Nations are preparing to negotiate the next climate protocol as part of the COP26 (U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties) meeting, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its sixth assessment report threw down the gauntlet: they need to formulate effective policies to deeply reduce carbon and methane emissions or to prepare for irreversible catastrophic consequences.
The IPCC unequivocally asserts that human influence is the cause of increased atmospheric, ocean, and land temperatures that have set off “widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere.” Existing levels of greenhouse gases will inevitably result in continued temperature increases until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios, and without deep reductions in carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions reduction, will exceed 1.5°C and 2°C in the 21st century.
The consequences would be catastrophic—frequent and intense extreme heatwaves, rain, droughts, cyclones, along with sustained loss of Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost. Carbon sinks—oceans and forests—will become less effective. These changes will be irreversible over the millennia.
Critically, the data on which the report is based essentially is evidence that human activities more likely than not have caused global warming, and will more likely than not cause irreversible and catastrophic climate change unless deep cuts are achieved. So, can lawmakers rise to the challenge at the fall conference in Glasgow and beyond?
COP26 Conference: A Turning Point
It would be an understatement to say that climate change negotiations have been plagued by discord and problems of legitimacy that have resulted in continued dilution of international commitments by nations with highest emissions—past, current and projected. From the high point of setting out time-targeted reduction obligations based on historic emissions data, nations have now committed to reduce emissions per their own national determination.
Nations at COP26 at Glasgow must change course if they are to genuinely represent the best interests of their citizens against irreversible and catastrophic climate change. Promises of funding alone are inadequate, unless core obstacles to achieving emissions reduction goals are identified and corrected.
At the outset, states should base treaty obligations on the principle of state responsibility, including acknowledging that states have an international obligation to act to prevent destabilizing the climate and to protect and to preserve human rights of all people, notably those who are most vulnerable to climate change.
Much of the focus of climate negotiations has been on the relative emissions of nations. While that conversation is important, a shift to human rights is critical to ensure that the nuances of the problem, including the fact that poor people in all countries will bear the highest brunt of the problem, should be the guiding principle of international obligation.
The Paris Agreement states that nations should consider their human rights obligations. A new treaty should base obligations on the principle of state responsibility to human rights.
Nationalistic Policies Can’t Solve the Global Problem
Nations should also focus on enhancing the cooperative nature of the agreement and address competitive issues that prevent adequate progress. For instance, one of the main challenges to deploying renewable energy has been competition. Either the U.S. has refused to curb coal use in the past for fear of losing its competitive edge to coal importers such as India, or countries have promoted renewable energy such as solar contrary to trade agreements to gain competitive edge.
Nations such as Norway and Australia have permitted coal exportation to preserve their economy despite the impact on global emissions and temperature.
Such nationalistic policies cannot solve a global problem. Nations should suspend competitive policies regarding emissions reduction. Drawing on the driving principle of free trade—comparative advantage—nations need to pursue best options for transitioning to clean energy.
Countries and regions with capacity to produce solar should maximize policies to promote the goal. For instance, in states like California, the government should be entering into agreements with private entities to lease rooftops for solar energy installation. Regions with fossil fuel reserves such as the Middle East and Canada should be funding rapid research on carbon capture and sequestration technology.
The philosophy of economic globalization and free trade agreements is not just to remove barriers to trade. It is essentially based on a principle of unity and cooperation, which has become skewed as nations adopt limited laws and policies that have increased, rather than decreased, income gaps globally.
To eliminate such distortions to trade—like tax havens and pollution havens—governments should pursue a global environmental tax like the global minimum tax currently under negotiation. Generally, massive emissions are attributable to certain actors, and these actors should be held responsible for polluting the global commons, be they private companies or state-owned enterprises. The proceeds of the tax should be used to promote innovation in emissions reduction technology and other goals such as adaptation.
Finally, lofty ideals aside, nations and people are already suffering devastating consequences of climate change and will likely continue to do so. The question is who is going to compensate these individuals. Reparation is a hugely difficult question, as has been evidenced by world history in which countries devastated by private investors and nations have been left with debt and a cycle of poverty due to cultural disconnection from the financial models imposed on these nations.
Climate change with its far and deep impacts on millions of people world over is by far the greatest challenge, for money alone cannot replace lost land, traditions, relations and culture.
The IPCC report is evidence that if nations fail to act to address irreversible and catastrophic climate change, and to provide mechanisms to compensate those affected, either through fair and proactive immigration policies or sufficient adaptation mechanisms, they will simply prove that international law has not been a gentle civilizer of nations.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Deepa Badrinarayana is a professor of law at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She teaches and writes in the areas of torts, international environmental law, and climate change. She has worked with the U.N. Global Compact, Columbia University School of Law, and the World Bank-Government of India Environmental Law Capacity-Building Project in India.