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Last year's annual global climate conference in Glasgow ended with a Hail Mary promise to cut methane emissions fast enough to avoid up to a half-degree Celsius of planetary warming in the next few decades. That could be just enough to avoid some of the most dangerous climate tipping points. But with COP27, this year's round of talks, just weeks away, a new report shows how hard it will be to deliver on the nonbinding Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions of the gas 30 percent by 2030.
The World Meteorological Organization's Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released Oct. 26, shows that concentrations of the potent but short-lived climate pollutant jumped faster in 2021 than in any year since measurements started in the mid-1980s. The other main greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, reached record concentrations in the atmosphere, surging toward levels that will warm the Earth well past the 1.5 degree temperature limit set by the Paris Agreement in 2015.
So far, the average global temperature has warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius (4°F) compared to the pre-industrial baseline. But warming over land areas is about double that, leading to recent, unprecedented months-long hemispheric heat waves. The warming is even greater over mountain areas and in the Arctic, where it melts ice that raises sea levels. The seven years since the Paris Agreement were the planet's warmest years on record.
For delegates starting to gather for COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 6 through 18, the new bulletin is one of many warning signs that "we are still heading in the wrong direction," said WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas. The needed fundamental transformations of industrial, energy and transportation systems are technically feasible and economically affordable, but, he said, "time is running out."
With every tenth of a degree and every year increasingly critical in the race to try and break the planet's fever, the quick slowdown of methane emissions the pledge would bring made for a good news headline. The gas causes upwards of 80 times more warming than carbon dioxide for about 20 years, so the methane cuts were billed as a way to buy some time for reducing carbon dioxide, which causes nearly all the long-term heating.
But methane's climate impacts are reversible over the course of a few decades, while carbon dioxide's are not, so the COP delegates need to stay focused on cutting CO2 emissions, Taalas said, because they "are the main driver of climate change and associated extreme weather. They will affect the climate for thousands of years through polar ice loss, ocean warming and sea level rise."
A volley of warnings but little reaction
The WMO bulletin was just one of several scientific warning shots fired in the lead-up to COP27, with a series of related international reports all telling similar stories.
An updated UNFCCC analysis, released Oct. 26, of all 193 climate pledges made as part of the Paris Agreement shows the world is on a path to warm about 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5°F) by 2100. That level of warming could lead to climate "end-game scenarios" that scientists recently examined, including risks of the global web of life unraveling and civilizations collapsing.
Since COP26 last year, only a "disappointing" 24 countries have updated their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is "nowhere near the scale and pace of emission reductions required to put us on track toward a 1.5 degrees Celsius world," said Simon Stiell, executive secretary of U.N. Climate Change Secretariat.
The United Nations Environment Programme's Emissions Gap Report released Oct. 28 also shows how the main goal of the Paris agreement is still a distant dream. Without further strengthening, current policies will warm the planet by as much 2.8 degrees Celsius (5°F) by 2100. But new pledges made since COP26 a year ago shave only about a half gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions (less than 1 percent) off the total global emissions projected for 2030.
The report also estimates the cost of a global transformation to a low-carbon economy at $4 trillion to $6 trillion a year, about 1.5 percent of total global annual budgets.
The information should help sharpen the negotiators' focus on the COP27 goal of implementing the Paris Agreement, said conference President-designate and Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry. Reaching the Paris goal would require cutting global greenhouse gas emissions 43 percent by 2030, but the new report shows that, instead, emissions are on a path to increase 10.3 percent by then.
Somehow, the talks in Egypt need to close that gap, Shoukry said.
"Several of those who are expected to do more, are far from doing enough, and the consequences of this is affecting lives and livelihoods across the globe," he said, diplomatically pointing out developed countries that have most polluted the climate need to do the most to clean up the mess. He called for a "transformative response at COP27."
Few aware of critical negotiations
It's difficult to track all the climate reports that come out in the weeks before the annual U.N. climate talks, and to decipher the jumbles of technocratic jargon used by the thousands of people involved in the negotiations each year who say "climate mitigation" when they talk about greenhouse gas reduction plans; "adaptation" when they discuss finding ways to endure the impacts of warming; and "loss and damage" to describe global warming's increasing cost in human lives and homes and crops destroyed.
But much of the public not only doesn't understand the deluge of climate jargon, but isn't even aware of the conference that's prompted the floodgates to open. Since the Paris Agreement was signed, war, pandemic, famine, mass migration, economic upheaval and social and ideological polarization have emerged on a scale that has overshadowed climate concerns.
