The latest, and greatest, UN Climate summit has come and gone, but here are six things we’ve learned. Here they are, in brief:
1. Canada will no longer be the most climate-friendly country in the world. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to abandon the Paris accords and stop funding the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Green Climate Fund by 2019. Without the billions in funding from the fund and its several hundreds of millions a year of contributions from the United States, even a polluted future might still look a little better. But even before then, Canada is probably leading the world in climate change impacts. It just drilled a boreal forest’s worth of coal and burned it at a huge cost to the environment and the people who depend on it.
2. It’s not going to happen because the politicians aren’t pushing hard enough. The notoriously dithering and vague French president, Emmanuel Macron, made just a glimmering attempt to lead a global effort in this year’s summit. Macron’s speech did more to puncture the Ottawa-funded/US-funded Liechtenstein air bubble that delegates were in. Not everyone will miss his efforts.
3. Donald Trump will veto global progress if he doesn’t like it. There’s a reason Trump has just appointed an acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency instead of a new administrator, and it’s not just that this guy is incredibly inept. Rather, the decision to appoint him is a green wag: The head of the EPA has final say on the decisions that will make or break the EU’s emissions cuts targets for 2030. That’s what Trump’s every move on climate matters from now until his party decides it’s enough of this and ends its stubborn resistance to policies that would make a difference.
4. What needs to happen now is not possible
The decisions now left for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are impossible, because the political actors who make them are not in power, in power, or clear about what they want to do. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called for increasing national targets to curb emissions while amassing and using the piles of data accumulated on adaptation and mitigation. Yet leading countries only have the political will to enforce targets when they’re part of the political elite. Much work remains in the transition to renewable energy and the mitigation of emissions from the built environment; the United States itself only achieves 17% of its energy demand from renewable sources, whereas Denmark gets 36%. At COP26, the EU attempted to say that the 2019 European target of 33% from renewables and 19% from storage could now be around 40%. To achieve it, the European Parliament argued, the EU would have to find trillions of euros in additional funds over the next five years. As soon as they talked about that, the MEPs got round to chanting “viva la Brexit!” To which, to be fair, Germany also cried “viva la Trump!”
5. Europe is making it happen
We’ve already mentioned that much of the Paris agreement was agreed upon in 2015, long before there was a popular (and potentially compettive) presidential election in America. Unlike almost everything else the EU does, its commitments to climate action are manifest. This year’s COP26 held a summit within a summit: There were 17 separate summits going on all at once.
6. Why the EU matters more than it ever has before
The end of the Franco-German era means that the EU has been transformed from a half-finished structure into an operation that’s more flexible, tested, and international. This superhighway to climate action means that the European Union’s global climate commitments will be more important in the decades to come than ever before.