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How 2021 shaped international climate action

How 2021 shaped international climate action

How 2021 Shaped International Climate Action

2021 was, according to many, the year that the world turned its attention to climate. Many governments across the developed world began to exert some control over the COVID-19 epidemic. The United States—the world’s second largest carbon emitter—swapped an administration known for climate change denial for one that renewed the country’s commitments to international climate action. The physical manifestations caused by the climate crisis were again evident: catastrophic floods in Western Europe, China, and Canada, as well as heat waves that killed thousands in Canada, and raging wildfires across the American West and Southern Europe. A global energy crisis was emerging by the fall, affecting every country, from China to Europe to America.

Compounding these trends was the release in August of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report—a “Code red for humanity” that issued grave warnings on the consequences of environmental neglect: According to the latest research, some of the worst climate impacts, including rising sea levels and melting glaciers, are now inevitable. Only aggressive action now is possible to limit the damage even more severe and limit the warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above its preindustrial levels.

In November, the long-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26), took place in Glasgow, Scotland. Although its president dubbed it the “last, best hope” to save the planet, its final pact dashed hopes: With no enforcement mechanisms, it failed to sketch a clear path to limit warming, and at the last moment, India and China succeeded in watering down the pact’s language on phasing out coal. Even before the pact was signed, climate activist Greta Thunberg deemed the summit a “failure.”

2021 was, according to many, the year that the world turned its attention to climate. Many governments across the developed world began to exert some control over the COVID-19 epidemic. The United States—the world’s second largest carbon emitter—swapped an administration known for climate change denial for one that renewed the country’s commitments to international climate action. The physical manifestations of climate change were evident once more: deadly heat waves in Canada and West Europe, devastating floods in Western Europe and China, and wildfires in the American West. A global energy crisis was emerging by the fall, affecting every country, from China to Europe to America.

Compounding these trends was the release in August of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report—a “Code red for humanity” that issued grave warnings on the consequences of environmental neglect: According to the latest research, some of the worst climate impacts, including rising sea levels and melting glaciers, are now inevitable. Only aggressive action now is possible to limit the damage even more severe and limit the warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above its preindustrial levels.

In November, the much-anticipated United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known by COP26) was held in Glasgow, Scotland. Although its president dubbed it the “last, best hope” to save the planet, its final pact dashed hopes: With no enforcement mechanisms, it failed to sketch a clear path to limit warming, and at the last moment, India and China succeeded in watering down the pact’s language on phasing out coal. Even before the pact was signed, climate activist Greta Thunberg deemed the summit a “failure.”

There were still some progresses in international climate action in Glasgow. These included a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030—with $1.7 billion earmarked to support Indigenous land rights—an agreement among 100 countries to slash methane emissions, and a long-awaited pledge by India to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. Perhaps COP26’s outcome is best summarized by one climate scientist: It “moved the needle in the right direction but only by a very In small increments,” Daniel Swain told Foreign Policy’s Christina Lu. “There’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done.”

Beyond coverage of summits or climate disasters, Foreign Policy Published stories this year that explored, among other topics, how we tell stories regarding climate change, the rise and competitiveness of climate statecraft, global inequalities inherent to current international action on climate change, and the possibility for a green industrial revolution. Below are five of our top stories on what 2021 meant for the world’s climate change mitigation efforts.


1. The Tragedy of Stopping Climate Change

by Jessi Jezewska Stevens, Nov. 9

As the world continues to fall behind emissions goals, there’s a growing consensus that a new tactic—storytelling—is fundamental to addressing climate change. The days of bombarding people with facts are gone. Instead, novelist Jessi Jezewska Stevens writes, climate activists, analysts, and policymakers are trying to reshape public imagination with narratives that transcend typical binary thought, where only a utopia—or dystopia—awaits. As this shift takes place, Stevens asks: “What kind of story should we tell? And just how tragic or extreme does it need to be?”

What follows is a winding meditation on the realities of climate change—and whether climate storytelling is sufficient to marshal real change—that touches on everything from British novelist Jean Rhys to a 20th-century advertising tycoon to Shakespeare’s King Lear. But it centers on one odd gathering: the 2051 Munich Climate Conference, a real-life academic event in September where scholars and artists “presented” on climate attitudes in 2021 as if it were 30 years in the future.

At the heart of Stevens’s essay is the idea that in a world where measurable effects of climate change will be unavoidable—a world that has “entered the mitigation phase”—it is perhaps best to frame climate narratives in terms of avoiding extremes. It simply won’t be possible to avoid smaller tragedies and short-term costs, Stevens writes, and ultimately, “preparing ourselves for less tragic endings requires the open-endedness of continual compromise.”


