Climate Change

Will Glasgow Climate Promises Be Kept?

Accelerating market and technological trends will fortuitously keep many COP26 promises.


The Glasgow Climate Pact was adopted by nearly 200 countries just before midnight on November 13 at the 26th United Nations climate change conference (COP26).

The rallying cry of the activists and negotiators in Glasgow was "Keep 1.5°C Alive," a slogan that distills the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change's goal of limiting the global average temperature increase this century to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Barring that, the Paris Agreement aims at least keeping the increase below 2°C. The figure currently stands at approximately 1.1°C.

The delegates declared a tentative victory. "We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive," announced U.K. Minister of State Alok Sharma, who served as president of the COP26. "But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action." Some activists were somewhat less positive. "It's meek, it's weak and the 1.5C goal is only just alive," said Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan in a statement.

So what does the pact say? Various climate activist groups have made a big deal about the fact that, supposedly for the first time in nearly 30 years of climate change negotiations, an official U.N. document finally mentioned the f-words (fossil fuels) and the biggest global source of carbon dioxide emissions, coal. But so what? The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which the U.S. Senate ratified in 1992, mentions fossil fuels four times, greenhouse gas emissions 15 times, and carbon dioxide twice. There are other documents, such as the 2016 Paris Agreement, that do not explicitly mention fossil fuels, but the climate change negotiators bargaining over their details were not unaware that it is burning fossil fuels that produces most greenhouse gas emissions.

The first draft of the Glasgow Pact called for signatories to "accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels." But that was watered down at the insistence of the world's two largest coal-burning countries, India and China, in the last hours of the conference. So the final version instead calls for "accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies."

Unabated means that the emissions from coal-fired power generation are not captured and sequestered somehow, e.g., pumped underground or absorbed by new forest growth. Phasedown implies that emissions will be lowered but not eliminated. (India and China have no intention of phasing out coal anytime soon.) As for "inefficient" subsidies, well, what may be inefficient in one country is a down payment for social peace in another.

"How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out fossil fuel subsidies? Developing countries have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication," argued India's environment minister, Bhupender Yadav, in Glasgow. "Towards this end, subsidies provide much needed social security and support." As an example, Yadav pointed to the subsidized liquified petroleum gas meant to help low-income Indian households replace burning wood and cow manure for cooking and heating.

Burning fossil fuels accounts for the bulk of the 36.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide projected to be emitted into the atmosphere by humanity this year. Of that, coal contributed 40 percent to global emissions, followed by oil at 32 percent and natural gas at 21. Early on at COP26, there was much talk about the supposedly impending "end of coal." China and India didn't get the message. In fact, faced with power shortages earlier this year, China has ramped up coal production to the highest level since March 2015 and has approved expansion of more than 153 coal mines. India is planning to boost its coal production from 750 million tons now to more than a billion tons by 2024.

Instead of ending, world coal consumption will continue to rise slightly through 2050, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's projections,  even while renewables will account for most of the increases in global electric generation over the next three decades.

"In many developing countries, not everyone has access to electricity and energy supply is not adequate," observed Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian at a post-COP26 press conference on November 15. "Before asking all countries to stop using coal, consideration should be given to the energy shortfall in these countries to ensure their energy security. We encourage developed countries to take the lead in stopping using coal while providing ample funding, technological and capacity-building support for developing countries' energy transition."

In 2020, Chinese annual per capita carbon dioxide emissions stood at 10.1 tons, exceeding the average for the rich countries in the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD). In fact, China's annual per capita carbon dioxide emissions are higher than those for Germany (7.7 tons), the United Kingdom (4.6 tons), and France (4.6 tons). In comparison, the U.S., Canadian, and Australian averages are 13.7, 14.4 [link?], and 15.2 tons per capita respectively.

Zhao surely knows that developed countries have already been taking "the lead in stopping using coal." U.S. coal consumption is down nearly 60 percent since peaking 2007. Coal consumption in the United Kingdom since 2006 is down almost 90 percent and the European Union's consumption has fallen by about 66 percent over the past 30 years.

Zhao also urged rich countries to finance developing countries' energy transitions to no-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar power. In bald contrast, China until this year was financing the construction of as many as 240 coal-fired power generation projects around the world.

The current pledges to cut carbon dioxide emissions, known in U.N. jargon as "nationally determined contributions," are projected to result in a global average temperature increase of 2.4°C by 2100. This is obviously well above the Paris Agreement's threshold of 2°C, much less 1.5°C.

The initial draft text of the Glasgow Pact also urged 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." That too was changed, again largely to meet the demands of China and India, to "requests Parties 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, taking into account different national circumstances."

This section of the pact aims to get countries to review and increase their emissions reductions commitments annually instead of every five years as outlined in the Paris Agreement. But "taking into account different national circumstances" amounts to a climate get-out-of-jail-free card. Any country can simply assert that its "national circumstances" are such that it hasn't the time or inclination to bother with updating and increasing its commitments.

