Glasgow - The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is coming to a close. The draft text outlining decisions and commitments made by the nearly 200 countries in attendance has been released. However, the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) group reportedly wants to pull the section devoted to cutting emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) as a way to achieve temperature goals. At issue is the goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature by 2100 to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and the more ambitious effort to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The group, which includes China, Saudi Arabia, India, and Bolivia, specifically objects to the text that urges countries "to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions, as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022." The LMDC group insists that developing countries including China, India, and Russia should be allowed to stick with the original five-year plan of updating targets as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. That would mean waiting until 2025 to hear from them. This demand is likely a last-minute negotiating tactic seeking to shake down rich countries for more climate aid to poor countries.
The draft text also notes that pledged GHG emissions are currently off track for meeting the Paris Agreement's goal of keeping temperatures below 1.5°C by 2100. Achieving that goal would require rapid, deep, and sustained reductions in global GHG emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net-zero around mid-century.
Humanity emitted just over 33 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2010 from burning fossil fuels. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world emitted just under 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that level dropped to 35 billion tons in 2020. Cutting global emissions by 45 percent below the 2010 level would require an overall reduction of 19 billion tons by 2030. That implies a need to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by just under 2 billion tons per year until reaching an annual emissions level of around 18 billion tons in 2030. That's about the amount emitted in 1977. For reference, consider that the U.S. emitted 4.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2020.
Taking into consideration the reduction pledges made by all signatories of the Paris Agreement, the draft text also notes that the aggregate emission level of GHGs in 2020, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, is projected to be 13.7 percent above the 2010 level in 2030. In 2010, GHG emissions were 41.8 billion tons in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). Co2e is a measure of how much a GHG contributes to global warming relative to carbon dioxide. For example, a molecule of methane heats the atmosphere about 25 times more over 100 years than does a molecule of carbon dioxide. On current trends, the world will be emitting 47.5 billion tons of CO2e by 2030.
At COP26, pledges to cut GHG emissions to net-zero (that is, no longer releasing GHGs unless the same amount is sequestered underground or in trees) have been made by more than 70 countries. While most (including the U.S.) set 2050 as their net-zero deadlines, China picked 2060 and India chose 2070. Recognizing that most of these net-zero pledges were at best vaguely aspirational, the draft text urges signatories to "set out pathways with plans and policies towards just transitions to net zero emissions by or around mid-century in line with the Paris Agreement temperature goal" by next year's U.N. Climate Change Conference. Interestingly, whether the 2100 average temperature increase goal is 1.5°C or 2°C is left unspecified.
The document also calls upon signatories to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels. How likely is this? Global coal production has risen from 3.6 billion tons in 1978 to nearly 7.6 billion tons in 2020. U.S. coal production peaked at just over 1 billion tons in 2008, dropping in 2020 to just under 0.5 billion tons. This was largely a result of electric power generators switching to cheap fracked natural gas. In contrast, China's coal production increased massively from 0.6 billion tons in 1978 to 3.7 billion tons in 2020. Earlier this year, Reuters reported that the world's coal producers are currently planning as many as 432 new mine projects, with a projected 2.28 billion tons of annual output capacity.
The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2021 report calculates that keeping the world on track to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 would require shutting down 40 percent of the world's current fleet of coal-fired power plants by 2030.
On Wednesday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and China's climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua issued the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, declaring that the two countries would work together on preventing deforestation and reducing globe-warming methane emissions. In addition, the declaration states that China "will phase down coal consumption during the 15th Five Year Plan and make best efforts to accelerate this work." The 15th Five Year plan runs from 2026–2030, and that's exactly the same promise that China's President Xi Jinping made earlier this year.
"Two views emerged overnight. One: This was a stage-managed nothingburger. There was nothing new bar words, nothing on coal, finance, or loss and damage," said Climate Home founder and editor Ed King. "The other: The methane and forest lines are positive, as is a new diplomatic alliance and foundation forged between bitter rivals after 30 meetings in 2021." The better view is "stage-managed nothingburger."
Calling upon signatories to accelerate phasing out fossil fuel subsidies is, of course, a splendid idea. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that global fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion in 2020. Most of the IMF's estimate applies to the supposed undercharging for the fuels' environmental damages and foregone consumption taxes. Direct subsidies amount to just under $500 billion per year and those should certainly be eliminated.
Like at all previous COPs, the biggest sticking points are over money. As the LMDC gambit shows, one of the fiercest fights is over the failure of rich countries to meet the pledge made in the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 that they would "mobilize" $100 billion in annual climate aid to poor countries by 2020. In 2019, the developed countries provided only $80 billion to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change. This year's draft document "emphasizes the need to mobilize climate finance…beyond USD $100 billion per year" and "calls for greater support to be channelled through grants and other highly concessional forms of finance." In other words, developing countries' governments want more free money.