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It is easy to criticize the global climate conference that is ending this weekend as a waste of time — and an unnecessary contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from the thousands of people who flew to Scotland. Yet, the conference is likely to result in some important — if small and incomplete — moves forward as the world confronts the reality of rising temperatures, and the associated consequences.
Are the pledges and targets that came from the two-week confab in Glasgow enough? Of course not. The conference, called COP26, is not about quick fixes to the many facets of climate change, although those are needed to. It is about building a global consensus to act. In that regard, the COP26 is a mixed bag.
And, that is a problem when the world faces “a code red for humanity,” as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres described a recent assessment of the science on climate change.
There were some significant achievements at the conference. For example, more than 90 countries pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Methane traps more heat, per molecule, than carbon dioxide, a major focus of emission reduction efforts.
The U.S. and China made a surprise announcement that they would cooperate to speed up reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, driving up temperatures.
The language of the agreement is somewhat vague and non-committal. China, for instance, pledges to “make best efforts to accelerate … work” to reduce consumption of coal, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry acknowledged the agreement’s shortcomings, but reiterated the importance of joint action from China and the U.S., which account for about 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
“It’s the fastest we can get at this moment here in Glasgow, but it’s the first time China and the United States have stood up — the two biggest emitters in the world — and said, ‘We’re going to work together to accelerate the reduction,’ ” Kerry said in an interview with NPR.
In another unexpected announcement, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the country – the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases – intends to generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030 and achieve net zero emission status by 2070.
That announcement, however, was followed by a big ask from Modi: $1 trillion from other countries to help finance that transition. That’s separate from a pledge from the world’s wealthiest nations, including the U.S., to provide $100 billion a year to the poorest countries to help them address the consequences of climate change. That pledge has yet to be fulfilled. President Joe Biden has said he would seek more than $11 billion a year for this effort. That funding would have to be approved by Congress.
That would be the same Congress that is currently at loggerheads over a Democratic-backed spending plan that includes $550 billion for climate change-related work, the most ever.
So, excuse our skepticism that the United States, China or any other major carbon emitter is going to make big changes because of the climate talks in Scotland, which was attended by more than 500 fossil fuel representatives from around the world, according to one assessment.
Climate change, and its consequences, are a clear and present problem, for the U.S. and the rest of the world. But, in addition to looking to global conferences for answers, action is likely to be more local. Lawmakers, in Augusta and Washington, should continue to take bold action, regardless of international agreements.
Maine, under Gov. Janet Mills, has set emissions reduction targets and taken some aggressive action to increase renewable energy generation and consumption. This will benefit our environment and economy as employment in the solar and wind power industries is projected to grow much faster than in the economy as a whole for the next decade.
Such work, which turns international pledges into action, will drive U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions and to transition to a cleaner economy.