This story is part of a Vox series examining how the climate crisis is impacting communities around the world, as the 28th annual United Nations conference on climate change (COP28) unfolds.
Often, the highest-stake decisions impacting the planet come down to the simplest phrases. The importance of words plays out every year as world leaders and diplomats gather at the United Nations climate change conference, also known as the Conference of the Parties (COP), where they adopt a new climate agreement. Consider one especially foundational one: whether countries agree that they voluntarily “should” slash climate pollution or phase out fossil fuel subsidies or contribute to international funds, or whether they “must.”
Climate action includes vast, sometimes elusive concepts, which is what makes precise language so important.
To really boil it down, there are two broad courses of action we need to take at once: reducing emissions to limit global warming and reducing the harm from the warming we’ve already caused. The longer we wait to slash emissions from the fossil fuel industry, which has disproportionately caused the crisis, the more we’ll pay to adapt to the harms of climate change.
To help clarify the most important debates that underscore our current moment, there are five concepts to keep in mind. Together they help make sense of what needs to be done about supercharged heat waves, hurricanes, and other troubling thresholds on the horizon. Ongoing efforts in the climate movement hinge on these concepts, but they will also take center stage in Dubai at COP28, the 28th United Nations climate conference, which begins this week.
1. Net zero
As long as we continue to put more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than we remove, the planet will continue to overheat. The sooner we reach a balance of these, the less drastic warming the world will have to contend with.
Because of one little word — “net” — the phrase “net zero” inherently allows wiggle room for activities that are hardest to clean up, like producing steel and meat, which emit harmful greenhouse gasses. Since phasing those out completely isn’t currently feasible, countries must find another way to reach an equilibrium. For that we need more ways to absorb carbon. Nature already soaks up about one-third of carbon pollution, so one way to curb the impacts of climate change is to plant more trees, restore wetlands, and grow algae. But there are also mechanical methods of taking carbon dioxide out of the air, using machines (more on that later).
During the 21st international climate conference in Paris in 2015, businesses and governments embraced net zero pledges after nearly 200 countries signed an agreement — now known as the Paris Agreement — to balance emissions in the “second half of this century,” thereby creating the first broad framework for tackling ever-rising emissions. The year 2050 signifies the earliest possible date that politicians think we can manage to balance emissions and avoid the worst-case scenarios for global warming.
Since the Paris Agreement, more than 120 countries, 800 cities, and one in five Fortune Global 2000 companies have adopted their own net zero targets in the same timeframe. But how that translates into policy or planning really varies. An article penned by more than a dozen climate scientists in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2021 pointed out that most of these plans lack details, are overly optimistic, and face inadequate accountability: “Long-term ambition is often not backed up by sufficient near-term action.”
You can think of net zero as a balancing equation, with endless ways to get there. Many countries and companies are putting a lot of faith in the carbon removal side of the equation, which affords them with a budget — albeit an increasingly scrutinized one — to pollute.
“We need the whole planet to get to zero and ultimately to get to negative, where you’re using forests, wetlands, and other natural systems absorbing carbon that we put up in the atmosphere, not as an offset or a way of allowing continued emissions from industry or power plants,” said Alden Meyer, a veteran of international climate conferences, who works at the climate think tank E3G.
Another wrinkle is that too many of these pledges are moving too slowly to hit net zero by 2050. If the richest countries and companies in the world are waiting until the last possible year to reach net zero, that leaves poorer nations and more difficult-to-decarbonize industries in a bind.
Every part of the economy, and every part of the world, has to move as fast as possible to slash emissions to nearly zero, and then rely on other methods for removing the remainder of the emissions from the atmosphere. The risk otherwise is running a “shell game,” said Meyer, when the reality is “everyone has to get out of carbon, full stop.”
2. An “unabated” fossil fuels phasedown
This one is complex and there’s quite a lot to tease out here, so bear with us. Once you wrap your head around this concept, the rest will feel easy.
First, some background: Fossil fuels consumption — the oil, gas, coal, and petrochemicals we use to power our buildings, run our cars, and create plastics — is responsible for over 75 percent of global warming. Addressing climate change means we must transition away from running the economy on fossil fuels. And with every passing year, there’s been more pressure coming from vulnerable nations, activists, and climate scientists to name the problem directly — fossil fuel combustion — and call for an explicit end to more extraction.
