The big news out of COP 27, the UN climate negotiations, according to most media was a global agreement to create a fund to provide developing nations more aid to explicitly address rising climate change impacts. Yet, this action, while justified, is at best a thin, temporary band aid. Because without deep cuts in greenhouse gases from huge polluters like China, the cost of climate impacts will soon skyrocket into the trillions, overwhelming the ability of rich and poor countries alike to address it.
So, what was done in Egypt to actually limit emissions and control global temperature increases, which after all is the central goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement? Precious little. Instead, a perverse sort of political correctness on the global left overtook the needed focus on solving the climate crisis, much of which is now inarguably caused by autocratic nations like China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who were barely mentioned during these talks.
China’s annual emissions alone are nearly one-third of the global total, more than all the developed countries combined, and still rising. Global greenhouse emissions cannot decline — and climate protection cannot be achieved — until and unless China begins to cut its emissions. Yet, China was never under any intense pressure from developing nations to act at these negotiations. China’s President Xi Jinping, fresh from gaining a third consecutive five-year term as the leader of the Communist Party Conference, didn’t even bother to show up. Never mind, that China consumes nearly 60 percent of the world’s coal each year!
Meanwhile, China continues to buy huge amounts of discounted oil and gas from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s malign regime, in effect funding the war Ukraine. In fact, Putin is doubling down on his oil- and gas-centered economic, geopolitical and war strategy — and Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter, is deliberately increasing, not cutting, emissions. Yet, stunningly, Russia was not the focus of the EU or developing countries at the conference, barely rating a mention.
Not to be out done, Turkey, a major emitter and large consumer of Russia’s war-funding hydrocarbons, is allowing its emissions to continue to grow rapidly, refusing to limit coal use. A new study finds Turkey’s emissions will grow by more than 30 percent this decade.
In effect, dictatorships — in China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others — are dictating the climate crisis. These nations and India together represent well over half of global emissions — and, most crucially, emissions from each of these nations are still rising, while those in all Western democracies are falling rapidly.
And yet strangely the EU and developing nations focused on the U.S. as the main target at the COP27 talks, and the main goal as loss and damage. This even though the U.S. is acting aggressively, passing the most important climate law in U.S. history just this August, under which American emissions are actually on track to decrease by nearly 50 percent below 2005 level by 2030. President Biden himself attended the summit, announcing concrete funding for developing nations in Africa and elsewhere. Yet, the EU and global left are stuck in a time warp, absurdly still viewing the U.S. as the main culprit, despite the obvious culpability of China, Russia and their autocratic allies.
In point of fact, the grand statements, far-flung plans and promises made by self-important UN officials and EU bureaucrats at these climate conferences are mostly a sideshow to the real work of climate protection, which necessarily happens at the individual country level. The Paris Agreement is “bottom up” accord; emissions reductions are nationally determined on a voluntary basis, so it’s all about national actions.
For that reason, the biggest development in the last two weeks, one with potential to actually cut emissions deeply, was the announcement by the U.S. that direct bilateral U.S.-Chinese climate negotiations would resume. To his great credit, President Biden engineered a meeting with China’s President Xi at a conference in Bali, during which climate issues were a key item of discussion during a three-hour meeting. Biden himself clearly understands that climate protection runs through Beijing.
Now, the U.S. must do what the global left has not done: Compel China to cut emissions. This may involve aggressive U.S. trade policy, including carbon border tariffs, that could help force China and other major emitters to limit emissions. In a positive development by Brussels, the EU is currently set to implement the world’s first Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which will be introduced in 2023 and become operational in 2026. Enacting carbon tariffs on imports from nations like China whose goods are more carbon intensive than those made in the EU and U.S. could also prove politically popular in America.
In 2020, then-candidate Joe Biden included this possibility in his campaign climate platform, and more recently allies like Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) have proposed carbon tariff legislation, which importantly has also gained interest from Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). Indeed, it is long past time for U.S. Republicans to break with former President Donald Trump and other climate deniers and embrace sensible climate action both domestically and, in a united effort with U.S. Democrats, globally.
The other key action needed to prevent a global climate meltdown is immediate focus on the reduction of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful per molecule than carbon dioxide over time. Born of last year’s UN climate summit COP26 in Glasgow, the EU, U.S. and 100 other nations have signed the Global Methane Pledge to cut total methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. But China, Russia and India, the three largest methane emitters, have not.
At Glasgow, China promised the U.S. and other nations that Beijing would come forward with a detailed methane reduction plan before COP27. China broke this promise and did not. Instead, news media gave China credit when their lead negotiator said at this year’s talks that while they have a plan, they just weren’t ready to share with the world.
Yet, action on methane is even more crucial to limiting near-term temperatures and resulting climate change impacts than are cuts in CO2. As important as decarbonization is, cuts to methane and the other short-lived super climate pollutants can avoid four times more warming at mid-century than decarbonization alone can. Cutting the super climate pollutants is single best chance to slow the self-reinforcing feedbacks, avoid tipping points and keep the planet from the existential risk of “Hothouse Earth.” It should be a centerpiece of U.S.-Chinese, and indeed, global negotiations, and deserves a separate global methane agreement.
Despite all this evidence, many climate advocates continue to be focused solely on historic emissions of carbon dioxide, including those made in the centuries and decades long before climate change was recognized a problem. This is a historical dead end that does nothing to mitigate the growing emissions from China and other authoritarian regimes that will determine whether catastrophic climate change is prevented.
The time has come for all climate advocates, including in the EU and developing nations, to recognize the simple truth: The countries whose emissions are the largest and growing fastest
are the autocracies of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others. The Western democracies are acting; now it’s time to put pressure on the dictatorships to do the same. Otherwise, we will all face climate catastrophe, and no amount of “loss and damage” funding will be enough.
Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. He served as a staff member in the U.S. House, Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Interior Department and the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.