What’s Next in the Fight Against Climate Change?

After the global summit hosted by the U.S., Fletcher experts outline what remains to be done in the six months leading up to the next negotiations
After President Joe Biden’s global summit on climate change, experts from The Fletcher School outline what remains to be done in the coming six months, before another international gathering devoted to the topic.
World leaders at a climate summit hosted by President Joe Biden made important commitments, but they must do more to reduce fossil fuel emissions and verify that targets are being met, Fletcher School experts say. Photo: AP Images
April 29, 2021


President Joe Biden’s summit of world leaders last week was a significant step in re-invigorating global cooperation on climate change, experts from The Fletcher School said. But the bold goals of the event still must be translated into a detailed roadmap to reduce climate-damaging emissions and fund green development around the world.

“It was very important that the administration provided an ambitious target,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, F00, F03, Fletcher academic dean and professor of energy and environmental policy, referring to the new U.S. goal of cutting fossil fuel emissions as much as 52% by 2030. “But now the question is, can they deliver?”

Gallagher was speaking as part of a virtual event, “Washington to Glasgow: Global Climate Diplomacy Over the Next Six Months,” held April 28 and moderated by Amy Myers Jaffe, the managing director of Fletcher’s Climate Policy Lab.

International delegates will be meeting in Glasgow in November for talks that are expected to be the most significant climate negotiations since the 2015 Paris conference, at which 196 parties signed a historic agreement to limit global warming.

“How do we know, if you’re saying you’re on the road to net zero, that you really are?” asks Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte, a climate advisor to the U.N. secretary-general. Photo: Alonso NicholsClimate change caused by coal plants, car engines, and other fossil fuel use is worsening extreme weather such as floods and wildfires, scientists say, and people are running out of time to stave off the most damaging effects.

Here are four takeaways from the discussion.

Nations need to cut emissions even more. China’s announcement that it will decrease its reliance on coal starting in 2030, accept an international agreement phasing out substances that are responsible for ozone depletion, and eliminate so-called “clean coal” from its list of projects eligible for financing through its green bonds (bringing it closer to global standards) was important, said Gallagher. An expert on China’s climate change policies, she directs Fletcher’s Climate Policy Lab and is co-director of the school’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Gallagher said. But China—which is the world’s biggest emissions producer, followed by the United States—is saying it will keep increasing its use of coal until 2030, which means nine more years of growing emissions. “They probably could increase the ambition [to cut emissions faster] there a little bit more,” she said.

Diplomatic talks at several international conferences before the gathering in Glasgow—including meetings of the G7 and the G20—could help countries forge stronger agreements with bolder targets, said Fletcher Dean Rachel Kyte, F02, a climate advisor to the U.N. secretary-general whose career has focused on climate change and sustainable global energy solutions.

“Every country has to come with its nationally determined contribution [under the Paris Agreement], which has to have much more ambition in it,” she added. “There’s a ratcheting up.”

The world must guard against greenwashing. Lofty pledges that can’t be measured and claims that can’t be verified must be weeded out, Kyte and Gallagher said. To do this, nations should more clearly define standard terms—such as what constitutes a green investment—and monitor progress on goals such as reducing deforestation, using satellite technology when appropriate. Without clear enforcement, they said, net zero pledges are just empty slogans, as Kyte argued in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

Developing countries fear that “there isn’t going to be enough support for them,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, F00, F03, Fletcher School academic dean and an expert on China's climate policies. Photo: Ian MacLellanThe enthusiasm for carbon offsets recently shown by the oil and gas industry and some large banks generated skepticism about their claims, Kyte said. “In fact, I think we may have committed the forest resources of Malawi five times over in the last two to three weeks,” she quipped.

“There is going to be a big push in the observers to watch for this in the next six months,” she said. “How do we know, if you’re saying you’re on the road to net zero, that you really are? Who will be the judge of that?”

Finance is key to success. Money must be committed to help nations reduce their fossil fuel emissions and adapt to a changing planet, Kyte and Gallagher said. The Biden administration is focusing on investing trillions of dollars in low-carbon infrastructure and Europe’s Green Deal makes similar investments, Gallagher said.

But developing nations also need funding to build clean, green infrastructure, and the question of where that funding will come from and how quickly will be a central focus of negotiations over the next six months.

“A big concern that developing countries have is that there isn’t going to be enough support for them, [particularly] countries from the Alliance for Small Island States, who really feel like their whole countries depend on us getting this right,” Gallagher said. “They may not be able to sustain a viable country altogether if sea level rise happens too fast for them to be able to take the measures that they need to take to protect their shorelines.”

The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic must be addressed. A global vaccination campaign is vital to combat the inequities of the pandemic and will help set the stage for productive climate negotiations in the coming months, Kyte said.

Around the world, poor and marginalized populations suffer disproportionately from climate change’s worst effects, just as they have borne the brunt of the pandemic—even though they are not the major contributors to the problem of fossil fuel emissions.

If vaccines are not distributed more equitably, rich countries may recover more quickly from the global economic slowdown due to COVID-19, Kyte said. But wealthier nations have a “moral, political, and economic role” in ensuring a more equitable and sustainable recovery, she said: “We’re one planet and we need to come back greener.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.