2. Welcome to the Era of Competitive climate Statecraft

Carolyn Kissane February 8, 2008.

Climate competition is one of the most prominent stories this year. As climate has moved to a top-tier international priority and most of the world’s big economies have announced net-zero emissions targets, U.S.-China relations expert Carolyn Kissane wrote that a new era of competitive climate statecraft is here. This is particularly the case for the world’s “two carbon hegemons”: the United States and China.

Kissane asserts that, despite the fact that these shared climate goals might lead to cooperation and coordination in the future, national differences are far more likely than common pathways to green technology and energy innovation.

And that’s not necessarily bad—in fact, Kissane writes, competition could prove to be incredibly beneficial in mitigating climate change’s effects, especially in the face of rapid U.S.-China decoupling.


3. Present at the Creation of a Climate Alliance—or Climate Conflict

by Adam Tooze, Aug. 6



Adam Tooze, FP columnist, focuses on an overlooked aspect of international climate action. He writes about the U.S./EU relationship in this essay. “The world has the makings of a carbon trade war between two major economic blocs,” Tooze writes, “both of which are committed to decarbonization.”

That’s a shame, Tooze says, not least because a North Atlantic decarbonization partnership is essential to the world’s rapid decarbonization, which the United States and Europe have a chance at leading. The problem is that while they both want to decarbonize, they disagree on how to do it. This is especially evident in their systems, proposals for carbon border adjustment policies, carbon pricing, and other proposals. Tooze says that the latter is dead in Washington where regulation and infrastructure are viable options.

Tooze believes that trans-Atlantic climate, trade policy, could succeed if Washington & Brussels focused instead on industrial policy: specifically, cooperation in global manufacturing sector, including steel and aircraft manufacturing. Bringing the two blocs together to frame the North Atlantic economy as a springboard for decarbonization “requires an act of political will,” Tooze writes, but the future of trans-Atlantic climate policy—and perhaps that of the world—depends on it.

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4. Rich Countries’ Climate Policies Are Colonialism in Green

by Vijaya Ramachandran, Nov. 3

“Let’s call a spade a spade: Norway is advancing the green version of colonialism,” economist Vijaya Ramachandran wrote as COP26 took place, putting forth a provocative argument on rich nations’ unjust means of pursuing climate goals. For Ramachandran, Norway—the world’s most fossil fuel-dependent rich country—is emblematic of wealthy Western nations working to keep the global south poor.

Norway and the Nordic and Baltic states, as well as Norway, have been pushing the World Bank to cease financing natural gas projects such as those in Africa. Twenty countries at COP26 declared that they would cease all funding for fossil fuel projects abroad starting in 2022. Yet, as Ramachandran points out, less than 1 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, for instance, come from the more than 1 billion people in 48 sub-Saharan African countries—and these are the people most at risk of climate impacts. Many developing countries are still far from the reality of low-cost, low carbon energy sources.

The basic idea is that rich countries are trying achieve their climate ambitions through imposing restrictions on others while not limiting their own oil and gas production or consumption enough. But if these countries are, in fact, “committed to equitable and sustainable development,” as they claim to be, Ramachandran writes, then they need to be honest about the developing world’s energy needs and devote serious resources to clean technology and infrastructure abroad.


5. Fossil Fuel’s Downfall Could Be America’s Too

by Adam Tooze, Dec. 3

One result of COP26, at the least according to John Kerry, was that climate policy has become a business opportunity, rather than a contentious issue. Whether this is realistic is up for debate, but although there’s compelling evidence for the imminence of a global energy transition, Tooze warns that “the question of politics cannot be wished away”—certainly not for a country like the United States.

Tooze’s essay takes us through the history of the United States’ “existential entanglement with fossil fuels,” which has long made it difficult “to square the realities of America’s political economy with the climate threat’s urgency.” Over the past decade, North American fuel production has only surged. As a result, the world will decarbonize rapidly and fossil fuel demand will plummet. Recent study suggests, U.S. oil and gas producers will face serious blows in a country that “has a lamentable track record of managing and mitigating the job losses and social dislocation that follows deep economic change.”

This raises many concerns, not only economic insecurity but also deepening polarization. Tooze argues there’s little chance Democrats will be able to pass a Green New Deal-style program that gives an overarching climate plan the robust political platform it needs to help those affected by the transition. But, Tooze writes, there’s still a glimmer of hope: If the United States can learn to see an impending energy transition not in terms of climate mitigation but as part of an “agro-industrial transformation,” where cheap wind and solar energy is offered throughout the country, there is a chance a green industrial revolution will take root.

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