The idea that humans have a profound negative impact on the global environment dates back to at least the 18th century. As early as 1778, French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc recognised that “the entire face of the Earth bears the imprint of human power.” [1] This claim was not taken seriously by most governments for nearly 300 years. Indeed, not until 1972 did world leaders step up to the plate, finally agreeing in the Stockholm Declaration that “the protection… of the human environment is… the duty of all governments.” [2] Anthropocentric though the wording may have been, it helped to kick-start the international environmental agenda, laying the groundwork for the UN’s sustainable development philosophy and ultimately their Framework Convention on Climate Change. [3]

Both were launched to much fanfare in Rio (1992) but were only really converted into tangible gains once the Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005. This aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries by 5.2% compared to 1990 levels. [4]

Although most exceeded this admittedly unambitious target, there was little political appetite to extend the commitment beyond 2012. This led to a stagnation in global climate talks, only decisively broken by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Or so the narrative goes. In reality, the robustness of the text is up for debate: although its stated goal is to “keep the increase in… temperature to well below 2°C”, it offers no binding targets, no justiciable sanctions and lets states ultimately decide how quickly and deeply to cut. All this has led to a situation where “Global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will be some 15 billion tons… higher than required under a 2 °C stabilization path”. [5] So, although emissions are falling, the trend does not suggest that the headline figure of the Paris Agreement will be met.

The history of climate change negociations in 83 seconds (CICERO Klima, 2012)

The state of global emissions

Or at least that was the case in 2019. The 2020 figures are much more difficult to interpret due to the continued effect of government lockdowns, which considerably depress energy consumption. Early figures suggest that emissions may have fallen around 7% compared to 2019, which would represent the largest ever year-on-year drop. [6] Geographically speaking they decreased most in the developed world, hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the US and EU28 each recording a decline of over 10%. [7] This exaggerated the trend of previous years with both regions exhibiting more restrained annual drops of around 1% throughout the 2010s. Over the same decade, emissions climbed most in the Asia-Pacific region where Indonesia saw an average increase of 6.2% per year, India 3.2% and Australia 1.8%. China also became the world’s largest emitter, responsible for a whopping 30% of the global total. And that is not just due to population: since 2012 emissions per capita have been higher in China than in Europe. [8] At the same time, in some regions of the world carbon emissions remain negligible, notably in Africa whose 1.2 billion inhabitants contribute a minuscule 4% of the global total. [9]

Europe: a leading light?

All this makes for complex dynamics between the main actors. Europe has, and continues to be the region which has driven international efforts to mitigate climate change. Having committed to the deepest reductions in the Kyoto Protocol, the EU was the driving force behind the 2015 Paris Agreement. Indeed, Laurent Fabius and the French government were instrumental in securing the necessary consensus to adopt the text. [10] Britain has similar ambitions for the crunch climate conference in Glasgow this November. [11] However, both countries’ moral authority is questionable at best. Just last month a Parisian court convicted the Macron administration of failing to meet its binding emissions pledge [12] while in 2019 the first deep level coal mine for 30 years was approved in Cumbria. [13] Despite this, both Britain and France are still considered among Europe’s “leading lights” when it comes to strengthening global mitigation targets. Together with Germany, they are paving the way towards high-level commitments. In 2020, for example, the EU set out its Green Deal initiative which not only renews its pledge of carbon-neutrality by 2050, but also sets out a range of sector specific measures that aim for a 55% emission reduction by 2030. [14]

Nowhere is Europe’s ambition more apparent than in the power sector, in which it has already managed an emissions decrease of 44% compared to 1990. This has largely been achieved through a move away from coal, long recognised as the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. Austria and Sweden finally purged themselves of it in April 2020, while Spain has recently closed seven of its most polluting power plants. [15] Germany meanwhile has enacted a coal phase out law, which grants premiums to private companies who shutdown certain assets, with a view to becoming coal-free by 2038. [16] However, any worldwide phase-out cannot be implemented without co-operation from China, which remains the world’s single largest consumer and producer. In fact, its reliance on coal is still so high that for some, it cannot be taken seriously as a partner in climate change negotiations. [17]

The BRICS: a mixed bag

Opinions may be starting to soften though following Xi Jinping’s recent announcement that China is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060. [18] If achieved, this would cut global temperature rise by up to 0.30C at the end of the century. [19] To get there, China will need to supercharge its energy transition and more than double its annual investment in renewables. It is only then that efforts already underway will pay the greatest dividend. Case in point: the country contains half the world’s electric vehicles (EVs), but its road transport sector is no less polluting than anywhere else. That is because the electricity it uses to power its EVs still comes predominantly from coal. [20] Only once China has canned this habit can it be truly green.

Another way for Beijing to bolster its environmental leadership is to rally its fellow fast industrialising countries to the climate cause. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, collectively known as the BRICS, account for 42% of the world’s population and over a quarter of its land area. [21] This fact alone makes them key players in the future of Earth’s environment.

