People make New Year's resolutions this time of year, promising to do better in the year ahead. The tradition began 4,000 years ago in Babylonia, where people believed they would fall out of favor with the gods if they did not keep their commitments.

There is no similar enforcement authority for New Year's resolutions today. They are good intentions with no significant penalties for failure. That's one reason only a third of the people who make New Year's resolutions keep them1.

It's also why the international community has done too little so far about global climate change. Many of the goals and commitments nations, companies, and financial institutions have made are merely good intentions. It’s likely that some are little more than opportunities for public figures to score sound bites and photo ops.

Last November's United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate change received mixed reviews. Some saw the glass half full, while others saw it half empty. But judged by the urgent need for substantive, binding and verifiable commitments among nations, the glass contained nothing at all.

Now, after nearly 30 years of conversation, time has run out for unenforceable promises and half-measures. The international community's collective New Year's resolution should be to fill the glass to the brim in 2022 and keep it full until we have brought global warming under control. That will require considerable work before nations meet again this November. Among other things, governments will have to yield some sovereignty to turn the contributions into binding and enforceable obligations with measurable and transparent results.

As it stands, the Paris agreement does not require this because it is sensitive – some would argue it’s overly sensitive – to national sovereignty. If it had tried to impose mandates on countries, it would not have won approval in 2015. However, the lack of progress nations have made to reduce fossil-fuel pollution so far indicates some “tough love” is necessary shown so far suggests.

The background

The atmospheric concentration of the principal heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), was about 278 parts per million when industrialization began. It had been at that level for about 2,000 years with only slight changes. It reached the still-safe level of 350 ppm by 1988 when the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to monitor emerging climate science.

In 1992, 154 nations signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It created the architecture for international negotiations to prevent dangerous human interference with the Earth's climate system, in part by stabilizing the amount of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

It took 23 years to produce the world’s first universal commitment to a specific objective2: keeping the increase in the Earth's average surface temperature well below 2 °C, and preferably no more than 1.5 °C, above preindustrial levels. To achieve that result, the Paris climate agreement called for the global economy to produce "net-zero" greenhouse gases by mid-century. In other words, countries would emit no more of the gases than they kept out of the atmosphere by storing them naturally or with technologies. In addition, nations agreed to shoot for "net-negative" emissions in the second half of the century, meaning they would extract gases from the atmosphere to bring the concentration down to 350 ppm again.

However, countries would agree only to voluntary emission cuts under the Paris pact, with each nation deciding how much it could or was willing to do. Countries would increase their ambitions, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), by 2021 and take stock of progress in 2024.

But as COP26 approached, an analysis showed the INDCs would result in global warming above 4 °C, more than twice the upper limit in the Paris accord. And by the end of 2020, only 44 countries and the 27 members of the European Union met the deadline to raise their goals.

In addition, nations had widely varying levels of reliability in their INDCs. Some said they intended to codify their commitments in laws and regulations, but others promised less concrete measures little more reliable than New Year's resolutions.

Where things stand

Where do things stand today? Prior to COP26, the United Nations reported that 61% of countries, 9% of states and regions, 13% of the world's large cities, and corporations with combined sales of nearly $14 trillion annually had established net-zero-carbon goals. However, the UN said only 20% of these promises meet "minimum criteria for robustness," including near-term results and annual public progress reports. Further, the commitments would reduce greenhouse gas pollution by only 1% by 2030, compared to the 45% reduction necessary to keep global warming below 1.5 °C.

The combustion of fossil fuels accounts for nearly 90% of the CO2 in the atmosphere today, and 80% of the world's energy still comes from those fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas. One reason is that 52 nations accounting for 90% of the world's fossil fuel supplies still subsidize the fuels' production or consumption. Prior to the Covid pandemic, subsidies averaged $555 billion annually. When indirect costs are included - for example, costs to public health, the environment, and so on – today's subsidies amount to $11 million every minute, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF found that no country prices fossil fuels to reflect these indirect costs. In other words, the global energy market is skewed in favor of coal, oil, and natural gas, making it harder for clean energy to compete. If nations added these real but indirect costs to energy prices, the world's carbon emissions would drop by a third, the IMF said.

