Climate talks reveal big progress, but it’s not coming fast enough

Executive Editor

When gauging progress, it’s important not just to look ahead to where you need to go but also to look back to see where you’ve been.

Comparing expectations today to 2015, when the Paris Climate Agreement was signed, the progress transitioning to cleaner energy has been remarkable.

Yet looking forward from the United Nations climate conference underway now in Glasgow, Scotland, the progress we need to make is even more remarkable.

Given that climate change is a cumulative problem, meaning it gets worse the longer we wait to address it, those two seemingly contradictory statements can, in fact, be simultaneously true.

Indeed, the world is in the beginning of a massive shift in our energy supply. But the path we’re currently on will still fail to achieve the goals of the Paris deal, according to a new report by DNV, a risk management consulting firm based in Norway.

Under the 2015 voluntary accord, virtually all nations agreed to cut their emissions and strive to reach a goal of limiting Earth’s temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius over the next century compared to pre-industrial levels.

Despite success that the world has had since 2015, it still risks failure on a time scale only trees can holistically judge. Therefore, humans—living far shorter lives than our forested counterparts—should keep up ambition and action indefinitely, as tiring as that may sound.

This conference is perhaps the most important conference looking backward, but it probably won’t be looking forward.

There is not a point where everything is lost. We can always prevent things from getting worse. It is never too late to do as much as we can.
Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg

A snapshot of the past six years:

Nearly 90% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are now covered by targets aiming for net-zero emissions in the next 50 years, thanks to announcements this week from India and Nigeria.

Net-zero goals were almost unheard of in 2015 when the Paris deal was inked. In recent years, such commitments have at least doubled.

The global pipeline of proposed coal plants has collapsed by 76% over the last six years, according to a September report by E3G, an environmental think tank. China pledged to stop funding overseas coal plants a week later.

Once-obscure debates about sustainable aviation fuel, green steel and more have been catapulted into everyday conversations across companies, politicians and the media.

Such conversations are leading to concrete action, like the news earlier this week that the U.S. and European Union have hatched a plan to support trade of steel and aluminum made in cleaner ways with new technologies.

“If you had said all these different things were going to be possible–not in the late 2020’s but that this would all be happening in the year 2021, right after a global pandemic–the mood as the dust was settling on the Paris Agreement in 2015 would have been ecstatic,” said David Livingston, senior adviser to John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate, on a recent podcast. “Folks would have said, ‘That’s much more progress than we would have thought possible.'”

But these milestones still fall far short of what we need going forward to effectively combat climate change.

Global greenhouse gas emissions continue their march upward, only knocked temporarily down by the pandemic.

Net-zero goals risk becoming meaningless if everyone is making them and no one is passing laws to make them reality.

The fact that one lawmaker is holding up big climate policy in the United States is a stark reminder that most countries have complicated domestic dynamics that make aggressive climate laws difficult.

Leaders of the world’s largest and wealthiest economies agreed to cut funding for coal plants in poorer nations, but they resisted putting an end to coal use in their own countries.

The mass commercialization of new technologies cleaning up sectors like aviation and steel faces the unparalleled challenge of attracting customers with no tangible benefit other than cleanliness. After all, flights must still be safe and steel still strong.

It’s for these reasons and more that DNV predicts global energy-related carbon emissions will be 45% less in 2050 than in 2019. That’s a far cry from a net-zero future most world leaders are now calling for, but it’s still a striking change from today.

See the chart below for more about the report.

Just like no one in Paris six years ago knew what today in Glasgow would hold, this forecast isn’t reality—yet.

The report includes the following quote from economist Rudiger Dornbusch, whose relevance transcends economics.

“In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”