Fossil fuel industries, and the economies and politicians dependent on them, sidestep this basic reality. And more often than not, powerful nations with vested interests in fossil fuels (the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China, all among them) push back on the mere mention of fossil fuels in international agreements.
Two years ago, this began to change. Negotiators battled over inserting an acknowledgment about the need to phase out coal use when the world gathered for COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. Talks almost broke down over differences in wording, or whether it would be included at all. Ultimately, the final text included the “phasedown of unabated coal power.”
There are two things to tease apart here. “Phasedown” is careful phrasing — it implies we will reduce coal use, but not necessarily abandon it altogether. The other qualifier “unabated” literally means allowing something to continue “without any reduction in intensity or strength.” That sends a strong signal that “by 2050 we’ll still have fossil fuels in the pipeline — the question is how much,” European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana, who helped negotiate the Paris agreement, said this fall.
Clearly, there’s some room for interpretation here.
To count as abated, a fossil fuel-reliant plant would need to use technology that captures carbon emissions before they escape into the atmosphere. This is called carbon capture and storage (CCS).
There’s no universal agreement among policymakers and scientists on how efficient CCS would need to be at the grand scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest climate scientific body, just addressed this in a footnote of a report, saying abatement could involve capturing more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide at power plants.
The acceptance of “abated emissions” ends up being a better deal for the oil and gas industry than for the planet. Major oil companies, which will have a heavy presence at this year’s UN climate conference, like to tout that the technology is feasible and already in wide use today. (Spoiler: It’s not.)
“The fear is if the language is phrased around phasing out unabated fossil fuels, that gives an open license to just put [carbon capture and storage] on as many facilities as you can and then just perpetuate the harm that fossil fuels cause — not just combustion, but environmental and social impacts,” said Katie Lebling, a research associate at the World Resources Institute.
3. Carbon removal
Let’s return to the idea of balancing our climate equation. To counteract the carbon emissions from our polluting lifestyles and societies, we have a few options to remove them through direct air capture.
It’s easy to confuse CCS with direct air capture, but think of it in terms of when the intervention happens. Carbon capture and storage helps industries avoid pumping as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they would otherwise, while direct air capture removes the greenhouse gas from the air. It’s a subtle but pretty important difference, because CCS could be used to prolong the life of fossil fuel plants that might otherwise transition to cleaner technology, while direct air capture could reduce pollution that is absolutely unavoidable in the first place.
Direct air capture can sound like a get-out-of-jail-free card for climate change, and that’s why climate experts warn not to be overly optimistic about a technology that still has a lot of hurdles ahead of it. For starters, billions of machines would have to be up and running over the course of decades, to really make a dent in the climate. And, once captured, we will have to put the carbon somewhere. Current methods of injecting it into bedrock require a lot of permitting and infrastructure before direct air capture becomes a reality.
All this is really expensive to scale up, which is why governments play a key role in guiding investments in carbon removal. Activists worry if companies and countries put too much stock in expensive, finicky carbon removal, they will be less concerned with moving off of fossil fuels in the first place.
4. Climate finance
Climate finance covers the bill for efforts to mitigate or adapt to climate change and to address the pain already occurring as a result of the crisis. There are multitudes here — “like layers of the onion,” says Meyer. He puts the cost of that onion at trillions of dollars, which includes paying for the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and changing land use and agricultural practices, as well as investing in resilient infrastructure and health care or providing more support for vulnerable countries in the Global South that experience the brunt of climate change’s worst impacts.
This type of spending is increasing, but governments and the private sector are failing to keep up with what’s needed to align with how fast the climate is changing. “For every $1 banks are spending on fossil fuels, they are spending $1.7 on renewable and emerging technologies,” Ceres’s managing director for sustainable capital markets Steven Rothstein said. It’s a big deal for renewable investment to finally outpace fossil fuels, but at this point, banks should not be funding any new fossil fuel infrastructure. The world already has too much coal, oil, and gas in reserve that would burn the planet well past the 2 degrees Celsius increase in global average temperatures.
