Climate’s ‘Catch-22’: Cutting pollution heats up planet

Air pollution, a global scourge that kills millions of people a year, is shielding us from the full force of the sun. Getting rid of it will accelerate climate change.
That’s the unpalatable conclusion reached by scientists poring over the results of China’s decade-long and highly effective “war on pollution”, according to six leading climate experts.
The drive to banish pollution, caused mainly by sulphur dioxide (SO2) spewed from coal plants, has cut SO2 emissions by close to 90% and saved hundreds of thousands of lives, Chinese official data and health studies show.
Yet stripped of its toxic shield, which scatters and reflects solar radiation, China’s average temperatures have gone up by 0.7 degrees Celsius since 2014, triggering fiercer heatwaves, according to a Reuters review of meteorological data and the scientists interviewed.
“It’s this Catch-22,” said Patricia Quinn, an atmospheric chemist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), speaking about cleaning up sulphur pollution globally. “We want to clean up our air for air quality purposes but, by doing that, we’re increasing warming.”
The removal of the air pollution — a term scientists call “unmasking” — may have had a greater effect on temperatures in some industrial Chinese cities over the last decade than the warming from greenhouse gases themselves, the scientists said.
Other highly polluted parts of the world, such as India and the Middle East, would see similar jumps in warming if they follow China’s lead in cleaning the skies of sulphur dioxide and the polluting aerosols it forms, the experts warned.
They said efforts to improve air quality could actually push the world into catastrophic warming scenarios and irreversible impacts.
“Aerosols are masking one-third of the heating of the planet,” said Paulo Artaxo, an environmental physicist and lead author of the chapter on short-lived climate pollutants in the most recent round of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), completed this year.
“If you implement technologies to reduce air pollution, this will accelerate — very significantly — global warming in the short term.”
The Chinese and Indian environment ministries didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the effects of pollution unmasking.
The link between reducing sulphur dioxide and warming was flagged by the IPCC in a 2021 report which concluded that, without the solar shield of SO2 pollution, the global average temperature would already have risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
That misses the world’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5C, beyond which scientists predict irreversible and catastrophic changes to the climate, according to the IPCC, which pegs the current level at 1.1C.
The Reuters review of the Chinese data provides the most detailed picture yet of how this phenomenon is playing out in the real world, drawing on previously unreported numbers on changes in temperatures and SO2 emissions over the past decade and corroborated by environmental scientists.
Reuters interviewed 12 scientists in total on the phenomenon of unmasking globally, including four who have acted as authors or reviewers of sections on air pollution in IPCC reports.
They said there was no suggestion among climate experts that the world should let-up on fighting air pollution, a clear and present danger that the World Health Organisation says causes about 7mn premature deaths a year, mostly in poorer countries.
Instead they stressed the need for more aggressive action to cut emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases, with reducing methane seen as one of the most promising paths to offset pollution unmasking in the short term.
President Xi Jinping pledged to tackle pollution when he took power in 2012 following decades of coal-burning that had helped turn China into “the factory of the world”. The following year, as record smog in Beijing inspired “Airpocalypse” newspaper headlines, the government unveiled what scientists called China’s version of the US Clean Air Act.
On March 5, 2014, a week after Xi went on a walkabout during another extreme bout of smog in the capital, the government officially declared a war on pollution at the National People’s Congress.
Under the new rules, power plants and steel mills were forced to switch to lower-sulphur coal. Hundreds of inefficient factories were shuttered, and vehicle fuel standards toughened up. While coal continues to be China’s largest power source, smokestack scrubbers now strip out most SO2 emissions.
