Prospects for Action at the Glasgow Climate Meetings

October 22, 2021
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

Lessons From the World’s Most Successful Climate Change Agreement

Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21)
Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), which led to the signing of the Paris Agreement (photo credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana)

Facing what many climate scientists warn is a “code red for humanity,” government officials from around the world will gather for two weeks beginning October 31 in Glasgow, Scotland. The Glasgow meeting, formally known as the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, attracts thousands of climate activists and business representatives as well as heads of state and their ministers. Will meaningful action result from the meeting? Or will the outcome yield little more than “blah, blah blah,” as Greta Thunberg recently characterized government projects such as “Build Back Better” and “Net Zero by 2050”? Thunberg is hardly alone in her skepticism — even Queen Elizabeth was recently overheard lashing out at world leaders who “talk” but “don’t do” on climate change. Despite the pessimism, however, some previous international environmental negotiations DID bring significant climate action and provide insights into strategies for success.

In 1987, an international agreement, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, dramatically reduced use of chemicals that were potent greenhouse gases in addition to their impact on the ozone layer. While this earlier initiative is no longer sufficient to protect us from the approaching climate catastrophe, a look back at what it achieved offers some important lessons for the current day.

While the Protocol was driven by the threat of ozone depletion, scientists and government negotiators were aware that the same chemicals that threatened the ozone layer were also potent greenhouse gases. However, an international agreement in 1985 and Protocol added two years later in Montreal only targeted chemicals that actively threatened the ozone layer. Yet, the contribution to avoiding dangerous warming has been enormous. If use of ozone-depleting chemicals had continued at the growth rates of the 1970s, by 1990 they would have surpassed carbon dioxide as a source of warming. By 2010 the world would already have surpassed the 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius limits of the Paris climate agreement. The Protocol prevented release of greenhouse gases that would have equaled the contribution of CO2 today.

As if this were not enough, a study this year in Nature analyzed the effect increased ultraviolet radiation in the absence of the Protocol would have had on plants and soils. The authors concluded that with fewer plants and organisms to absorb carbon dioxide, much more CO2 would have remained in the atmosphere resulting in additional warming of 0.50–1 degree Celsius.

In addition to these significant but largely unintended climate benefits, in 2016 the parties to the Protocol acted with the explicit purpose of avoiding further warming. The Kigali Amendment aims to phase down global production and use of HFCs, chemicals commonly used in air conditioners, refrigeration equipment, and foam insulation, that are on average several thousand times more potent than CO2 as a contributor to climate change. Fully implemented, the Amendment will reduce emissions of HFCs by at least 80 percent over the coming decades and prevent up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of this century. China and India ratified the Amendment this year. In March, the Biden administration, reversing disinterest and inaction displayed in the previous four years, announced its intention to ratify and is already moving to meet its obligations under the Kigali Amendment through domestic legislation and regulations.

The success of the MP provides some important lessons for the climate negotiations.

1. Near universal approval of meaningful international climate agreements is actually possible — a non-trivial matter in this time of growing international tension.

2. Action by the two largest emitters, China and the US, is critical, in order to convince other countries to follow suit.

3. Public and private parties need to collaborate closely. The MP developed a unique process of public-private cooperation for the identification of substitutes for the chemicals to be replaced. Technically knowledgeable representatives of the affected industries worked with public officials to identify and approve application-specific substitutes — refrigerants for refrigerators and air conditioning, solvents for electronics, alternatives for insulation, etc. As substitutes emerged companies had multiple incentives for using them to comply with international standards and avoid being excluded from signatory markets. (For more details, see Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!, a book I co-authored with Durwood Zaelke and Stephen O. Andersen).

There are signs these lessons are serving as models for some significant government actions in recent months.

At the Glasgow climate meetings, the U.S. will also announce the First Movers Coalition, an initiative with some parallels to the industry-specific, public-private approach to promoting cleaner substitutes in the Montreal Protocol. The Coalition will commit some of the world’s biggest companies to scrub four notoriously dirty industries: aviation, shipping, steel, and trucking. Technologies to cut pollution from them exists, such as sustainable jet fuel, methanol-fueled ships, and “green” steel made from hydrogen. Large companies can make commitments to use these currently expensive alternatives with little impact on the price of their products. For example, using green steel would add only about $180 to a car’s sticker price, while using a zero-carbon ship to carry a $60 pair of jeans would add about an extra 30 cents. Later in 2022, the Coalition will add another four polluting sectors: aluminum, cement, chemicals, and direct air capture.

Having attended 16 meetings of the parties to the climate convention, I have some sympathy for the expectation that the 26th will be simply more “blah, blah, blah.” Meaningful outcomes from Glasgow are possible if governments build on the lessons of the Montreal Protocol.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)

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