Once you start to peel back all the different layers of climate finance, you can understand how different global, bilateral, and private financing are all supposed to add up to the impossibly large number that’s needed. Here are a few ways that this is happening:
Green Climate Fund: One key layer is the international goal of reaching $100 billion annually through public and private investments.
The world is falling far short of hitting that $100 billion goal, but we are (barely) hitting some smaller targets. One of those is the Green Climate Fund, a multilateral fund meant to help developing nations make the renewable transition. The fund has started to make distributions, like a $39 million project to restore Rwanda’s rainforests.
Carbon markets: The idea of a carbon market is that you’re trading carbon offsets, a credit that any person or business or entity can buy to reduce its carbon footprint. For example, a livestock farmer who wants to cut methane emissions could make up for it by paying to restore a wetland. The same can be done on a much larger national scale, with countries trading emissions.
Problems abound in today’s voluntary carbon markets, like double-counting and failing to reduce absolute emissions. Some see carbon markets as a capitalist sham, others as an elegant solution to the biggest roadblocks to decarbonization.
Loss and damage (a.k.a. climate reparations): Climate change isn’t just about slashing pollution, and making a jump to clean energy and zero-emission technology. The world is already well on its way to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, and we need to be adapting to the irreversible impacts.
Climate change is causing harms across the world that fall unequally on poorer communities least responsible for creating this mess. The official phrase for this is “loss and damage,” sometimes also called reparations. Global leaders have reaffirmed the principle that rich countries should help poorer nations repeatedly in UN texts since then, but many key questions remain at a stalemate: Who should be paying into funds to help vulnerable nations? What counts as a particularly vulnerable country? And are affluent countries obligated to pay or should they do it of their own volition?
Last year at the UN climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, countries officially adopted a loss and damage fund — a key win for climate adaptation. But there are a few hurdles. Countries, including the United States, have been firmly against any language that requires countries to pay into the fund, preferring voluntary contributions instead.
5. Scope 3 emissions
Beyond the actions that national governments take, the private sector also has a key role to play here. There are three basic ways to think about a business’s impact on the climate, organized into three scopes that break down direct and indirect pollution.
Scope 1: The first slice of its emissions, Scope 1, means the pollution produced directly from a company’s operations. So if you were, say, accounting for a car manufacturer, you would count any fossil fuels burned directly by the company for things like gas heating, delivery, or machinery.
Scope 2: Scope 2 is the category that measures indirect emissions from company operations that occur directly at a closely related facility or partner business. Consider a business’s electricity cost; those emissions would occur at the utility where the power is generated, not at the business that benefits from it. The key distinction here is that these emissions are indirectly caused by the company, but occur directly somewhere else.
Scope 3: This one is the slipperiest.
Scope 3 is the final, often biggest layer — and includes all of the indirect emissions coming from everything else, like using the products, third-party delivery, and their waste. Scope 3 refers to a company’s emissions coming from everything else not accounted for elsewhere, like how customers use their products, third-party delivery, and the waste.
Companies have made bigger strides in reporting Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. They’ve also set out goals for reducing those emissions. Over 80 percent of S&P 500 companies already have some kind of climate disclosure but they rarely account for their biggest footprint, the final category of Scope 3 emissions.
Attempts to regulate Scope 3 emissions have faced a lot of backlash. After all, a company’s Scope 3 emissions can be more than 11 times greater than its direct emissions. The US Treasury has faced heavy pressure to withdraw proposed draft rules that would require companies to disclose their Scope 3 emissions to investors (the rules, now delayed, have still not been finalized). European regulators have implemented new Scope 3 reporting rules for large companies, with smaller companies to follow. And California has new legislation that would mandate this kind of reporting for major companies based there.
Why does all this matter? First of all, we don’t even have great accounting for what companies’ impact on the climate is, and if companies plan to highlight their sustainability and climate commitments, we need a better understanding of their total impact first.
The issue eventually can play an important role in the growing number of climate lawsuits around the world, providing more data that’s needed about the impact of climate change on business practices and vice versa.
Data alone doesn’t fix the climate crisis, Rothstein said. “But the data, the disclosure, is a foundation,” he said. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
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