Their ecological record, however, is somewhat mixed. All five are party to the Paris Agreement and have called for climate co-operation on the international stage. However, their level of ambition and sincerity has been called into question, with all but Russia emphasising the idea that the West should make the deepest cuts due to their historical emissions levels. [22]

India nearly scuppered the Paris Agreement on this point, only acquiescing when they were promised more green investment from industrialised nations. [23] Despite this, India has drawn up plans to reduce emissions by 33-35% relative to GDP by 2030 and appears on track to meet this target. [24] Climate Action Tracker however classes this reduction as unambitious as it will nevertheless result in  an overall emissions rise. [25] India is particularly vulnerable to water-linked climate effects as warming in the Himalayas could lead to downstream flooding in the short term, and drought in the long term. [26]

Russia meanwhile takes an even more baffling approach to climate mitigation. Vladimir Putin has expressed scepticism that humans cause global warming and has even opposed wind farms on the grounds that they harm worms. [27] Despite initially committing to a 25% reduction in 2015, the latest review by the Russian government envisages CO2 emissions rising through to 2030 and not hitting net zero until 2100. At the same time, it touts the benefits of a warming arctic: reduced energy consumption, increased agricultural yields and the freeing up of the fabled northern sea route. [28] This seems wide of the mark when melting permafrost in Siberia could initiate a runaway release of methane (a gas 34 times more potent than CO2). [29]

As for South Africa, the state of play is also somewhat contradictory. The government have recently committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, but still envisage producing 5,000 MW of electricity from coal-fired power stations. [30] This seems to represent an uncertain bet on carbon capture and storage, a technology still in its infancy. [31]

Paris Agreement Explained (UN, 2020)

Turning now to Brazil, this is a country that, on the surface, appears to have radically embraced a green revolution: it has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 43% by 2040 and now generates 80% of its electricity from renewable sources. [32] However, a deeper look reveals big problems. These “renewables sources” are mostly hydropower installations that have obliterated the terrestrial landscape, displacing wildlife and disenfranchising indigenous tribes. [33] They also emit vast amounts of methane “through the back door” due to the chemical decomposition of waterborne organics. [34] Then there’s the thorny issue of deforestation in the Amazon. In 2020, a ten-year high of 10,000 km2 was lost in the wake of Bolsonaro’s loosening of environmental restrictions. [35] A continuation of this trend could see the Amazon degrade almost entirely to savannah by 2050. [36] Such an outcome would fatally undermine efforts to abate global warming, as loss of one of the world’s largest carbon sinks would add billions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. It would also spell doom for thousands of endangered species. [37]

The good news is that key players are beginning to wake up to the importance of the rainforest. The EU has made halting its destruction a prerequisite to any trade deal it may sign with Brazil and the rest of the Mercosur bloc [38], while the G7 offered an aid package to help them fight the fires ravaging the Amazon in 2017 (which Bolsonaro refused). [39] Even Trump offered to pitch in. This represented an unusual show of environmental concern from the former President, all the more so, considering his 2016 policy platform. 

The USA: a case study of non-compliance

In it, he had promised to roll back environmental regulation and reopen coal mines in Appalachia. Knowing this was incongruent with UN climate targets, he had even raised the prospect of compromising the Paris Agreement. The international community held its breath. In such a tragicomedy, what could it do? What happens when one of the biggest polluters decides not to play ball anymore? Not much it turns out.

There are few actual risks of non-cooperation in global environmental governance. First of all, sanctions do not exist as there is no binding compliance control in climate mitigation issues. Second, there is no international legal authority to make it binding. Thirdly, while naming-and-shaming by civil actors acts as a theoretical safety net, in practice it’s insufficient. Finally, climate mitigation is costly and climate finance turns out to jeopardise change by being insufficient. According to the IPCC, 6000 billion dollars would have needed to be invested each year to follow a 2°C global warming stabilisation track. [40]

No surprise then that Trump dumped the Paris pact. Not only did he not risk any punishment, but in his short-term view, he would also save money. Although there’s little doubt that non-compliance by the federal government undermined emission reduction efforts, the results were not as catastrophic as some foresaw. [41] As many as half of American states decided to keep the UN targets anyway including some of the largest like California and New York. This allowed US emissions to continue their fall, despite Republican obstructionism. [42] With the White House now in democratic hands, the ground has shifted yet again: Joe Biden has signalled his intent to reapply to the Paris Agreement and reassume American climate leadership. Hopefully, this will prove a good omen for the renewal of commitments that other states are now undertaking.

Recent events

Indeed, countries party to the Paris Agreement had until December 31st, 2020 to update their climate mitigation proposals (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs). Currently, 71 (representing 28% of global emissions) have submitted a new INDC or updated their previous ones, and 82 (representing almost 33% of global emissions) have communicated their intention to do so. [43]

December 2020 was also the month of the Climate Ambition Summit. The theme: celebrating the spirit of the Paris Agreement exactly 5 years after it was signed. The rules of the game: only states deemed to have taken ambitious enough commitments could take the floor. 6 out of the 10 most polluting jurisdictions were nevertheless represented: China, India, the EU, Canada, Japan and the USA. Meanwhile Brazil, Australia and Indonesia did not make the cut. While this is promising, it is far from a guarantee that the target of keeping global warming below 2oC will be hit.

The Verdict

This point just about sums up where the international community is regarding climate mitigation: improving but not fast enough. The reality remains that unless annual CO2 reductions begin to regularly resemble the pandemic-induced fall of 2020, we will be committed to arguably the scariest and longest-lasting climate upheaval mankind has ever known. With the stakes so much higher, can the international community apply the same urgent reaction to global climate as it did for COVID-19?

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