China’s SO2 emissions had decreased from a 2006 peak of at nearly 26mn metric tons to 20.4mn tons in 2013 thanks to more gradual emissions restrictions. But with the war on pollution, those emissions had plummeted by about 87% to 2.7mn metric tons by 2021.
The drop in pollution was accompanied by a leap in warming — the nine years since 2014 have seen national average annual temperatures in China of 10.34C, up more than 0.7C compared with the 2001-2010 period, according to Reuters calculations based on yearly weather reports published by the China Meteorological Administration.
Scientific estimates vary as to how much of that rise comes from unmasking versus greenhouse gas emissions or natural climate variations like El Nino.
The impacts are more acute at a local level near the pollution source. Almost immediately, China saw big warming jumps from its unmasking of pollution near heavy industrial regions, according to climate scientist Yangyang Xu at Texas A&M University, who models the impact of aerosols on the climate.
Xu told Reuters he estimated that unmasking had caused temperatures near the cities of Chongqing and Wuhan, long known as China’s “furnaces”, to rise by almost 1C since sulphur emissions peaked in the mid-2000s.
During heatwaves, the unmasking effect can be even more pronounced. Laura Wilcox, a climate scientist who studies the effects of aerosols at Britain’s University of Reading, said a computer simulation showed that the rapid decline in SO2 in China could raise temperatures on extreme-heat days by as much as 2C.
“Those are big differences, especially for somewhere like China, where heat is already pretty dangerous,” she said.
Indeed, heatwaves in China have been particularly ferocious this year. A town in the northwestern region of Xinjiang saw temperatures of 52.2C (126F) in July, shattering the national temperature record of 50.3C set in 2015.
Beijing also experienced a record heatwave, with temperatures topping 35C (95F) for more than four weeks.
The effects of sulphur unmasking are most pronounced in developing countries, as the US and most of Europe cleaned up their skies decades ago. While the heat rise from sulphur cleanup is strongest locally, the effects can be felt in far-distant regions. One 2021 study co-authored by Xu found that a decrease in European aerosol emissions since the 1980s may have shifted weather patterns in Northern China.
In India, sulphur pollution is still rising, roughly doubling in the last two decades, according to calculations by NOAA researchers based on figures from the US-funded Community Emissions Data System.
In 2020, when that pollution plummeted due to Covid lockdowns, ground temperatures in India were the eighth warmest on record, 0.29 C higher than the 1981-2010 average, despite the cooling effects of the La Nina climate pattern, according to the India Meteorological Department.
India aims for an air cleanup like China’s, and in 2019 launched its National Clean Air Programme to reduce pollution by 40% in more than 100 cities by 2026.
Once polluted regions in India or the Middle East improve their air quality by abandoning fossil fuels and transitioning to green energy sources, they too will lose their shield of sulphates, scientists said.
“You stop your anthropogenic activities for a brief moment of time and the atmosphere cleans up very, very quickly and the temperatures jump instantaneously,” added Sergey Osipov, a climate modeller at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.
As the implications of the pollution unmasking become more apparent, experts are casting around for methods to counter the associated warming.
One proposal called “solar radiation management” envisions deliberately injecting sulphur aerosols into the atmosphere to cool temperatures. But many scientists worry that the approach could unleash unintended consequences.
A more mainstream plan is to curb methane emissions. This is seen as the quickest way to tame global temperatures because the effects of the gas in the atmosphere last only a decade or so, so cutting emissions now would deliver results within a decade. Carbon dioxide, by comparison, persists for centuries.
As of 2019, methane had caused about 0.5C in warming compared with preindustrial levels, according to IPCC figures.
While more than 100 countries have pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade, few have gone further than drawing up “action plans” and “pathways” to cuts. China — the world’s biggest emitter — has yet to publish its plan.
By targeting methane, the world could mitigate the warming effect of the reduction in pollution and potentially avert catastrophic consequences, said Michael Diamond, an atmospheric scientist at Florida State University.
“This doesn’t doom us to going above 1.5 degrees Celsius if we clean up the air.”

