Lukewarm Promises at the U.N. Climate Change Conference

Each of the 120 presidents, prime ministers and princes who gathered at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (Scotland) have had three minutes fame for climate change. The President Joe Biden, the Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, were present.

Signatories of the Paris Agreement are required to present their most recent nationally determined contributions to COP26. This will increase the ambition of earlier pledges to lower their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause global warming. The Biden administration formally committed the U.S. to reducing its annual net GHG emissions to 50–52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Under the 2015 Copenhagen Accord, the Obama administration’s NDC committed the U.S. to cut its net GHG emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and to 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Consulting firm Rhodium Group estimates that the U.S. exceeded its 2020 goal and reduced its GHG emissions 21.5 percent. The switch to cheaper fracked natural gas which generates half as much carbon dioxide than coal in electricity generation, was responsible for this increase. Further reductions were achieved by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, as well as a repressing of travel. President Joe Biden’s new pledge gives the nation five years (2025–2030) to achieve essentially the same scale of GHG reductions that the Obama administration planned to attain after 10 (2015–2025).

Many countries did not achieve the same goals. China has made minor changes to its NDC promise to reduce its GHG emissions to zero by 2030. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide at 10.2 gigatons released in 2020. Its carbon dioxide emissions could reach 16 gigatons if the current trend continues. China was responsible for 27 percent of the world’s total GHGs in 2019 when it added in other GHGs such as methane, nitrogen oxide and fluorinated gas emissions.

The United States emitted just 6.6 gigatons (or a quarter) of the global GHG emissions in 2019. Of these, 5.3 gigatons was carbon dioxide. This amounts to approximately 11 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions. The U.S. would see its GHG emissions drop to 3.3 gigatons if Biden’s NDC benchmarks were implemented by the end this decade.

Putin reiterated Russia’s NDC which promised to lower its GHG emission to 30% of 1990 level. Just before the Soviet Union collapse, Russia’s 1990 GHG emissions were around 3.1Gigatons. The Russian Federation now emits just a little over 2.5 gigatons of GHGs, which is a 19% reduction from 1990.

Putin’s plans to cut Russia’s GHG emission even further depend on Russia’s forests absorption of carbon dioxide. The problem is that the Siberian forest fires of this year probably released almost one gigaton worth of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Putin added that Russia would strive to achieve carbon neutrality in 2060.

The Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal is to keep the global average temperature from rising by more than 1.5°C by 2100. U.N. According to the U.N. Environment Programme, nations would have to reduce global emissions by 55% before 2030 to keep on track towards that goal. Climate activists at COP26 have embraced “keep 1.5°C alive!” It is a motto. It is unlikely that this will happen, given some of the most powerful emitters in the world.

Next week at COP26, I will report from the site. There, I will explore more about future temperatures trends based on nations’ commitments to cut deforestation, decrease methane emission, and stop coal-fired electricity plants.