Why have we had so many Broken Climate Promises?

Guest post by Dana R. Fisher. Excerpted from Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action by Dana R. Fisher (Columbia University Press, 2024).

Despite numerous efforts to address the climate crisis at multiple levels of governance, policymaking has been ineffective at bringing about the emissions reductions necessary to limit global warming below the 1.5°C threshold identified by the IPCC and codified in the Paris Agreement.

So many Climate Promises

The call for more commitments from nations and businesses comes on top of growing concerns about the feasibility of the implementation of existing climate pledges. The UN secretary-general said the Sixth Assessment Report from IPCC Working Group 3 on mitigation documents “‘a litany of broken climate promises’ by governments and businesses.”  In short, even when countries do commit to climate goals, they are not following through on these commitments.

While countries vary substantially regarding their institutional makeup, these broken promises are apparent in most nations where adequate climate action continues to be out of reach. In the United States, for example, the country is expected to overshoot its original climate commitments set by President Barack Obama at the COP21 round of the climate negotiations in Paris in 2015. These targets were classified as “insufficient” by the independent scientific team at Climate Action Tracker to keep global warming below 3°C.

In 2021, the Biden administration submitted an updated commitment prior to the COP26 round of negotiations that increases the country’s pledge and gets the United States closer to achieving the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement. And finally, after years of failed attempts to pass climate legislation through the U.S. Congress and months of stops and starts, the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to address climate change along with other issues, passed and was signed into law in August 2022.

Although the United States having a federal climate policy that was approved by both the Congress and the president after so long is cause for celebration, this bill only made it to President Biden’s desk for signature due to giveaways to the fossil fuel industry that were brokered by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. And, even with this new policy, the country is still not on a path to fulfill its climate commitments that would stabilize global warming at the 1.5° threshold set by the Paris Agreement.

Outside the United States, it is not much better. Although many other developed countries have filed Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that indicate plans to reduce their emissions in line with the IPCC’s targets, the implementation of policies that achieve these intended goals are few and far between. Since the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, many countries have found meeting their climate goals even more challenging.

While country responses have been insufficient, business efforts have been bipolar. In contrast to the swift and effective global response to ozone depletion, where a technological fix was discovered and companies encouraged governments to implement it, the climate crisis has no silver bullet. To date, companies representing non-carbon-emitting energy sources and technologies continue to butt heads against entrenched business interests that support an economy run on fossil fuels.

Recent research has documented the fact that fossil fuel companies have been well aware since the 1970s that burning fossil fuels would lead to a climate crisis. Instead of acting on that information to limit the risk of a crisis, companies buried their findings and misled the public so they could continue to expand their businesses.

At the same time that fossil fuel expansion continues, many companies and governments are investing heavily in the development of technology that will either remove carbon from the atmosphere or reduce solar absorption through geoengineering. Fossil fuel companies are taking advantage of government funding in the United States and abroad to develop direct air capture and carbon capture and storage.

While big oil companies have started to acknowledge the climate issue and propose plans to address climate change, their so-called zero emissions plans do not provide comprehensive strategies. Specifically, these plans intentionally omit reductions in what they call “scope 3 emissions” derived from the actual burning of the natural resources that they are extracting and selling.

In other words, these companies have developed plans to reduce the emissions associated with the extraction of the fossil fuels, but these plans do not consider the emissions from the burning of these fuels because they are sold to other companies and/or countries. Moreover, on the heels of announcements in 2023 about record profits thanks, in part, to the war in Ukraine, many big oil companies announced that they were slowing down the implementation of their climate plans.

Given these actions by businesses, there is growing evidence that all commitments should be interpreted with caution. As a result of this lack of progress in achieving the material goals of the climate regime, many scientists who served as authors for the recent IPCC report have lost confidence that governments will achieve their stated climate goals.

In November 2021, Nature reported on a survey of scientists who contributed to the most recent assessment report (AR6) of the IPCC. The survey found that many of these scientists “expect to see catastrophic impacts of climate change in their lifetimes.”53 Scientists around the world are reportedly coming to terms with the fact that the world will almost definitely miss its opportunity to meet the Paris climate agreement and cap global warming at 1.5°.

Dana R. Fisher is the director of the Center for Environment, Community, and Equity and a professor in the School of International Service at American University. She is author of Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action (Columbia University Press, 2024).

Excerpted from Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action by Dana R. Fisher (Columbia University Press, 2024). All rights reserved.

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