What can COP28 achieve?

COP season is almost here. For the climate-conscious, the annual Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a fixture of the late-year calendar and an opportunity to take stock of our goals, needs, and achievements. We spend two weeks preoccupied with a distant event hoping that negotiators will make meaningful progress toward mitigating the climate threat. But to keep our expectations for COP28 realistic, we must understand what a COP can and cannot do.
We are steadily decarbonising our economies. Within a decade, wind and solar power will be the major sources of electricity, and sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are likely to overtake those with internal combustion engines. According to the International Energy Agency, the world’s fossil-fuel consumption will start falling by 2030. Though this is probably too late to limit the global temperature increase to 2C, let alone 1.5C, above pre-industrial levels, it is sooner than one would have expected only a short time ago.
But little of this progress is directly attributable to COPs, including COP21 in 2015, from which the Paris climate agreement emerged. In fact, the Paris agreement specifies nothing about EVs or wind or solar power. Instead, it is Tesla that is responsible for the growth of EV sales: the commercial success of the company’s Model S drove other high-end automakers to develop the competitive products which are now debuting.
Is there any connection between COPs and Tesla’s success? If there is, it is not direct. During its early growth stages, Tesla benefited greatly from the United States’ Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, which enabled it to sell zero-emissions credits to other manufacturers. The revenues from ZEC sales sometimes surpassed those of car sales.
The CAFE regulations date back to 1975, two decades before the first COP was held. They have, however, been tightened over time, a process that might partly reflect increased awareness, fostered by the COPs, of the climate challenge. Similarly, the COPs might have encouraged the subsidies, in both the US and the European Union, from which Tesla has benefited more recently, after it had already become a major force in the auto industry.
As for solar and wind, the sharp decline in costs has driven their dramatic growth. From 2009 to 2019, the cost of solar power fell from $0.36 per kilowatt-hour to $0.03. This decline is attributable to two main factors: economies of scale, which lowered the costs of producing each silicon wafer, and learning by doing, which led to more efficient – and thus cheaper – manufacturing processes. Both factors sustain a virtuous cycle: as the use of solar power increases, costs come down, further accelerating the adoption of solar power.
This process was kicked off by Germany’s adoption of generous feed-in tariffs for solar power in 2000. The Chinese government subsequently began investing heavily in solar, which it identified as a strategically important industry. Again, these important policy moves could have been encouraged by the increased awareness of climate change that they generate at COP meetings.
For offshore wind, the decline in costs has been driven largely by Orsted and Equinor, two Scandinavian companies that leveraged their offshore oil and gas expertise to develop offshore wind farms, which use many of the same technologies. Government subsidies helped the nascent technology to become commercially viable.
In short, progress on decarbonisation has primarily reflected technological breakthroughs brought about by for-profit ventures with the help and guidance of supportive government policies. Those policies might have been crystallised by the discussions at, and publicity surrounding, the COPs, though they were not the result of specific directives from those meetings or contained in the Paris agreement.
So, what should we hope emerges from COP28? COPs can produce two types of positive outcomes. The first are “big picture” outcomes, such as maintaining pressure on governments and corporations to reduce emissions. Here, it is important not only to reiterate the importance of reaching zero emissions and highlight how far we have yet to go, but also to recognise the progress that has already been made.
The second type of outcome is more granular. This year’s COP must mark the beginning of a process that will clarify what constitutes a valid carbon offset. Many corporations are currently expecting to reduce, but not eliminate, their emissions, on the assumption that they can buy carbon offsets to take them to net-zero. But the world obviously cannot get to zero emissions – the ultimate goal – if anyone is still emitting.
Equally important, it has lately become clear that many voluntary carbon offsets are worthless, as they do not meet the standard of additionality (the guarantee that the relevant emissions reductions would not have occurred without support from carbon credit sales) or avoid leakage (the shifting of emissions elsewhere). An international body must set clear standards for the validity of offsets and impose limits on their use, and the UNFCCC is the obvious candidate.
COP28 has the potential to encourage further climate action, including the introduction or strengthening of policies that can lead to emissions-reducing technological breakthroughs, as well as to deliver a much-needed rulebook on important technical issues, such as the use of offsets. Whether it succeeds depends entirely on execution. – Project Syndicate

  • Geoffrey Heal is Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School and a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Human-centric globalization: Taking G20 to the Last Mile, leaving none behind

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – these two words capture a deep philosophy. It means ‘the world is one family.’ This is an all-embracing outlook that encourages us to progress as one universal family, transcending borders, languages and ideologies. During India’s G20 presidency, this has translated into a call for human-centric progress. As One Earth, we are coming together to nurture our planet. As One Family, we support each other in the pursuit of growth. And we move together towards a shared future – One Future – which is an undeniable truth in these interconnected times.

The post-pandemic world order is very different from the world before it. There are three important changes, among others.

First, there is a growing realization that a shift away from a GDP-centric view of the world to a human-centric view is needed.

Second, the world is recognizing the importance of resilience and reliability in global supply chains.

Third, there is a collective call for boosting multilateralism through the reform of global institutions.

Our G20 presidency has played the role of a catalyst in these shifts.

In December 2022, when we took over the presidency from Indonesia, I had written that a mindset shift must be catalyzed by the G20. This was especially needed in the context of mainstreaming the marginalized aspirations of developing countries, the Global South and Africa.

