II wrote this in mid-2020 after the pandemic had subsided. TIME cover story that the stars had aligned to make 2020 and 2021 the “last, best chance” to keep the world from experiencing the worst impacts of climate change. Temperatures have risen more than 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution, and the COVID-19 pandemic had unexpectedly opened up new pathways to rethink the global economy to help the world avoid the 1.5°C of temperatureThe rise has been long considered a sign that the planet will begin to experience the devastating and irreversible consequences of climate change.
18 months later, it seems that the world is on track to lose it. All governments around the world have failed to invest large amounts in a green economic recovery. Political leaders from the world’s largest economies have made lofty promises to eliminate their carbon footprints but failed to offer concrete policies to get there. And President Joe Biden’s ambitions for bold climate legislation have been stymied in Congress.
“We’re sort of standing on the precipice,” says Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project. “I am loath to say it, but I’m deeply skeptical that we will reduce emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5°.”
So with two landmark years for the planet—not to mention everyone who lives on it—in the rearview mirror, it’s worth looking at the missed opportunities. But it’s just as important to consider what comes next: missed chances cannot be viewed as an excuse to give up.
The most obvious—and perhaps easiest—opportunity to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into progress in the fight against climate change boiled down to dollars and cents. The economic shock caused by COVID-19, and subsequent lockdowns, required governments to spend trillions of dollars to keep the wheels turning. Both hard-nosed analysts as well as idealistic activists agreed that governments should spend more on initiatives that promote clean energy and encourage the transformation of polluting industries.
This message caught on quickly, and a “green recovery” became a key talking point for heads of government from countries large and small. As the pandemic progressed, however, many of these policies did not materialize. According to an October report, only 3% of the $17 trillion spent by countries on recovery measures has been allocated to clean energy or sustainable recovery. ReportInternational Energy Agency. This is especially true in developing countries, where financing for clean energy can be difficult. Other analyses have been more optimistic—but only slightly so. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development FoundApril showed that 17% would bring environmental benefits and 17% would be negative or mixed. It was neither, which meant it supported business as usual.
These numbers pose huge challenges for climate change progress. First, building new infrastructure that is based on fossil fuels will ensure that there is a future for oil and gas for many decades to come. It is unlikely that countries will spend millions on a pipeline, only to shut it down several years later. Many countries consider infrastructure spending a zero sum game. Once the money is spent, it’s gone, and the opportunity to spend big again may not come back again for years or decades. “We’ve spent a lot of money very quickly,” says Jackson. “We won’t get that money back.”
Climate protestors gather for the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice march, which will take place in Glasgow, Scotland on Nov. 6, 2021.
Jeff J. Mitchell—Getty Images
Even before the pandemic, 2020 was to be a significant year for climate action. A cycle established in the 2015 Paris Agreement required countries to make new climate commitments in advance of a key conference in Glasgow (Scotland), known as COP26.
Organizers of the summit—originally scheduled for the fall of 2020 and held a year later as a result of the pandemic—planned the talks with the hope that, when the summit concluded, country commitments would leave the world with a clear and viable pathway to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C. Two weeks of heated negotiations culminated in a It can lead to a complicated outcome. If you extrapolate from countries’ promises to eliminate their carbon footprints, temperature rise might be limited to around 1.8°C, according to an AnalysisClimate Action Tracker.
Countries committed to “phasing down” coal and eliminating “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. Perhaps more importantly, countries said they would return next year once again with new policies to bring the world even closer to the 1.5°C. “Despite what I would describe as a fractured international politics more generally, we did have consensus,” says Alok Sharma, the British minister who served as COP26’s president.
But promises don’t mean much without policies to make them possible. Any leader can make a promise to reduce its carbon footprint by 2050. However, to achieve this goal, leaders must have concrete policies such that they deploy clean energy or switch to electric vehicles. And, if you add up the real policies that drive enacted by countries by the middle of COP26, temperatures are expected to rise 2.7°C—a big gap from the 1.8°C suggested by the vague promises.
The outcome was better than many expected, but it seems fair to say that much work remains to be done to really put the world on a 1.5°C trajectory. “Is [the agreement] enough to hold global warming to 1.5°?” James Shaw, New Zealand’s climate minister, He asked his colleaguesThe conference was over. “I honestly can’t say that I think that it does, but we must never, ever give up.”
The U.S. is the world’s largest economy and second largest greenhouse gas emitter after China, and so what happens in Washington matters a great deal for global efforts to cut emissions. Donald Trump, the president, took the U.S. backwards, cutting climate rules, taking the country out the Paris Agreement, while slowing down the rest of the globe. Biden was elected to office promising to recommit America to climate action. Biden made climate change a top priority on his domestic and international agendas. key promise: To reduce emissions by at minimum 50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.
Biden Administration described its strategy as follows: “all of government” approachEvery agency and official must consider how their work can contribute to the solution. Despite the influx of new regulations and rules aimed at reducing emissions, the Administration has focused much of its agenda on a key piece dubbed Build back Better.
The House of Representatives approved the spending plan in November. It includes more than $550 billion in clean and climate investment. This would promote the adoption of electric vehicles and invest in conservation efforts. This kind of investment would have a transformative effect on a macro-level. Several independent analyses have shown that when combined with other measures, like tighter efficiency rules for automobiles and another key infrastructure package which Biden signed into law earlier this year, the investment would allow the U.S. to meet Biden’s 2030 target.
The target is an empty promise without it or something on a similar scale. “It’s impossible to get from here to there without these investments,” says John Podesta, the former advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who now works on climate issues, of the role Build Back Better bill plays in meeting Biden’s goal.
However, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said to Fox News on December 19 that he would not support this bill’s current version. Because the legislation needs support from every Democratic member of the Senate to pass, Manchin’s statement undermined both Biden’s climate agenda and global climate efforts more broadly. “If we don’t pass this, we basically have lost the war,” Sean Casten, a member of the House of Representatives from Illinois, told me earlier in December. “This is how we actually make sure that the fires, the floods don’t get worse every year.”
All of this sounds very depressing. While keeping temperature rise to 1.5°C may still be technically possible, it becomes harder and harder to imagine leaders finding the political will to do so with each passing year. That means an increasing likelihood that we may soon trigger a tipping point that leads to non-linear changes—think of the melting of Arctic permafrost that releases huge quantities of methane, for example, that in turn leads to even faster warming.
Many people who work on climate issues are reluctant to acknowledge that a critical threshold may already have passed. Acceptance of this reality is often seen to be a sign that we are giving up.
But there’s another way to look at it. On a recent panel I moderated, Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economics professor who served as the chief economist on Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, ran through his calculations of the damage done by each ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. His conclusion was simple: “Every ton matters.”
No matter how close we are to hitting 1.5°C of warming—or by how much we’ve passed it—every ton of carbon matters, as does every new effort the world makes in reducing the harm being done. In 2020 and 2021, the global economy failed to make up the difference. Leaders need to start over in 2022.
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