"I'd bet a large box of donuts that the great majority of Americans do not know what the COPs are, let alone COP27," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which regularly surveys public opinions about climate. "When we've asked questions about support for the Paris agreement or related topics, we always provide a short description so respondents know what we're talking about."
This year's conference is the first to be held in Africa and to focus on the concerns of the most equatorial of continents, where the rising heat is harming millions of people in already hot regions. The talks are in a remote Egyptian resort town near the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, part of a larger region fraught with political, social and cultural tensions.
In the Red Sea surrounding the resort, the 30,000 conference attendees can see for themselves how warming is killing even some of the planet's most heat-tolerant coral reefs. And they'll be able to watch oil tankers sailing out of the Gulf of Aqaba, carrying the fuel that churns out the emissions driving the warming, part of an industry that's still supported by billions of dollars of government subsidies and guarded by equally expensive military fleets.
Voices for action fear being silenced
Climate and civil rights activists worry that Egypt's authoritarian government will limit their participation in the conference, limiting the civic engagement that has been critical in pressuring governments to live up to their Paris promises. In a statement in early October, a panel of five United Nations human rights experts said, "Arrests and detention, NGO asset freezes, dissolutions and travel restrictions have created a climate of fear for Egyptian civil society to engage visibly at COP27."
Most recently, sponsorship of the talks by Coca Cola — the world's largest plastic polluter and a company denounced for a long list of environmental and human rights violations — and the involvement of a public relations firm known for greenwashing have intensified criticisms that the U.N. climate process is compromised by excess influence from the very industries that are most central to the problem. Last year, BBC reported that the fossil fuel industry had the largest delegation at COP26 in Glasgow, with more than 100 companies attending.
A consortium of watchdog groups analyzed the industry's presence and found that fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the UNFCCC's official Indigenous constituency by around two to one and was larger than the combined total of the delegations from Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, the Philippines, Mozambique, the Bahamas, Bangladesh and Pakistan, all of which have been lashed by climate extremes linked with global warming in the last 20 years.
But the most insidious obstacle to meaningful climate action may be the ongoing efforts by fossil fuel interests to subvert the science and discredit processes that are fundamental to effective climate policies, said University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann. Those efforts seem to ramp up just before major climate summits, or any significant climate moments, he said.
"Right now, we've got both a critical mid-term election that will determine the course of American democracy and climate action, and the upcoming COP27," he said. "A perfect storm, and predictably, the climate change disinformation campaign is ramping up steadily as we approach these events."
The fossil fuel industry is allied with state actors like Russia and Saudi Arabia, which "played critical roles in the climate disinformation campaign, particularly in the way they've weaponized social media," he added. "The agenda is the same, of course: continued fossil fuel profits."
Now that the impacts of climate change can no longer be denied, he added, the arguments shift toward deflection, distraction and division, with the goal of delaying meaningful action.
But despite the flood of legitimate science and clouds of propaganda, it's important for the public to understand that the decisions made at COP27 and subsequent conference in the next few years will determine how hot the world becomes, how much more polar ice will melt to raise sea levels and how intense future droughts, floods and famines will be, said Robert Rohde, lead scientist for Berkeley Earth, which tracks and analyzes global climate data.
"I think it's probably asking a bit much of the man on the street to care about the international climate negotiations structures," Rohde said. "I think I want them to care about keeping emissions down and making progress."
"There's a lot of variation between COP meetings, in terms of how impactful and important they actually are," he said. "You have ones where huge global agreements are finalized, such as Paris or Kyoto. And then you have a lot of meetings where you don't have the big international headline event. I expect that COP27 is going to be more of the latter."
Even in Europe, where public awareness of climate issues is higher than in the U.S., most people probably won't follow the details of the COP27 talks, said Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research.
"These are, after all, quite technical negotiations," he said. "Some COP meetings, like the Paris COP21 in 2015, are globally pivotal, as it was the moment when we shifted from one climate regime, the Kyoto Protocol, to another regime. But not all COP meetings are such moments."
"I would have wished though, that media gave even more attention to the climate COPs," he said, "and reported even more on climate policy in between COP meetings."
Bob Berwyn is an Austria-based reporter who has covered climate science and international climate policy for more than a decade. Previously, he reported on the environment, endangered species and public lands for several Colorado newspapers, and also worked as editor and assistant editor at community newspapers in the Colorado Rockies.