Glasgow offers hope for breakthrough in global climate approach

Sible Schöne is critical of Glasgow’s outcomes, but does see steps in the right direction between the lines.

From compulsory targets to voluntary national contributions

One of the most complicated questions in the global climate negotiations is what constitutes a fair contribution by the various countries. For many decades, the United States, on one side, and India, on the other, have managed to politicise concrete negotiations on targets and timetables to such an extent that there was hardly any progress in this area. The climate summit in Glasgow can be seen as a breakthrough in this discussion. This breakthrough has to do on the one hand with the 1.5 degree target and the idea of a global emissions budget, and on the other hand with countries’ willingness to talk about concrete measures, for the first time in thirty years!

The starting point of the discussion about a fair contribution per country is the principle of 'common, but differentiated responsibilities', which was laid down in the Climate Convention of 1992. In the Kyoto Protocol, this is further elaborated in a hard but modest reduction target for the rich countries of 6% on average compared to 1990 in the first commitment period of 2008 - 2012. The idea behind this was that the group of developing countries would gradually join in the following period. As is well known, the US Republican Party used this distinction between rich and developing countries to reject the Kyoto Protocol, and later other rich countries, such as Australia, Japan and Canada, also withdrew because even these modest targets called for stronger policies than they were willing to implement.

    "The pursuit of 1.5 degrees has fundamentally changed global negotiations on targets"

The 2015 Paris Agreement abandoned the whole idea of mandatory targets and adopted an approach based on voluntary national contributions (Nationally Determined Contributions). However, Paris also agreed to tighten up the 2 degree Copenhagen target. Countries must strive to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.

Carbon budget

This 1.5 degree target has fundamentally changed the global negotiations on targets. The temperature objective means that the combined objectives of countries must remain below a certain level: the carbon budget. This is determined scientifically. According to the latest IPCC report, the remaining carbon budget for 1.5 degrees is 400 gigatons of CO₂ (with 67% certainty) and for 2 degrees the budget is 1150 gigatons of CO₂. For comparison, emissions in 2019 were 43 GtCO2 per year. To reach the 1.5 degree target, global emissions need to be cut roughly in half by 2030, while they need to be virtually zero by 2050. If the remaining carbon budget is exceeded, the only way to reduce the temperature rise again is with negative emissions.

    "We all know how difficult it is even for a rich country like the Netherlands to meet the 49% target".

In concrete terms, this new framework for the negotiations meant that all countries were required to indicate when they would have reduced emissions to zero and what reduction was to be achieved by 2030. Because these national contributions did not add up to the near halving of global emissions desired by 2030, and given they added up to more than 400 gigatons, it was agreed to continue talking about further tightening of targets as early as next year.

Talking about really necessary targets

A critic of this whole process might rightly say that the targets of most countries are soft and lack the necessary foundational work. This is true not only for countries like India and China, but also for the US, for example. And we all know how difficult it is even for a rich country like the Netherlands to meet the 49% target, not to mention the 55% target, by 2030. That is all true, but it does not detract from the fact that there is finally a global discussion about the goals that are really needed. And that is a breakthrough.

Concrete measures

The second breakthrough in Glasgow was that, for the first time in thirty years (!) of climate negotiations, concrete measures were discussed. That topic was always taboo, because there was a consensus that countries could decide for themselves how they wanted to realise agreed targets. The realisation has dawned that this no longer works given the urgency of the issue. Within the negotiations, the ending of the use of coal (unabated coal without CCS) and the phasing out of subsidies for fossil fuels were discussed for the first time. The final text is a weak compromise, but it is absolutely right that even an organisation like Greenpeace calls the fact that agreements are being made on coal a breakthrough.

    "Joint action can also help to opt for sharper goals"

Beginning processes

Further, in Glasgow the discussion was not only about coal. Outside the negotiations, a large number of countries made additional agreements on a range of other topics, such as forests, methane emissions and the financing of fossil fuel projects abroad. On a critical reading, these agreements are also a lot less impressive than they seem at first glance, but consider it the start of processes that will have to be sharpened in the coming years.

In practice, discussing measures can also contribute to the discussion about objectives. After all, one of the most logical ways to achieve comparable ambitious targets is by choosing comparable efforts or measures. We have also seen this in our own country, for example, in the multi-year agreements on energy saving or within a system such as the CO2 Performance Ladder. Joint measures can also help in opting for sharper objectives.

In other words, the agreement on phasing out coal offers real hope. In principle, there is no reason why this agreement cannot be followed by agreements on the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars, for example, or even a global carbon tax. And don't forget the subject of non-commercial biomass, 10% of world energy use, the main source of energy for 2.5 billion people or a third of the world's population.

It should all have been done much earlier, and what has been agreed now is too little. But it seems that sense is beginning to break through and the negotiations are really starting to matter.