When Greta Thunberg was asked last year for her reaction to the 27th International Conference on Global Climate Change, she responded "blah, blah, blah."
Her answer may have been undiplomatic, but it was correct. It's time to ask if these annual Conferences of the Parties are worth the carbon emissions necessary for tens of thousands of people to attend them. That assessment should be at the top of the agenda when COP-28 convenes late next month in Dubai.
Since nations unanimously approved the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the principal purpose of the COPs has been to assess whether governments are keeping their promises. They are supposed to upgrade their commitments in Dubai. But that could be done online.
We already know the world is not catching up to global warming. The United Nations will issue its first global assessment of progress today (called a “global stocktake), but the official who will preside at COP-28 previewed the assessment, noting “The world is losing the race to secure the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
The organization Climate Action Tracker also monitors progress. We need only look at its color-coded map, where countries shaded green are doing what's necessary to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The color green does not appear.
Last year's COP was especially productive for the nearly 690 oil and gas lobbyists enrolled to be there. One result was that delegates refused to set a date for retiring fossil fuels from the global economy. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, "We seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat."
Governments are still subsidizing fossil fuel production and consumption. According to the International Monetary Fund, when we count the environmental, social, and economic consequences of fossil fuel production and consumption, subsidies reached an all-time high of $7 trillion last year.
In the meantime, scientists say the adverse consequences of climate change are manifesting much more rapidly than they predicted a decade ago. Clearly, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) needs to be rethought and made more aggressive. I suggested several changes published by this magazine on January 8, 2022. Here are some of them:
- Make national commitments binding. It is unlikely that 197 nations will agree unanimously to make their obligations legally binding under the Paris Agreement. So, the UNFCCC should require each nation's climate-action plans to include internal mandates. For example, countries could codify their plans in statutes and regulations and penalize polluters for noncompliance. Governments could also put environmental rights, the public trust doctrine, and citizens' rights to a livable climate in their constitutions, where they would be enforceable with litigation.
- Countries should require financial institutions and publicly traded corporations to report the risks climate change poses to investors.
- Nations should penalize "greenwashing," where fossil energy companies and significant polluters make insincere or deceptive plans to reduce emissions.
- Every nation should establish an off-ramp and end date for fossil fuel production and publicly report progress.
- Countries should form bilateral or multilateral agreements establishing carbon tariffs or border adjustments on imported goods.
- Nations should require environmental impact assessments of new capital projects, including estimated greenhouse gas emissions or contributions to carbon removal.
- Governments should report fossil energy subsidies annually, including all indirect and externalized costs to the environment, society, and national economy.
- The UN and member nations should treat climate change as an international security issue, not just an environmental issue.
Finally, the serious consideration of geoengineering is a sad admission that the Paris Agreement is not proving to be sufficient. Countries should begin working on agreements on if and how to use geoengineering to reduce global warming, with the understanding it cannot take the place of commitments under a tougher Paris climate agreement or substitute for retiring fossil fuels from the global economy.