Policies and plans and resolutions—oh my!
November’s COP26 conference will put a spotlight on global climate action. At that United Nations gathering in Glasgow, governments from around the world will seek to set binding commitments for reducing future carbon emissions in hopes of managing climate change and keeping targeted global warming limits within reach. What happens at COP26 will have major repercussions for whether humanity has a real shot at its goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.
COP 26 is also a reminder: Climate action is happening right now, and at the highest levels. Local, national, and international bodies around the world are making moves to address climate change.
But parsing the details of what’s what can be tough. It’s confusing. It can even leave a person with more questions than answers. Like:
- What’s the difference between a climate treaty and a climate resolution?
- Where do policies fit in?
- Is the Paris Agreement all that matters?
Let’s dive deep and sort some things out. Amidst this seemingly confusing stew of plans, proposals, protocols, policies, and reports, keep in mind that elements of all of the above are being implemented—perhaps unbeknownst to everyday people. In this case, a better understanding might help soothe your climate anxiety.
A Starting Point for Today’s Climate Action
A logical point of departure is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The UNFCCC was agreed upon in 1992. It serves as scaffolding for subsequent international negotiations, which can lead to agreements and treaties that legally bind countries to set targets for greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why, even though it’s not in the news too often, it’s still so relevant today.
How Do the Annual COPs I Hear About Fit In?
The acronym COP stands for Conference of the Parties. It’s a direct result of the UNFCCC—the “Parties” referenced in COP are countries that have agreed to participate in the UNFCCC.
Every year, there is a conference of these parties (COP), in which government representatives gather to assess progress and attempt to reach specific agreements. COP25 was held in Spain in 2019. COP24 was held in Poland the year prior. (COP26 will not be held until 2021 due to the pandemic.)
Since the first one in Germany in 1995, these annual events have consistently attracted news coverage as countries come together to negotiate over emissions targets and the shared responsibility of fighting climate change.
The UN calls the annual COP meeting the “supreme decision-making body” of the UNFCCC. In practice, some COP meetings are more decisive—and more successful—than others. COP25, for example, was considered a dud because participants failed to agree on rules for a global carbon market.
Are COPs Where the Paris Agreement Came From?
Exactly. COP21 was held in the Paris area, hence the name. The Paris Agreement was negotiated at COP21 in 2015, and went into effect in November 2016.
Why Is the Paris Agreement So Significant?
The Paris agreement is important for two main reasons.
- Its scope: The Paris Agreement applies to developing and developed nations alike. While non-binding, all parties must set emissions targets. This is in contrast to the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol, agreed to in 1997, treated developing and developed nations differently, which led to it ultimately being deemed a failure.
- Its targets: The Paris Agreement has clear goals. It seeks to keep global temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while aiming for a maximum temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists say these are key numbers to limiting the impact of climate change on humans.
However, the Paris Agreement is mostly non-binding. Countries set their own targets for decreasing emissions; those emissions are not legally binding. Countries are required to transparently monitor and report on their progress, while submitting new plans every five years.
So Is the Paris Agreement a Treaty or … Something Else?
That’s … kind of a good question. The Paris Agreement is frequently referred to as a treaty, and it’s listed in the United Nations Treaty Collection. The United States, however, entered it as an “executive agreement” due its emissions commitments being non-binding; for something to be considered a treaty according to U.S. law, it must be legally binding.
What Are Some Other Major International Treaties on Climate Change?
Earlier, we mentioned the Kyoto Protocol. That agreement was beset by dysfunction, largely due to its two-tiered structure of setting legally binding emissions targets for developed countries by taking a softer stance toward developing nations. Ultimately, it proved ineffective.
But history also holds a more hopeful example for us to consider.
“Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan has called The Montreal Protocol “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”
- The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer: Back in the 1970s and 80s, chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons were commonly used for refrigeration and air conditioning systems—but scientists discovered these chemicals were eating a hole through the ozone layer. So countries joined forces to create the Montreal Protocol in 1987, aimed at bringing the problem under control. This treaty had a few key facets: It was legally binding, it established hard targets for phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals, and it set different timelines for developed and undeveloped countries. The Montreal Protocol was effective at achieving its goals; former UN secretary general Kofi Annan has called it “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” That story of a global catastrophe averted can provide an optimistic precedent for solving global warming.
