It’s hard to overstate the stakes leading up to this year’s COP 26 UN climate conference.
When negotiators arrive – fingers crossed – in Glasgow this November to hammer out a stronger version of the Paris Agreement first reached back in 2015, what’s on the table is essentially the future of the Earth and the 7.9 billion humans (and countless other species) who call it home.
The talks have the kind of goal that is relatively easy to state and staggeringly difficult to achieve. Namely, consensus between the nearly 200 countries party to the Paris Agreement on how to strengthen the deep emissions cuts, ambitious forest conservation, and other measures necessary to actually hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees or less.
There’s a unique and critical role for these talks. While we’re seeing more and more sectors and industries actively working to reduce emissions and ultimately accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, these efforts largely move independently. California’s governor issues an executive order ending sales of gas-powered cars and light trucks by 2035. Apple pledges to make its products and supply chain carbon-neutral by 2030. And on and on in countries across the planet.
What the UN’s COP 26 talks (and other COP summits before them) do – among other things – is add up all these disparate efforts at the national level and focus them and government policy on the big-picture prize of 1.5 degrees.
Succeed in all this (and policymakers actually make good on their commitments) and the metaphorical supertanker that is the world economy begins accelerating its inch-by-inch turn in the direction of the net-zero emissions horizon we need to reach by 2050. The transition from dirty oil, coal, and methane gas to renewables shifts into high-gear, transforming almost every aspect of our lives while creating millions of jobs and slowly eliminating the perniciously pervasive air pollution that caused nearly one in five deaths globally in 2018.
Fail, and we waste more time we simply don’t have in the monumental task of jointly and fairly cutting global emissions in half by 2030 to hold global warming to merely dangerous levels – as the science is clear we must. Fail, and we risk a future world so bluntly characterized in the title of David Wallace-Well’s 2019 best-seller “The Uninhabitable Earth.”
So, no pressure.
Where the US Fits In
To his credit, President Biden took a huge step forward in undoing the terrible legacy of his predecessor on climate by recommitting the US to the Paris Agreement on the first day of his administration.
What happens next matters. In the initial Paris Agreement, then-President Obama committed the US to reducing economy-wide emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 in our nationally determined contribution (NDC) pledge. While the commitment wouldn’t have seen the US do its fair share of addressing historical emissions, the commitment was seen as ambitious enough from the world’s largest economy – and one of the largest polluters – to help prod other major economies like India and Brazil to make ambitious commitments of their own.
Seeing these major players – and polluters – make such commitments in turn galvanized the international community and created just enough trust and goodwill to get the contentious first agreement over the finish line.
As Climate Reality’s Ethan Spaner put it, watching events unfold from the sidelines in the Paris conference hall, “The world was looking for both cooperation and leadership. They saw both from the US and China in jointly announcing their intended NDCs. The major roadblocks and places to hide were gone. We were still a long way off, but the Paris Agreement finally looked inevitable.”
That was 2015. Today, following then-President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the agreement, our commitment is, in the words of Climate Action Tracker, “Critically Insufficient.”
Meanwhile the world as a whole isn’t doing a whole lot better. The UN recently analyzed all current commitments – including updated commitments from 75 countries covering 30 percent of global emissions – and found we’re way off course to holding warming to 2 degrees C, much less the ideal of 1.5 degrees.
Why We Need at Least 50 Percent by 2030
As mentioned previously, the science is crystal clear that the world needs to cut fossil fuel emissions in half by 2030 or risk runaway warming and a future of climate catastrophe. It’s a one-zero kind of deadline – miss it and we don’t get it back.
Which is why we need the Biden Administration to join other leaders of the international response and commit to slashing US emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030. On the international stage, a strong commitment is a clear signal that the US is back.
Admittedly, we have a lot of trust to rebuild after four years of the Trump Administration. But a 50 percent commitment or more is a critical first step and a sign that a stronger Paris Agreement is back in the realm of possibility at COP 26. And if the world’s largest economy is in the game, the pressure is on other nations to follow suit.
It’s worth noting that while some are calling for a much, much higher commitment to reflect the country’s historical contribution to the climate crisis, cutting emissions even 50 percent in less than a decade represents a massive economic transformation – and one that builds upon itself.
We’re not just talking about transforming the power sector – though that’s a huge part of it. We’re talking about electrifying the US auto industry and boosting public transit. We’re talking about electrifying homes and transitioning families from gas heat to cleaner electric options. And on and on and on.
It won’t be easy, but this goal is realistic. In fact, we already have a plan for how we’ll do it, or at least start, in the American Jobs Plan the president announced this spring. And the good news is that despite the Fox News hyperventilation and hyperbole, achieving 50 percent or more by 2030, though no small feat, is actually completely feasible. There are a number of different models and paths to get there floating out in the world of think tanks and academics (Climate Nexus has an excellent rundown on the different approaches) but the bottom line is basically: We can do this.
Even better, the scale of this transformation – rethinking how we move, how we live, how we work – will create millions of jobs at a time when millions are struggling to support their families. Just as important, as we build a nation to meet this challenge, we have the chance to leave behind the systemic racism and institutional neglect that have plagued the US for decades and even centuries and build the equitable and just country we want.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Cutting emissions at least 50 percent by 2030 is an eminently solvable practical challenge. The politics are another matter, and you don’t have to look terribly far to see the pro-fossil fuel camp rehearsing industry talking points and scare stories.
That said, there is real reason for hope. Over two-thirds of Americans – including voters of both parties and independents – believe the federal government is doing too little to address the climate crisis and support real action. More than 300 businesses – including names like Adobe, Google, and Walmart – are calling on the administration to commit to cutting emissions 50 percent or more, telling the president, “If you raise the bar on our national ambition, we will raise our own ambition . . . You can count on our support.”
So, if you want the US to lead by example and show the world we mean business with a strong Paris Agreement commitment, you’re not alone. Far from it.
Our challenge now is to turn that overwhelming support into pressure. To let the president and everyone working on the NDC know that we have their back. To speak up as one nation and demand a strong commitment that will cut our emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030 and jumpstart the just transition to clean energy, while creating millions of good jobs and healthy communities from sea to shining sea.
You can help. Take action today and call on the president to pledge to cut US emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This is our chance to jump-start the incredible economic transformation the world needs to solve the climate crisis and create the just and healthy nation we want. But we need your voice.
Before You Go
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