The Glasgow Climate Conference: What to Look For

Roy Wehrle, Senior Advisor to Greenleaf Communities, Emeritus Professor at University of Illinois Springfield, and former Presidential Advisor.

It seems like only yesterday that 195 countries passed the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, an historic turning point after decades of global talks on climate. Now six years later, the nations of the world assemble in Glasgow on November 1 to assess performance so far and to sharply increase the climate actions needed to meet the net zero carbon emissions target by 2050.

Wildfire season is starting earlier and ending later each year. Photo Credit: Ventura County Fire Department.

This conference is singularly important because without urgent, dramatic and global action, rather than more promises, climate change may overwhelm the lives we now enjoy.  The actions needed are a tall mountain to climb, yet we have barely started, whereas climate change has proceeded faster and more fearsomely than expected. In the U.S. alone we have experienced unprecedented wildfires, floods and hurricanes as rising oceans eat away at our shores.  Glasgow is the chance for nations around the world to recognize and act on this reality.

To rise up to the challenge, we propose the following agenda for Glasgow: 1) enlisting a select group of industrial nations in an iron-clad compact to sharply reduce emissions, 2) protecting exports of these emissions-reducing nations from the cheaper exports from nations that do not reduce emissions, and 3) providing funding to assist small and developing nations that desperately require help to protect them from the onslaught of climate damage they did little to cause and shift to climate-friendly development pathways.  How can these three tasks be met?

1) A Climate Compact:  The six-year climate scorecard shows that the promises made in Paris have not been met and hence the critical goal of net zero emissions by 2050 will not be reached.  The 2018 Nobel laureate in economics, Professor Nordhaus of Yale University, has proposed the formation of a club of major industrial powers such as the U.S., China and the E.U. that pledge to make major emissions reductions.  This Compact would overcome the current practice of free-riding, where countries make promises they don’t fulfill.  Either carbon tax or Cap and Trade legislation would be required to join the Compact. The probable new Chancellor in Germany, Olaf Scholz, has endorsed this approach to achieve concerted international climate action.  Domestic carbon pricing could be coupled with rebates to citizens in the form of dividends which for most citizens would completely cover the increased prices resulting from carbon taxes.

2) Protecting Exports: The failure of the Paris Accords to significantly reduce emissions worldwide is largely the result of “free riders”—the many countries that have not reduced emissions but stand to benefit from the sacrifices of those countries that do. The answer: follow Professor Nordhaus’s other proposal that Compact countries impose a 2% tariff on all imports from countries not carrying out major reductions.  This protects the competitiveness of nations with ambitious climate policies and encourages others to join the Compact.

3) Helping the Developing Countries:  Of the 195 signatory countries in Paris around 134 are smaller, non-industrialized countries that did not cause the climate crisis but will be most damaged by it.  At the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, industrial countries promised to provide financial assistance of $100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020.  This promise has not been met. Some countries have threatened to reject Glasgow decisions if they are not given the assurance of receiving assistance, as climate impacts are coming sooner and with more severity than expected.  The Climate Compact could take one further vital step and place the revenue from non-Compact countries’ imports entirely in the service of the Developing Countries: transform the carbon tariff into a global carbon surcharge dedicated to assisting the Developing Countries. It is estimated that this would raise between $120b to $225b in revenue per year which could be used to meet the current and future climate finance needs of developing countries.

Glasgow:  A Global Accord Where All Countries Act on their Collective Responsibility to Mitigate Climate Change and All Countries Benefit: Under the Nordhaus proposal, the Compact Countries would lead in emissions reductions while all countries would receive the climate benefits.  The export competitiveness of the Compact countries would be protected by the export surcharge, which in turn would provide climate finance to developing countries.  This interlocking series of steps would promote world solidarity in action. Representative Tip O’Neal from Massachusetts quipped years ago that “all politics is local”.  The last thirty years of failed efforts to mitigate climate change have proven that O’Neal’s domestic political rule also applies to the international sphere.  Time and again proposals for collaborative international climate action have been trumped by domestic politics such as the free riding of countries promising action yet doing little or nothing.  Agreement on the agenda of actions listed above would for the first time create a global accord whereby all countries could see that their interests are met and that costs are shared.  Nations across the globe will follow the first weeks of November with more than mild interest.

Posted in Climate.