Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
President Joe Biden: There's no more time to hang back or sit in the fence or argue amongst ourselves. This is a challenge of our collective lifetimes, the existential threat to human existence as we know it. Every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases. Let this be the moment that we answer history's call here in Glasgow.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's President Joe Biden at the COP26 Climate Summit, where world leaders met this week. The sum of this scene is one of the most important international climate negotiations as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit a record high this year, after trending downward last year, in part, due to the pandemic.
At the summit, leaders have made non-binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, attempting to follow through on commitments established in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. In the Paris Climate Agreement, nearly every nation in the world agreed to take action to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, while striving for a lower target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but we aren't even close to those levels, and scientists say, "More aggressive action must be taken."
Given the world leaders have failed to meet earlier targets, many are wondering how effective this latest conference will actually be. With me now is Umair Irfan who is Senior Staff Writer covering climate change and energy at Vox. Welcome back to the show.
Umair Irfan: Hello, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, let's start with an overview of some of the key takeaways, what has happened thus far at COP26?
Umair Irfan: The overall goal of this meeting was to have more commitments and more aggressive targets on the table. When the Paris Agreement was set out back in 2015, the world leaders all understood that at the time what they committed was not going to be enough and the idea was over time, they would strengthen that, and here in Glasgow, this is the first test of that principle.
So far, there have been some pretty big commitments, the US earlier this year committed to ramping up its greenhouse gas emissions target. China has also committed to a net-zero target. Surprisingly, even India has also committed to a net-zero target by roughly the middle of the century. The world's three largest greenhouse gas emitters now all have targets that are aiming to zero out their contributions to climate change. Of course, commitments are one thing, putting them into action is another, and nailing those commitments down with definite action is going to be the key task of this conference.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Before we even get to the action part, just help us understand what exactly is a commitment to net-zero emissions?
Umair Irfan: That word net before zero is pretty slippery, and that's where a lot of activists are getting really concerned. The idea is that with carbon dioxide, sometimes if you have emissions that you can't avoid, you can compensate for them in another way. For instance, if you have a national airline whose emissions you can't immediately zero out, potentially you could purchase an area of forest in the rainforest and restore that, and as those trees in that area grows, it would absorb that quantity of carbon dioxide.
The problem is that the accounting around a lot of these offsetting mechanisms has been very shaky, and some of them have actually been very negligent in terms of actually leading to greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Activists say that many of these offsets and net-zero targets are actually a cop-out that allow countries to delay rather than taking the aggressive actions that they need to be making in the near term.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which are the countries that have been most egregious in falling short on those commitments?
Umair Irfan: I think just about every country has been falling short. As you noted, the planet's greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise since the Paris Climate Agreement, even though everybody agreed that limiting warming to less than two degrees Celsius as the target, just about every country has seen either a leveling off or an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Certainly, China, one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter has continued to see a growth in emissions and increase in coal use, but the US has leveled off for years and briefly saw an increase in greenhouse gas emissions as well. Particularly now as the US is coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. We're seeing that around the world as countries try to grow their economies, they're also still seeing a growth in greenhouse gas emissions and the biggest emitters are often the ones making the biggest shifts upward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want us to take a listen for a moment here, Umair, to Greta Thunberg speaking at a Youth Climate Summit ahead of COP26.
Greta Thunberg: Build back better, blah, blah, blah, green economy, blah, blah blah.
Greta Thunberg: Net-zero by '25, 2050, blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words, words that sound great, but so far has led to no action.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk about the frustrations that we're seeing and how they're being expressed at COP26?
Umair Irfan: Activists have always been an interesting part of this conference and these conferences in general. They've been trying to sway the discussions from the sidelines and sometimes from within the conference halls themselves. Some of the frustration you hear is particularly around what countries are actually doing? Yes, as Greta Thunberg noted, we have some countries that are committing to targets by 2050, that's roughly 30 years from now, but really what matters is what countries will do in the near-term and we're seeing many countries are still falling well short of that, including the United States.
The US has actually been leaning on OPEC, this oil production cartel, to actually produce more oil in the near term to help boost the US and the global economy. So that incongruence, a lot of activists are trying to call out and say that you can set targets 20, 30 years from now but what you do today and tomorrow really do matter.
Scientists say that if we want to limit greenhouse gas emissions and line with the Paris Climate Agreement targets, the cuts we make over the near term are far more significant than the ones that we make over the long term and we need these aggressive upfront cuts now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of the Paris Agreement, obviously President Trump pulled the nation out, President Biden's climate initiatives are living in this Build Back Better plan that we have not yet passed as a nation. I'm wondering where the US reputation is right now on this question of climate.
Umair Irfan: I think countries are pretty happy to see the US is back in the accord. The US was one of the countries that helped convene the Paris Climate Agreement back in 2015, in the first place, and so seeing the US back at the table, I think is certainly reassuring. Of course, the US does have to make up for lost time and the US also has to rebuild trust and show that it's actually matching what it's committing to do with actual action. That's been where the US has struggled.
As you noted, with the Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure plan, those issues remain unresolved. The US delegation is heading to the table with a weaker hand than they anticipated, if they had actual money committed that they could use that as leverage to convince other countries to also commit more money and commit to more aggressive interim targets, but right now, they don't have that, and so the winds of politics are certainly going to be affecting the scope of the discussion and what kinds of ambition we can expect from this meeting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about methane and deforestation.
Umair Irfan: Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, it's roughly 30 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat. At this meeting, more than a hundred countries, including the US, have committed to cutting methane emissions by about 30% by 2030, but China, Russia, and India haven't signed on to this specific target.
With respect to deforestation, about a hundred countries committed to ending deforestation by 2030, including Brazil, and the US, and Indonesia. There was also some big targets announced about coal, 20 countries that finance international coal development, including the US, have committed to ending that, and 40 countries have committed to phasing out domestic coal use. The United States, notably, did not sign on to that target.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there any thought about how to actually create enforcement mechanisms to hold nations accountable to these commitments that they're making?
Umair Irfan: That's a difficult challenge here. This is a voluntary agreement, no country was forced to the table, and if any country doesn't like the terms, they can take their ball and go home. Keeping everybody at the table has always been one of the core challenges here.
That said, there are a lot of incentives that countries are trying to use. Blocks like the European Union, for instance, are considering imposing a border adjustment carbon tax. That means that if they import goods from a country that doesn't have strong climate change mitigation tactics, they can impose a tax on their goods. Similarly, there are other kinds of international frameworks that they can use to nudge and cajole other countries to do more, and certainly, having a high profile meeting like this, where countries are named and shamed for not doing enough, that add some diplomatic pressure as well.
Beyond that, you're right that there is no real penalty, no one's going to get fined, there are very few countries that are going to get sanctioned for anything about not meeting their goals, and so that always remains a bit of a challenge to get people motivated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Umair Irfan is Senior Staff Writer covering climate change and energy at Vox. Thank you for joining us.
Umair Irfan: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
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