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Imagine a better climate pact than COP

This year’s United Nations climate summit in Dubai is unlikely to achieve much because all 197 states must agree on decisions. The need for unanimity is a recipe for twiddling thumbs while the planet fries.

It’s possible to imagine an alternative, better way to fight climate change. A few powerful nations could agree bold targets among themselves and then coax others to follow suit.

At some point, countries may get so frightened about the lack of sufficient action that they do precisely that. But record temperatures, climate disasters and gruesome predictions have yet to do the trick.

The snag is that China or the United States – which were responsible for 25% and 11% of greenhouse gases, respectively, in 2021 – would have to take the lead. Ideally, they would do so together. But neither country is willing to cut its own carbon emissions as fast as needed and their leaders have only just agreed to start talking again about climate change.

That is why the world is left with the annual Conference of the Parties (COP), where delegates fly to a different part of the world in search of unanimity. The current summit in Dubai is known as COP28 because it is the 28th of these conferences. Usually attendees cobble together a deal, but it lacks teeth.

A high point of this process was COP21 in 2015, which led to the Paris Agreement. All countries agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times and to aim for 1.5 degrees.

That sounds great, except that every country is free to determine what it will do to hit this collective target. It is not surprising that after adding up their pledges, the UN predicts the world is heading for an increase in temperatures between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees, with catastrophic consequences.


If China and the United States agreed to do much more to cut emissions, they might have the critical mass to get the rest of the world to follow. But to start, they would need a methodology for assessing a country’s fair share.

One option is to look at how much each country has emitted by head of population. The biggest polluters would then have to make the biggest cuts in emissions, or contribute in different ways, for example by giving cash to other countries so they could go green faster. The calculation could start in 1992, when the Rio Earth Summit agreed the first UN climate change treaty.

On this yardstick, the United States is a big polluter. The average American emitted nearly 700 tonnes of greenhouse gas between 1992 and 2019, more than three times the global average. The U.S. would have to do much better than its current promise to halve emissions by 2030 and get to net zero by 2050.

The average Chinese person emitted nearly 200 tonnes during the same period, roughly the global average. But the People’s Republic keeps building coal-fired power stations and its emissions are still rising. It too would have to improve on its pledge to reach peak emissions in 2030 and get them to net zero by 2060.


Imagine, Washington and Beijing could agree to such tougher targets – and stick to them. The next step would be to bring the other big polluters into the club – perhaps starting with the rest of the Group of 20 large industrial nations. The G20 collectively accounted for 74% of emissions in 2021.

The United States could corral the other rich democracies in the G20, all of which are allies. The European Union, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the United Kingdom are responsible for 13% of global emissions – but are at least all cutting pollution.

Reuters Graphics Reuters Graphics
Reuters Graphics Reuters Graphics

China could take on the job of arm-twisting Russia, which is responsible for 4.4% of emissions. This would not be easy. But if anybody can persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to do more to fight climate change, it is his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

Washington and Beijing would need to take a different approach with other G20 countries such as India, Brazil and Indonesia, which together account for 19% of greenhouse gases discharged into the atmosphere. It would not be fair to tell them to curb pollution as these poor countries have not yet contributed much to global warming. The same goes for African countries, which account for 8.7% of emissions. The African Union, a continental body of 55 states, has just joined the G20.

Instead, the better-off G20 countries should help less prosperous nations grow in a green way. That’s the thinking behind the Just Energy Transition Partnerships that the United States and its allies have cut with Indonesia, Vietnam and South Africa. China could also play a role with its Belt and Road Initiative, which started off helping developing countries build dirty infrastructure such as coal-fired power stations but is increasingly focussing on deploying green technology.

If the bulk of the G20 agreed, members could encourage the rest of the world to get onside with a mixture of carrots and sticks. The latter could include levies on the imports of those countries which do not pull their weight, along the lines of the carbon border tariffs that the EU is introducing.

It is not possible to move ahead with such a plan now, though. Every step of the way, there are giant obstacles. For example, Donald Trump, who as president pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, may return to the White House after next year’s elections.

The world can still make some progress on climate change. Companies can continue to roll out green technologies, which are increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Countries can keep scaling up the World Bank and other multilateral developing banks so these institutions can help emerging economies with their green transitions. And COP conferences can nudge forward the process through countries exerting moral pressure on one another.

All of this is better than nothing. But it will not stop a climate disaster. At some point, the world’s leaders will need to do a lot better.

Source : Reuters



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