The Voice of Global South Summit in January 2023, which witnessed participation from 125 countries, was one of the foremost initiatives under our presidency. It was an important exercise to gather inputs and ideas from the Global South. Further, our presidency has not only seen the largest-ever participation from African countries but has also pushed for the inclusion of the African Union as a permanent member of the G20.

An interconnected world means our challenges across domains are interlinked. This is the midway year of the 2030 Agenda and many are noting with great concern that the progress on SDGs is off-track. The G20 2023 Action Plan on Accelerating Progress on SDGs will spearhead the future direction of the G20 towards implementing the SDGs.

In India, living in harmony with nature has been a norm since ancient times and we have been contributing our share towards climate action even in modern times.

Many countries of the Global South are at various stages of development and climate action must be a complementary pursuit. Ambitions for climate action must be matched with actions on climate finance and transfer of technology.

We believe there is a need to move away from a purely restrictive attitude of what should not be done, to a more constructive attitude focusing on what can be done to fight climate change.

The Chennai High-Level Principles for a Sustainable and Resilient Blue Economy focus on keeping our oceans healthy.

A global ecosystem for clean and green hydrogen will emerge from our presidency, along with a Green Hydrogen Innovation Center.

In 2015, we launched the International Solar Alliance. Now, through the Global Biofuels Alliance, we will support the world to enable energy transitions in tune with the benefits of a circular economy.

Democratizing climate action is the best way to impart momentum to the movement. Just as individuals make daily decisions based on their long-term health, they can make lifestyle decisions based on the impact on the planet’s long-term health. Just like yoga became a global mass movement for wellness, we have also nudged the world with Lifestyles for Sustainable Environment (LiFE).

Due to the impact of climate change, ensuring food and nutritional security will be crucial. Millets, or Shree Anna, can help with this while also boosting climate-smart agriculture. In the International Year of Millets, we have taken millets to global palates. The Deccan High Level Principles on Food Security and Nutrition is also helpful in this direction.

Technology is transformative but it also needs to be made inclusive. In the past, the benefits of technological advancements have not benefited all sections of society equally. India, over the last few years, has shown how technology can be leveraged to narrow inequalities, rather than widen them.

For instance, the billions across the world that remain unbanked, or lack digital identities, can be financially included through digital public infrastructure (DPI). The solutions we have built using our DPI have now been recognized globally. Now, through the G20, we will help developing countries adapt, build and scale DPI to unlock the power of inclusive growth.

That India is the fastest-growing large economy is no accident. Our simple, scalable and sustainable solutions have empowered the vulnerable and the marginalized to lead our development story. From space to sports, economy to entrepreneurship, Indian women have taken the lead in various sectors. They have shifted the narrative from the development of women to women-led development. Our G20 presidency is working on bridging the gender digital divide, reducing labor force participation gaps and enabling a larger role for women in leadership and decision-making.

For India, the G20 presidency is not merely a high-level diplomatic endeavor. As the Mother of Democracy and a model of diversity, we opened the doors of this experience to the world.

Today, accomplishing things at scale is a quality that is associated with India. The G20 presidency is no exception. It has become a people-driven movement. Over 200 meetings will have been organized in 60 Indian cities across the length and breadth of our nation, hosting nearly 100,000 delegates from 125 countries by the end of our term. No presidency has ever encompassed such a vast and diverse geographical expanse.

It is one thing to hear about India’s demography, democracy, diversity and development from someone else. It is totally different to experience them first-hand. I am sure our G20 delegates would vouch for this.

Our G20 presidency strives to bridge divides, dismantle barriers and sow seeds of collaboration that nourish a world where unity prevails over discord, where shared destiny eclipses isolation. As the G20 president, we had pledged to make the global table larger, ensuring that every voice is heard and every country contributes. I am positive that we have matched our pledge with actions and outcomes.

ABU DHABI – Faced with mounting pressure over planet-heating pollution, Gulf Arab energy giants are turning to humble tech start-ups as they search for ways to remove emissions while keeping oil flowing.

Oil producers have for years touted capturing carbon before it goes into the atmosphere as a potential global warming solution, against criticism from climate experts who say it risks distracting from the urgent goal of slashing fossil fuel pollution.

With little investment and few projects in operation around the world so far, the technology is currently nowhere near the scale needed to make a difference to global emissions.

