Advancing Global Climate Action in a Year Without a UN Climate Conference - sierraclub

With the COVID-19 crisis raging across the world, 2020 will be the first time in a quarter century that the world’s governments will not meet to coordinate climate action. The postponement of the annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is widely seen as a lost opportunity in the effort to advance the global response to the climate crisis. After all, this was supposed to be the year that countries acted on the increasingly dire warning from scientists and upped their Paris Agreement pledges. Given the urgency of the challenge, even a relatively short delay feels like a significant setback.

 

Now more than ever, it is clear that we need smart, aggressive, globally coordinated action to contain the unfolding damage of a rapidly warming world. With the work under the Paris Agreement largely on pause, it is worth paying closer attention to the actions that must be taken outside of the agreement to ensure its success.

 

No doubt, the Paris Agreement provides the indispensable framework for organizing global collaboration. But the Paris Agreement cannot do all the work on its own. To keep the worst effects of the climate crisis within tolerable limits, countries must do a lot more than they have agreed to do so far.  One reason countries have not committed to do more is that the agreement creates only weak incentives for them to do so. To generate the much deeper cuts to carbon pollution that scientists say are necessary, additional incentives must come from outside the agreement.  

 

The key question, then, is how the international community can create those incentives to supplement the agreement. Today, the Sierra Club is releasing a new report that proposes three ways. First, the international community should prioritize helping countries to capture “socially beneficial” mitigation opportunities that are in their interest, even before climate impacts are considered. Second, countries should work to establish “climate protection” norms that set global expectations for responsible behavior. Third, countries should treat the climate crisis like other threats to their vital interests and use diplomatic “sticks” and “carrots” to encourage others to cooperate.  

 

The first step is to encourage countries to grow their economies, create jobs, and increase public health and welfare in just ways that also reduce emissions. There are numerous ways to do this, including reducing energy waste, investing in clean energy, and building better planned cities. Really, these are just smart policies and sound investments; the climate benefits are a bonus.

 

As countries focus on containing the pandemic and reinvigorating their economies, the immediate priority is to ensure that national recovery and international support packages are designed to seize these opportunities. The EU, for example, is making a “Green Deal” package of climate initiatives a central pillar of its €750 billion ($825 billion) recovery fund. And the World Bank has developed a “Green Stimulus Framework” to ensure that its recovery assistance also helps countries capture the benefits of decarbonization.  

 

Here in the US, a recent Sierra Club study has found that a thoughtful stimulus package focused on green investments could create good jobs for over 9 million people every year for the next 10 years, while cleaning our air and water, increasing wages, improving community health, and fostering equity. It would  also put us on pace to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030, the amount scientists say is necessary to avert the worst climate impacts.

 

Even so, simply encouraging countries to do what is in their own interests is unlikely to be sufficient—countries must also have stronger incentives to act in the global interest. One way to create those incentives is through climate protection norms. Norms are the standards of acceptable conduct that the international community expects countries to follow. They can have powerful effects on countries’ behavior, even when they are not legally enforced. Human rights are the classic example: Countries closely monitor each other’s human rights records, and countries that violate basic standards risk condemnation, sanctions, and even isolation. Similarly, international norms that define minimum expectations for acceptable climate behavior could be an important lever for raising ambition.  

 

What might such norms look like? Three emerging possibilities are worth exploring. First, a norm could take the form of a long-term goal that all countries would be expected to meet. There is a growing expectation that countries will adopt strategies to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the IPCC’s 1.5°C (2.7° F)  model pathways. Almost 80 countries have adopted such plans or committed to do so. And some, like the United Kingdom and Sweden, have integrated this commitment into domestic law. A second approach would be to establish norms that proscribe the most destructive practices. For instance, U.N. Secretary General Guterres has called for a moratorium on new coal plants, and the Powering Past Coal Alliance has sought to establish an expectation that countries will move quickly to close their existing coal power plants. A third kind of climate norm would give content to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and define a fair, implementable standard for determining the adequacy of each country’s actions.

 

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