The world is on fire and we continue to fan the flames. 

Islands are sinking below rising tides. Climate change-caused droughts are driving increasing levels of hunger and famine. Floods sweep away entire communities, animal species are disappearing forever. We are witnessing the deadly effects of climate change — and world leaders are wasting time. 

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow ended in overtime with a deflated scream. The deals and commitments made, while surprising at times, landed nowhere near what is needed to stop the planet’s suffering and save millions of lives. 

Goals of this year’s climate talks have been simple and clear: In order to stop global warming, we must reduce emissions, keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius target alive, preserve the environment, and deliver desperately needed climate funding for vulnerable nations. The ultimate message couldn’t be more direct; the changes need to come now.

While it’s certainly a stunning turn of events that India — a country that has historically shirked net zero commitments — pledged to reach a zero emissions target by 2070, these types of long-term goals and plans not only fall short of what is needed, but may do more harm than good. 

That’s not to say long-term commitments are all bad. Take renewable energy, for example. Investments in clean, renewable energy can make them more affordable, more widely used, and help transition power structures away from fossil fuels quicker. But there is a downside to only thinking of mitigation in terms of the future. 

China and the US account for nearly 44% of global carbon emissions. At COP26, the two countries pledged to reduce their coal usage and move toward renewable energy. Yet two weeks prior to the announcement, China opened new coal productions at an alarming rate to address immediate electricity shortages. The move is expected to increase global carbon emissions by a full percentage point, according to researcher Jan Ivar Korsbakken from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

Global warming is caused by a cumulative effect. The temperature rises based on the total amount of emissions that collect in the atmosphere, not the yearly sum. Greenhouse gases trapped in our atmosphere are heating the planet at an increasing rate because we keep adding to the buildup. Once released, carbon emissions can last in our atmosphere for 300 to 1,000 years. 

Even with the increased climate commitments made at COP26, the world is still on track to warm past 1.5 degrees Celsius. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts our temperature will rise 1.8 degrees Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) forecasts 2.2 degrees Celsius, and Climate Action Tracker says 2.4 degrees Celsius; but these projections are only under the optimistic condition that countries will fulfill promises made at COP26 promptly and to the fullest extent. 

Small island nations were instrumental in the fight for the inclusion of the 1.5 degrees warming limit in the Paris agreement. For those climate champions from frontline communities in Barbados, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, and more, getting nations to collectively commit to 1.5 degrees Celsius is an act of survival. Beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, small island nations could disappear forever. 

Rising sea levels and worsening weather patterns are already forcing people on the front lines of climate change from their homes. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reported that in 2020, 40.5 million people were displaced due to weather, disasters, and conflict, the highest amount seen in a decade. Extreme weather, such as hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, and wildfires, accounted for the displacement of 30 million people — nearly 75% of the year’s total.

Global warming is not just a problem for the future; its effects are happening right now. People in developing nations and vulnerable areas are already losing everything to climate change and it’s been entirely preventable. 

In 2009, developed countries, which are most responsible for climate change, pledged an annual amount of $100 billion by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to climate change and build resilient infrastructure. Each year since then, countries such as the US, Australia, and Canada have repeatedly broken that promise, falling short of meeting the contributions necessary to satisfy that goal. The US is the richest country in the world, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, and is also responsible for 25% of the world’s total warming emissions. The World Resources Institute estimates that the US should be contributing about 45% of the yearly sum, it averages about $7.6 billion per year. 

Even with countries increasing their pledges at COP26, the $100 billion goal won't be met until at least 2023. 

Global warming is a problem of compounding magnitude on multiple fronts. The longer we take to address the causes and effects of climate change, the worse they get. If countries continue to procrastinate on reducing their emissions, and if they keep setting goals for decades ahead, net zero in the future won’t matter. Reducing emissions must be done immediately and on a drastic scale. 

The same principle can be applied to the effects of climate change. If countries had delivered on their promises and invested in adaptation for developing countries over the years, we wouldn’t now have to focus as much attention toward funding “loss and damage.” The negotiations over “loss and damage” took the spotlight at COP26; the fund is separate from adaptation pledges and accounts for the historic responsibility of richer nations driving global warming and subsequent losses of land, ecosystems, and culture. Climate-related disasters rack up bills in the billions each year. Without immediate emissions reductions and funding for resilient infrastructure, those annual amounts will continue to stack up. 

“We are fast approaching tipping points that will trigger escalating feedback loops of global heating,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the opening ceremony of the COP26 world leaders summit. “But investing in the net zero climate resilient economy will create feedback loops of its own. Virtuous circles of sustainable growth, jobs, and opportunities.” 

Because we have not acted on prevention before, we are now stuck duct-taping gaping wounds in the hull of a sinking ship. We have to ditch the duct tape and weld the breaches, but it won’t matter that we do that if we’ve already taken on too much water. 

When scientists and activists say we need to take action now, it’s not just because they’re tired of waiting around. For some time now, big emitters have gotten away with promises that look toward the future. So we’ve marched along, continuing to warm the world until we’re on the brink of the point of no return. Leaders and corporations make their 2050, 2035, 2030 pledges without looking at what’s happening right now.

Net zero is an ambitious and tough goal to hit, but we must get there now — because if we don’t, it really will be too late.


Defend the Planet

Reaching Net Zero in the Future Won’t Help if World Leaders Don’t Take Climate Action Now

By Kate Nakamura