Now, major players from Saudi Aramco to the United Arab Emirates’ state oil and gas firm Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) say that is about to change, as the UAE hosts climate negotiations this year with a message of cutting emissions rather than fossil fuels.

“For the industry and for countries as well to achieve net zero by 2050, I don’t see us achieving this without embracing carbon capture,” Mr Musabbeh Al Kaabi, Adnoc’s executive director of low-carbon solutions, told Agence France-Presse.

“I would love to see more wind and solar energy, but to be practical and transparent, it’s not going to solve the problem.”

Carbon capture was a hot topic at a recent climate tech conference in Abu Dhabi, UAE’s capital.

Start-ups displayed their advances in carbon capture and storage (CCS), which removes carbon dioxide (CO2) as it is pumped from power plants and heavy industry.

There were also companies presenting their plans for direct air capture, a newer technology that extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the existing fossil fuel infrastructure – without the use of carbon capture – will push the world beyond the Paris deal’s safer global warming limit of 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels.

Industrial smokestacks

The debate between whether to primarily target fossil fuels or emissions is shaping as a key battleground at the COP28 climate talks, which will be held in UAE financial hub Dubai.

Citing the IPCC, the COP28 president-designate, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber – Adnoc’s chief executive and his country’s climate envoy – last week said it was time to “get serious about carbon capture”.

But environmentalists are sceptical about the central role that big energy companies are seeking in climate solutions, saying they have a vested interest in maintaining fossil fuel sales.

Greenpeace Mena (Middle East and North Africa) programme director Julien Jreissati labelled it a “distraction”.

Adnoc’s Mr Kaabi, however, argued that the oil giant’s engineering capabilities and deep pockets make them best placed to propel climate tech.

“The world has two options: We could leave it to the small players or have the big players accelerating this decarbonisation,” Mr Kaabi said.

In 2016, Adnoc launched the region’s first commercial-scale CCS project, Al Reyadah, which has the capacity to capture 800,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Globally, there are only around 35 commercial facilities using carbon capture utilisation and storage globally, according to the International Energy Agency, which says even those planned until 2030 would capture only a fraction of the emissions needed.

‘We need to move quicker’

The entrepreneurs at the UAE conference included Omani company 44.01, a winner of Britain’s Earthshot Prize for its technology that permanently removes CO2 from the air by mineralising it in peridotite rock.

“Climate change is an urgent challenge and for us to be able to tackle that challenge we need to move quicker,” said 44.01 CEO Talal Hasan.

“The oil and gas partnerships help us move quickly,” he told AFP.

Mr Hasan’s 44.01 has partnered Adnoc to develop a carbon capture and mineralisation site in Fujairah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates – the first such project by an energy company in the Middle East.

“In one tonne of peridotite, you could probably mineralise 500 to 600 kilograms of CO2… this means that with the rocks just in this region, you could potentially mineralise trillions of tons,” he said.

For Mr Hasan, energy companies are good partners because “we use a lot of the same equipment, infrastructure, people and resources”.

“That will help us accelerate scaling,” he said, arguing that the speed of execution is “very important”.

State-owned Saudi Aramco, one of the world’s richest companies, has invested in Carbon Clean, a British-based company that has developed compact technology that captures carbon from industrial smokestacks.

The company, which has 49 sites around the world, will deploy its latest technology in the UAE this year – its first project in the Middle East.

When asked about the logic of working with big oil, Carbon Clean CEO Aniruddha Sharma said: “If I were a fireman and there was a fire – a big fire and a small fire – where would I go first? Obviously, the big fire.” AFP

Climate crisis won’t solve on its own: need to walk the talk

We need all governments to step up and agree to phase out unabated fossil-fuel use. We need reforms to make our financial institutions and systems fit for purpose. And we need to take climate action seriously

