’s where, once again, I think that trends matter more than formal commitments. The conference saw the development of several “sectoral pledges”, which are opt-in agreements on specific issues. There was the aforementioned one on methane, and there were also ones on transportation and forestry. These agreements are sort of like the activities at a resort; you can sign up for salsa dancing or night snorkeling, but you don’t have to. India, for what it’s worth, metaphorically approached this situation pretty much2 the same way as my mom, i.e. not signing up for shit and then sitting by the pool listening to audiobooks until it’s time to leave.
The development of what some have called “coalition of the willing” agreements (let’s work on that name) strikes me as an important development. There’s no reason why an initiative has to include every country on Earth, or even most of them. A sub-global agreement can still build what we probably need most: Markets for low-carbon technology. Obviously, technology is key; technology is the toolkit we’ll ultimately use to achieve net-zero emissions (or not). Without better technology, politics will barely matter; even the most thirsty-for-net-zero-emissions politician in the world won’t get there if we lack low-carbon ways of doing things like growing food and traveling by air. The best policies we can implement today might be ones that create markets that will lead to better technology tomorrow. Things like COP26’s sectoral pledges, the environmental provisions in Build Back Better, and the EU’s proposed Super Secret Climate Fun Club (my name, not theirs) might be the green shoots of those markets.
And there’s another exciting, boring thing that came out of COP26: the agreement to have the UN certify carbon credits. The subject, of course, is almost supernaturally boring; it combines all the excitement of market regulation with the pulse-pounding delirium of UN bureaucracy. But it could be important. The system standardizes rules for creating, valuing, and swapping credits, thus imposing order on a system that is sometimes — to use a technical term — sketchy as fuck. If a government or company is going to pay to have carbon sucked from the air, then the carbon needs to actually be sucked from the air (and accurately measured), otherwise it’s just some unverifiable “have a star named after you”-type scam. Establishing these markets is crucial for the development of things like carbon capture technology.
Did Scotland get us where we need to go? No, not even close. If a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, then we’re still lacing up our shoes, except — whoops! — we forgot to put on pants, so let’s untie the shoes and start over. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic, mostly related to the incredible advances in low-carbon technology that have happened in the past few decades. At COP26 and elsewhere, we may be seeing the growth of new mechanisms to aid markets that will lead to better technology still. Let’s hope so, because although we might get a boost when David “Possible Source Of All The World’s CO2 Emissions” Attenborough eventually dies, we should probably have a backup plan in case he wasn’t actually the problem.
Geography buffs will note that the EU is not a country. Well spotted; I’m sure that “Jeopardy!” will be calling at any moment. Nonetheless, the EU is collectively not on pace to achieve net-zero by 2050.