The phrase "as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal" means making commitments that lead to "reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid- century." Achieving net zero means that the amounts of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by their removal from the atmosphere. Before and during COP26, nearly 140 countries set various dates for when their emissions of carbon dioxide would reach net zero. Like most of the OECD governments, the Biden administration has pledged that the U.S. will reach net zero by 2050. Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia have promised to achieve net zero emissions by 2060 and India by 2070.

You're forgiven if you doubt the credibility of climate commitments made now by politicians who will most likely be dead by the time their successors will have to enact them. In the 1992 UNFCCC negotiated at the 1992 Earth Summit signatories promised to "adopt national policies and take corresponding measures on the mitigation of climate change, by limiting its anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases." Specifically, rich countries were supposed to return to "their 1990 levels these anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases" by 2000.

Instead of returning to their 1990 level by 2000, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions levels rose 15 percent. (It is worth noting, however, that three decades later U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are back to nearly what they were in 1990.) Similarly emissions in the 1990s continued increasing for Canada, Australia, and Japan, but did decline below 1990 emissions levels for the European Union.

In 2010, the humanity emitted about 33.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and making cement. This year carbon dioxide emissions are slated to be around 36.4 billion tons. A cut in emissions of 45 percent relative to 2010 means that humanity would have to reduce its current level of emissions 18 billion tons by 2030, releasing only 18.1 billion tons into the atmosphere that year.

Instead of steeply declining, the U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2021 International Energy Outlook report projects that current climate and energy policies would cause global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to rise to about 42 billion tons by 2050. Nearly all of the increase in emissions will be coming from developing countries as they industrialize over the next three decades. These projections clearly suggest that the pact's call for the world to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 is way off track.

In contrast, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued this year its Net Zero by 2050 roadmap report, arguing how the world could achieve net zero by 2050 through tripling annual investment in no carbon emissions technologies to $4 trillion annually by 2030. According to the IEA roadmap, by 2030 all unabated coal-fired plants in developed countries would be shuttered. In addition, the world would annually be installing about 1,000 gigawatts of wind and solar power generation. In 2020, world added around a quarter of that amount of renewable energy capacity. By 2030, in the IEA's scenario 60 percent of global car sales are electric and all new buildings are zero-carbon-ready.

Which future is more likely future? In the near term, it is clear that still poor countries will continue to rely on fossil fuels to undergird their economic development.

The steeply falling costs of wind and solar electric power generation are already undercutting fossil fuel generation. For example, the financial consultancy Lazard calculates that the unsubsidized levelized cost of energy from utility scale solar and wind is now lower than for any fossil fuel generation. Promising breakthroughs in long-term grid-scale cheap storage batteries could smooth out electricity delivery for those times when the wind is not blowing and sun is not shining. Small modular nuclear reactors paired with molten salt storage could also flexibly dispatch power to the grid when renewables falter.

With respect to transport, some 30 countries at COP26  signed onto "the declaration on accelerating the transition to 100% zero emission cars and vans." The signatories promised to "work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission by 2040 or earlier, or by no later than 2035 in leading markets." Notably absent from the list of signatories were the United States, China, Germany, and France.

Electric vehicle sales have been increasing as their prices have been declining. The costs of the batteries needed to electrify vehicles have fallen by 90 percent over the past decade. A 2021 analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) calculates that electric vehicles will reach unsubsidized price parity with internal combustion engine vehicles in the next five years. BNEF maps out a scenario that just assumes current techno-economic trends and market forces, and no new policies or regulations that projects by 2030 over 30 percent of global and about 40 percent of U.S. vehicle sales will be battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The BNEF analysis also outlines a scenario in which countries do adopt policies and regulations that aim to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Such policies would include President Joe Biden's August executive order targeting a 50 percent sales share of electric vehicles in the U.S. by 2030. Taking into account the zero emission vehicles declaration at COP26, BNEF calculates that by 2025 electric vehicles could roughly be 20 to 30 percent of car sales in the U.S., the European Union, and China. In the BNEF net zero scenario global electric vehicle sales hit almost 60 percent of the market in 2030.

All of the ongoing trends toward the adoption of lower emissions energy sources and technologies would be dramatically accelerated if policymakers adopt clean free market policies instead of the top-down mandates popular at COP26. Unlike subsidies and mandates that target specific technologies, clean tax cuts are a technology-neutral tool that rewards innovators and encourages competition to develop and deploy low emissions energy supplies and infrastructure.

The bottom line is: Given likely global carbon dioxide emissions trends from developing countries, 1.5°C is dead but 2.0°C is alive. Why? Largely because accelerating technological and market trends will fortuitously keep many of the COP 26 promises made by the politicians for them.