The world has made more progress in the fight against climate change than you might imagine.
Emissions of greenhouse gases they have been falling for about 10 years in the US and Japan, and longer in Europe. More recently, they have started to fall in Brazil and Russia. A decade ago, the world was on track to warm to around 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. Today, the number is closer to 5.5 degrees.
Unfortunately, this progress is still not enough to avoid devastating results, scientists say.
The current scientific consensus is that the world should keep warming to no more than 2.5 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 1.5 degrees Celsius). Even that will cause substantial damage. But anything else could be catastrophic, with more deadly floods, wildfires and heat waves, as well as destroyed communities, animal extinctions and the potential for geopolitical chaos.
How can the world get from where it is to where it needs to be?
That’s the focus of a two-week UN conference in Glasgow that began yesterday, which included President Biden and other world leaders. (Here’s the latest coverage from the Times.)
I think it is useful to think that the climate solution has two main parts. They are interconnected and are the subject of today’s newsletter.
Richer nations …
First, the wealthy nations of the world will need to accelerate their shift from polluting energy sources like coal and oil. This acceleration will have to be substantial, but it is not too difficult to imagine.
It does not depend on great scientific advances, however welcome they are. It can happen to a large extent with existing technologies, such as wind, solar and nuclear power and the electrification of vehicles.
For the United States to do its part, greenhouse gas emissions would have to fall 50 percent below their 2005 levels by the end of this decade. That may seem overwhelming, but emissions are already down about 19 percent from 2005. Without more action, they are on track to decline 23 percent.
As Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, co-author of the Green New Deal, told me, “We’re at second base and people don’t even realize it.”
Finishing the job will still require significant changes. The climate provisions in the legislative framework that Biden announced last week it would make a big difference, granting consumers and businesses tax credits to use clean energy sources.
Using Markey’s baseball analogy, Biden’s plan would bring the United States closer to third base. From there, the federal government would likely need to regulate pollution more aggressively, while states, local governments, and businesses would have to take their own actions. Everything is feasible, but hardly guaranteed.
The biggest obstacles are political. Almost all Republican members of Congress oppose meaningful action to curb climate change, putting them at odds with scientists and conservative parties in many other countries. Republican Supreme Court Appointments Can Make The Job Harder blocking climate regulation. And several key Democrats, notably Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have at times opposed pollution cuts to protect local industries.
Europe has made more progress than the United States, but it faces its own challenges. A recent surge in electricity prices in Europe, part of rising inflation worldwide, has led to some discontent with the continent’s shift to green energy. as my colleagues Melissa Eddy and Somini Sengupta describe.
This chart makes clear why the actions of rich countries are so important:
Some high-income countries, including the US, remain among the world’s biggest polluters per capita.
… and poorer countries
Of course, avoiding a catastrophic climate outcome is not just up to rich countries, in part because of the number of people living in lower-income countries.
Overall, China has become the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, well ahead of the United States. India ranks third and Indonesia fourth. And unlike the US and Europe, the poorest countries have made relatively little progress in their clean energy move.
This graph compares the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions in four major economies with what their leaders have pledged to do and what they would have to do to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius:
(I recommend this newly published Times article, which has charts covering more countries.)
The leaders of China and India argue that when the US and other countries lifted themselves out of poverty in the past, they did not have to worry about the type of energy sources they were using. That’s true. But the reality is that the world probably cannot avoid dire climate outcomes without significant change from the poorest countries.
If China cares as little about the planet as England did during the Industrial Revolution, the whole world will suffer.
International diplomacy, whether in Glasgow or after, can play a central role here. As Brad Plumer, a climate reporter for The Times, told me, “We have seen that the constant routine of diplomacy over the years has resulted in real progress, even if there may never be a defining moment where may all declare victory. “
China has responded to diplomatic pressure on the climate in the past, especially when the US president was also taking the issue seriously. During the Obama administration, China took multiple steps to reduce emissions and, in September, agreed stop building coal plants abroad. India and other lower-income countries, for their part, have made it clear that their actions will depend in part on how much help do you get from richer countries.
A useful dynamic is that many leaders in low-income countries have self-interest reasons for reducing pollution. Doing so can increase national political stability, by improving living standards, and can help countries compete in growing clean energy industries such as electric vehicles.
The world has a lot of work to do if it is to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. And those outcomes have a tremendously high probability of happening. But the most promising solutions are not a mystery.
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