Clean Energy Insights

Does the UN climate summit matter? 5 reasons why it does

6 minute read

As featured in the Hill

Overheard chatting with her friends this week, Queen Elizabeth said this about the upcoming United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, “it’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do.”

Or as youth climate activist Greta Thunberg recently put it, “our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and promises. Of course, we need constructive dialogue, but they’ve now had 30 years of ‘blah, blah, blah’ and where has that led us?”

That’s an important question. After 30 years of this “blah blah blah,” what’s the point of continuing with this exercise? 

Despite the underwhelming success of these international meetings, here are some real reasons why the upcoming UN Conference Of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow is important.

1) Pressuring Congress

President Biden knows he needs to have some tangible climate commitments to speak about in Glasgow. This could incentivize the U.S. to speed up passing the budget reconciliation bill and include strong climate provisions within that. While it’s rumored that the bill’s key climate provision, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, will be cut, that could change before COP26. It could also inspire lawmakers to include other strong climate provisions that the president could take with him to Glasgow to demonstrate that the U.S. means business.

2) Motivating executive action

The EPA Administrator Michael Regan should give us all a bit of hope. He recently claimed that even if Congress fails to pass meaningful climate legislation “his agency will issue a robust greenhouse gas rule for power plants, a stringent methane rule for oil and gas infrastructure, and sweeping emissions standards for new cars, regardless of Congress’s actions.” So, when Biden goes to Glasgow, he can at least point to this, and give some reassurance to the international community that the U.S. is not completely full of hot air. 

Although, let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. The EPA should have been taking these actions since 2007 when the Supreme Court declared carbon pollution an endangerment to the public and required the agency regulate it.

Yet, somehow, the same court system held up President Obama’s Clean Power Plan never to see the light of day. So now it’s Biden’s turn at bat.

Perhaps the UN climate conference will inspire Biden to use his executive powers for what they were made for: to protect Americans, today and well into the future from a clear and present danger  — climate change — if Congress proves too inept to do so.

3) International commitments

Countries around the world have been making climate announcements in anticipation of COP26 and this helps to build momentum, even in the absence of U.S. leadership. China has announced it will stop financing new coal plants internationally. That’s pretty significant when you consider that China currently finances 70 percent of new coal plants around the world. In addition, two weeks ago Denmark enacted a binding target of 50 to 65 percent emissions reductions from their agricultural sector by 2030. Many more commitments like this are being worked on and we’ll likely be announced leading up to, or at COP26.

4) Support for emerging economies

In 2009, at COP15 in Copenhagen, wealthy countries promised to pay developing countries $100 billion a year by 2020 so they could invest in clean energy technologies and climate resiliency measures. Unfortunately, “of the 23 countries responsible for providing climate finance, only Germany, Norway and Sweden have paid their fair share.”

In advance of this climate conference, Biden pledged at a recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York to double the U.S. climate aid to developing countries to $11 billion per year by 2024, although it still falls short of what’s needed to fulfill the initial commitment. Still, COP26 is where countries can come to the table to figure out what it will take to get broad participation. The inability of the wealthy countries to deliver on their climate aid commitments will certainly be a key theme and point of contention at the upcoming meeting.

5) Raising public awareness

Another key reason why this climate summit is important is the global media coverage. The media will report out the pledges made by leaders around the world calling for rapid decarbonization of the economy. This will raise public awareness. It will influence markets. And it sends a message to businesses and investors that the leaders of the world — while moving slowly — agree that the future will be clean energy powered and they hope to do more to support that transition.

While that in and of itself isn’t a huge win, “it’s pushing a rolling boulder a little faster” in the spirit of David Roberts’ recent reporting.

Roberts writes when it comes to rapidly adopting clean energy “we are on the front end of a massive, precipitous wave of change to rival the Industrial Revolution — one that will unfold even if policy support is weak and erratic, purely on the strengths of economics and innovation…Not only do we know how to get there, it is where we are headed, based on current market and technology trends.”

A new paper by Oxford University researchers found that we’ve been underestimating how quickly clean energy prices will continue to fall. “Most energy-economy models have historically underestimated deployment rates for renewable energy technologies and over estimated their costs” they report. The paper was lauded by Bill McKibben who wrote about its implications saying, “we’re finally catching a break in the climate fight.”

So, as much as the COP26 charade is well, a charade, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth performing. The pressure that it puts on countries to make and keep commitments, the signals it sends to industry, and the message it brings to the public that the energy transition is inevitable and underway, make all this pomp and circumstance important, albeit not sufficient.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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