Okay. But What’s the Deal With the Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal is a domestic climate and economic resolution introduced to Congress by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. It takes its name from the New Deal, a massive program in the 1930s that transformed the US economy and created jobs by building needed infrastructure during the Great Depression.
It is ambitious. The Sierra Club describes it as a “big, bold transformation of the economy to tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change. It would mobilize vast public resources to help us transition from an economy built on exploitation and fossil fuels to one driven by dignified work and clean energy.”
The goals of a Green New Deal extend beyond simply drawing down emissions. They include:
- Providing healthcare for all Americans
- Creating millions of jobs that pay a living wage
- Investing in infrastructure and green industry
- Getting the US to 100 percent renewable energy
- Universal access to clean air and water
As a resolution, however, the Green New Deal is a long way from actually making any of these things happen. It’s not a detailed plan. It’s not a piece of legislation. It’s not a specific project. In that way, it’s somewhat akin to the UNFCCC mentioned earlier. Like the UNFCCC, it alone would not solve climate change; instead, embracing the Green New Deal would clear a path toward more specific and detailed policies and pieces of legislation.Many Democrats in Congress support the Green New Deal, and it’s opposed by virtually all Republicans. Despite the Green New Deal’s many supporters, its future is murky. President Joe Biden favors his own narrower climate plan.
Biden’s Climate Stance
While some Green New Deal proponents might like a more comprehensive plan than what President Biden offers, he nonetheless has what is widely considered the most ambitious climate plan of any administration to date. Biden:
- Calls climate change an “emergency”
- Returned the US to the Paris Agreement on his first day in office
- Wants to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
- Has committed to ending fossil fuel subsidies
- Says he would not ban fracking, but would work to accelerate energy transition by banning new permits for fracking, as well as other oil and gas projects, on federal land
- Wants to increase the use of electric vehicles, as well as impose strict fuel-efficiency standards
- Has proposed building sustainable energy infrastructure that emphasizes clean energy, equity, and job creation as part of a major infrastructure bill
So Where Do Project Drawdown and Other Things I’ve Heard About Fit into All This?
Climate-minded citizens and activists have celebrated the book Project Drawdown and its eponymous nonprofit organization since publication in 2017. (“Drawdown” refers to a hypothetical moment in time when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere begin to permanently decrease.)
In the book, environmentalist Paul Hawken and his team of researchers present 100 tangible, feasible solutions to begin reversing climate change. Outside magazine calls it a “bold plan to beat back climate change using solutions already in our grasp.” Tactics presented in Project Drawdown include:
- Using regenerative agriculture practices—things like rotating crops while not employing tillage, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers—to help sequester carbon, increase soil organic matter, and reduce emissions. (Organizations including the nonprofit Kiss the Ground are also working to promote regenerative agriculture.)
- Reducing food waste to decrease unnecessary emissions, land use, and resource use. (Researchers say a third of the food produced in the world goes uneaten.)
- Using alternative cement and alternative refrigerants to decrease emissions caused by these vital substances.
- Replacing plastics made from fossil fuels with bioplastics that can have lower emissions and be biodegradable.
- Investing heavily in walkable cities, public transit, and bicycle infrastructure, as well as efficient automobiles, airplanes, semi-trailer trucks, and shipping lines.
- Empowering women and girls through education, which has been shown to check communities’ population growth while enhancing economic growth and overall health.
Project Drawdown isn’t the only example of an independent climate plan. A lot of big thinkers are thinking of ways to protect the planet.
For example, the nonprofit organization Rewiring America presents ways to de-carbonize the American economy through widespread electrification. “This pathway is best described as electrify everything,” explains the synopsis for a book on the plan written by Rewiring America co-founder Saul Griffith. Griffith was a 2007 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant.” He and others argue that electrifying everything will deliver cheaper energy, cleaner air and water, and better overall health—with negligible change to our day-to-day lives.
