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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."

* * *

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

Go deeper

Updated Jan 15, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Earth's climate went off the rails in 2021, reports show

Temperature departures from average in degrees Celsius during 2021. (Berkeley Earth).

Global warming became local to a new and devastating extent in 2021, with the year ranking as the sixth-warmest on record, according to new, independent data from NASA, NOAA and Berkeley Earth.

Why it matters: Each year's data adds to the relentless long-term trend, which shows rapid warming due overwhelmingly to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions during the past several decades in particular.

Updated Jan 14, 2022 - World

HRW criticizes Biden over "mixed signals" on human rights

Photo: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Human Rights Watch criticized President Biden and other leaders of democratic nations for sending "mixed signals" on human rights in its annual World Report published on Thursday, saying they "are not meeting the challenges before them."

Why it matters: Though Biden pledged to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote that weapon sales to repressive governments and public reticence on certain human rights violations place those promises in question.

Updated 32 mins ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a potentially historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.