Jan 4, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The race against time to prevent a "carbon tsunami"

Illustration of a globe with newspaper pieces in flames below it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Two new essays explore the limits of the COP26 agreement, and why current finance and policy trends won't keep global temperature goals within reach — even if today's industrial giants crack down.

The big picture: Tufts University's Kelly Sims Gallagher, writing in Foreign Affairs, warns of a "coming carbon tsunami."

  • The biggest cumulative emitters — China, the U.S, Europe and Russia — have the wealth to pursue a net-zero path (though that's not a guarantee it'll happen!).
  • But countries including India, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria and others face the immense challenge of tackling poverty while simultaneously trying to address climate change.

Why it matters: Gallagher, a former Obama-era climate official, notes that roughly two-dozen developing nations are poised to rapidly expand emissions, yet international focus remains "stubbornly fixated" on China, the U.S. and E.U.

Threat level: "If industrialized countries do not shoulder the responsibility to help prevent this next wave of emissions, the global effort to avoid climate disruption will fail," writes Gallagher, who directs the Climate Policy Lab at the Fletcher School at Tufts.

  • She emphasizes the need for today's emissions giants to act domestically, but warns: "this progress risks being erased if poorer countries find it impossible to pursue a low-carbon development strategy."
  • Gallagher sees some bright spots and models that could be expanded — such as multilateral work with South Africa on moving away from coal — but more is needed.

Zoom in: The essay explores several barriers, including ...

  • Finance. Capital devoted to low-carbon energy and development from all sources — countries, development banks and private finance — remains inadequate and funding remains concentrated in already industrial nations. Fossil finance remains robust despite recent pledges to move away from it.
  • Policy. It argues, for instance, that governments "must hold themselves and one another to account for regulating private financial institutions and greening their own public investments," and backs mandatory restrictions on private fossil finance.
  • Multilateral institutions. One big idea is to "fundamentally rethink how global development institutions function" and also create a new "global green development bank" free of competing priorities of existing institutions.

The bottom line: "[I]f developing countries follow the 'grow first and clean up later' pattern established by the United States, western Europe, and East Asian countries, the consequences for the climate will be catastrophic."

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Meanwhile, in Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs, Daniel Propp writes that with two months of hindsight, the outcome of COP26 "appears decidedly mixed."

  • There was no shortage of announcements and ambition, but that said, "Glasgow’s true impact will be decided in board rooms and legislative chambers from Beijing to Brasilia to Washington, DC." Keep reading
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