Plans from groups such as Project Drawdown and Rewiring America don’t actually force anyone into action. Instead, politicians can embrace the ideas to inform their own climate plans, and such plans are powerful forces in driving the public conversation and galvanizing support for climate action.
State and local governments also often come up with climate plans of their own. These establish goals, encourage participation in solving the climate crisis, and offer guidance, without holding anyone directly accountable to specific laws or policies.
For example, California’s Climate Change Scoping Plan refers to itself as a “declaration of [the state’s] way forward;” it encourages local governments to adopt goals for emissions reductions in the coming decades. San Francisco’s Hazards and Climate Resilience Plan spotlights potential environment-related hazards and vulnerabilities, as well as mitigation strategies.
What Else Informs Governmental and International Climate Approaches?
Major scientific reports play central roles in influencing policy and planning decisions. Here are 4 important examples.
“The latest National Climate Assessment painted a concerning picture overall, but also noted the growth and potential of solar and wind power.”
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a UN body that regularly puts out scientific reports on the state and potential future risks of climate change. In 2018, the IPCC released a landmark report detailing the respective consequences of global temperatures rising 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Despite pushback from some major oil-exporting nations, this report played a significant role in increasing the urgency of the discussion around climate change worldwide.
- Every four years, the U.S. government is required by law to produce a National Climate Assessment, which comprehensively details climate risks at the national and regional levels. The most recent version, released in November 2018, was nearly 1,700 pages long. It painted a concerning picture overall, but it also noted the growth and potential of solar and wind power as those renewable generation sources become cheaper to produce.
- The International Energy Agency (IEA) puts out annual reports assessing the state of the global power sector. The IEA’s World Outlook 2020 report was notable for showing that solar is now “consistently cheaper” than new coal or gas plants, and that “solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen.”
- At a slightly more in-the-weeds level, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a series of monthly reports on a range of climate-related subjects.
Where Do Policies Come In?
Reports, plans, resolutions, treaties, agreements—ideally they all drive toward hard policies, legislation, and regulations that set and enforce measures aimed at controlling climate change.
These policies and regulations may be passed by local, regional, or national governments, and can cover everything from waste disposal to vehicle emissions. Here are a couple specific examples of such instruments.
- Clean Power Plan: President Obama unveiled the Clean Power Plan in 2015, also the year of the Paris Agreement. This was actually a set of regulations that sought to achieve a 32 percent reduction in emissions from the power sector by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. That would have helped the U.S. toward its goal of reducing overall emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025, which it committed to doing as part of the Paris Agreement. The 45th President sought to roll back this policy in 2017, the same year he called for the U.S. to exit the Paris Agreement. In October 2020, a three-judge panel of the U.S Court of Appeals began hearing arguments challenging that effort to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan. The legal war over the plan will likely not end any time soon.
- From Paris to California: In September 2018, Jerry Brown, California’s governor at the time, signed a bill mandating that the state procure 60 percent of all electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent from zero-emission sources by 2045. “This bill and the executive order put California on a path to meet the goals of Paris and beyond,” Brown said in a statement released at the time. “It will not be easy. It will not be immediate. But it must be done.”
- From Paris to the World: Since 2019, hundreds of cities, counties, countries, and even the entire European Union have made formal “climate emergency” declarations, which sometimes include specific plans of action.
Wherever you live and work, the above quote from California’s former Governor Brown summarizes everything we’ve learned here about climate policy. Let’s recap.
Local, regional, and even national regulations typically fit into the scope of even larger-scale plans, goals, and agreements. Enacting actual laws and policies is difficult. It takes time. It doesn’t always work as first intended and may get bogged down by bureaucracy or swept up in politics. To guide us, we have the impotent Kyoto Protocol, which, despite its shortcomings, went on to lay the foundation for the Paris Agreement, and we have the inspiration of the Montreal Protocol in reversing ozone depletion.
And if at times it feels too hard, too overwhelming, too slow, or just too confusing to follow, remember Jerry Brown and let his words from 2018 serve as a rallying cry: “It must be done.”