Instead, the warming influence of greenhouse gas pollution went up nearly 50% from 1990 to 2020. Significant progress under the UNFCCC has been so rare that participants in COP26 considered it a victory that for the first time, a closing document included the words "coal" and "fossil fuels" – but only after the words "phase out" were replaced by the less-committal words "phase down." The world's biggest economies have agreed several times to stop subsidizing “inefficient" fossil fuels, whatever that means, but they haven't followed through.

COP26 produced a new parade of good intentions: More than 130 countries said they'll stop or reverse deforestation by 2030; more than 100 signed a pledge to cut methane emissions by 30%; 23 promised to phase out coal; more than 30 agreed to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035; more than 450 financial institutions and funds said they'll use their money to help the world reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. But who will hold these promise-makers accountable for doing what they've promised to do?

"At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris agreement targets," warns Prof. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO. "We are way off track. We need to transform our commitment into action…We need to revisit our industrial, energy, and transport systems and whole way of life. The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible. There is no time to lose."

What's the problem?

As I mentioned, nations are reluctant to yield any sovereignty – their right to govern themselves without interference from others. The UN’s thorough guidance to countries urges them to secure high-level political leadership for their INDCs, but political leadership changes. The guidance says the Paris pact is “without prejudice to the legal nature of the contribution or type of contribution.” But binding commitments send more reliable signals to energy markets and help nations trust that all countries are doing their parts.

Another problem is that some officials from developing countries still believe fossil-fuel consumption is necessary for economic progress. But other nations proved long ago they could grow their GDPs without raising greenhouse gas emissions.3 Today, fossil fuels are more accurately associated not with progress, but with deadly storms, fires, floods, heat, drought, and rising seas, as well as millions of climate migrants. Meanwhile, carbon-free energy from solar, wind and some other renewable energy technologies is now less expensive than energy from fossil fuels in many parts of the world.

Because advanced economies grew with fossil fuels, some leaders of developing nations feel they have a moral right to do the same by consuming the rest of the world's "carbon budget." But that would commit their people to climate change, air pollution, lung diseases, water consumption to cool power plants, and the economically destabilizing vicissitudes of fossil energy supplies and prices.

In short, the UNFCCC process has lost credibility because the world has lost precious time. 4 The youngest and poorest of us will suffer most from the lack of results.

Putting teeth into the UNFCCC process

As it prepares for COP27 the UN should work with national and international leaders on several proposals that would put teeth into national commitments. For example, the next COP should consider and approve:

  1. An emphasis on INDC commitments nations make transparent, mandatory, and verifiable with their own laws, investments, regulations, codes, and standards. INDCs should be internally binding and enforceable to ensure commitments are kept even after changes in leadership and the emergence of new priorities. Legislation to eliminate fossil-energy subsidies is a good place to start. In fact, the UN should consider INDCs insufficient unless they include the repeal of such subsidies. The UN-backed "Race to Zero" campaign lists a few other ways to make commitments more concrete and reliable.

  2. A policy that discounts net-zero commitments from financial institutions that do not comply with guidance like that established by the U.S. Treasury Department in consultation with G7 leaders and Multilateral Development Banks. However, the guidance should state that the economic feasibility of fossil-energy projects must be judged on the basis of life-cycle, full-cost accounting including the social costs of carbon.

  3. A suggestion that INDCs address how each nation will accommodate internal climate migration to reduce border-crossings into other countries. Extreme weather already is forcing an average of 20 million people each year to leave their homes and move to other places. Climate migration will grow with the impacts of climate change.

  4. A requirement that the INDCs of developing economies describe how they will deploy clean energy technologies to leapfrog over fossil energy use. The UN should explicitly disqualify fossil-energy and fossil-energy-enabling investments from the Green Climate Fund.

If the UNFCCC process is ever to become more than blah, blah, blah, then it must produce more than promises. The world needs real, measurable, near-term results. Before it's too late.


1 Based on an international survey of resolutions made in 2020. 2 Most nations signed an earlier commitment, the Kyoto Protocol, in 1997. But it did not call for emission reductions by less-developed nations. It was superseded by the Paris accord.
3 "The world has long been experiencing a relative decoupling between economic growth and CO2 emissions, with the emissions per unit of GDP falling for the past 60 years," according to the Breakthrough Institute. In the United States, 41 of the 50 states have increased GDP while reducing energy-related emissions of CO2.
4 The Pew Research Center polled people in 17 "advanced" countries earlier this year. People in all but four lacked confidence that the international community would significantly reduce climate change.