Last year in Berlin, the great Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge broke the world marathon record, clocking 02:01:09 and beating his previous time by 30 seconds. His success has made him a legend not only in Kenya but globally. It offers a useful lesson for everyone involved in the fight against climate change. Kipchoge’s winning strategy is rooted in the science of running (as well as 120 miles of hard work every week), and our own approach to the climate crisis must involve the same level of commitment and focus.
As temperatures keep rising and emissions soar, the planet, too, continues to break (dangerous) new records. But with determination and follow-through, we – together with institutional partners and other governments – can start to run faster to get ahead of the climate crisis. Success will depend on following the latest science and mobilising a joint, broad-based effort of governments and citizens.
In March, the world’s top climate experts and governments signed off on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesis report. Once again, the IPCC’s message was stark: Humans have permanently changed the planet, and global warming is already killing people, destroying nature, and making the world poorer. Though African countries have contributed the least to the problem, they are bearing the brunt of the damage.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Africa accounts for less than 3% of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and 600mn Africans – an outrageous figure – still do not have access to electricity.
Climate change is a shared problem that the global community must solve by working together, especially given the disproportionate burden being placed on those who are least responsible. During his recent visit to Kenya, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and I held talks on ways to address the climate crisis. Through the Germany-Kenya Climate and Development Partnership, our two countries have committed to deepen our collaboration on climate-resilient development and renewable energy, including by supporting green-hydrogen production and sustainable agriculture.
We are currently a long way from limiting global warming to 1.5C or even 2C, as envisaged by the Paris climate agreement. The climate crisis will not solve itself. On the contrary, we must ensure that global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions peak before 2025 at the latest, and then fall by at least 43% by 2030.
This is the year to drive that transformation. The United Nations Climate Change Conference this November-December (COP28) offers an opportunity to accelerate the energy transition, supercharge the growth of renewables, and commit to phase out all fossil fuels – starting with coal.
Kenya is on track to meet these goals. We already generate 92% of our power from clean sources and we have committed to achieving a 100% clean electricity network by 2030. Similarly, renewables generated 46% of Germany’s electricity in 2022 and the government has committed to increase that to 80% by 2030. Critically, these commitments will not only ensure clean power and a safer environment; they will also create jobs, attract investment, and make our economies more secure and resilient in the face of volatile oil and gas prices.
But it is important that we run this race as a team. According to the IEA, the global ratio of clean-energy investments to dirty-energy investments must increase sixfold by 2030 (from 1.5:1 to 9:1).
With a strong partnership between Africa, Europe, and the rest of the international community, Kenya, with its abundant resources, can make significant contributions to decarbonisation and the global transition to a net-zero economy. We must unlock climate finance and investment, so that we can harness our potential for green economic growth. But to do that, we will need to fix the current international financial system, which has proven inadequate for dealing fairly with multifaceted global crises, from the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate emergency to debt distress across the Global South.
Next month’s Summit for a New Global Financial Pact, in Paris, provides an opportunity for Europe to galvanise support for reforming the international financial system. The international community must recognise our potential to help solve global problems and take steps to ensure win-win outcomes. That means providing access to affordable, adequate, and sustainable financing that is delivered in a timely manner.
As we reduce emissions, we also need to prepare our people and our housing, agriculture, and food systems for rising temperatures and extreme weather events. Meeting the 2021 COP26 commitment to double global climate-adaptation financing by 2025 remains crucial for protecting people and nature. The latest IPCC report is clear: climate change and insufficient adaptation and mitigation efforts are reversing development gains and undermining economic stability.
But we also must remember that adaptation has limits, and that climate change is already threatening millions of peoples’ lives today. As the IPCC shows, reducing GHG emissions by 43% this decade and stabilising global warming at or below 1.5C is still our best chance to keep the problem at a manageable scale. Kenya’s climate summit in September will provide a key opportunity to showcase the continent’s commitment, potential, and opportunities to deal with the climate crisis. We need all governments to step up and agree to phase out unabated fossil-fuel use. We need reforms to make our financial institutions and systems fit for purpose. And we need to take climate action seriously. In the words of Eliud Kipchoge, the key to success is to “walk your talk.” — Project Syndicate

  • William Ruto is President of Kenya.

The Climate Elephants in the Room

As tempting as it is to rely on multilateralism to solve a shared global problem like climate change, the world simply does not have the time for such an approach. A far more pragmatic and effective strategy is to focus on the biggest polluters that contribute disproportionately to total greenhouse-gas emissions.

NEW HAVEN – Now that the falsehoods and obfuscation of climate denialism have finally been silenced, addressing climate change has become the world’s top priority. But time is running out, and the International Monetary Fund warns that any further delays on implementing policies to mitigate global warming will only add to the economic cost of the transition to a low-emissions economy. Worse, we still lack a concrete, pragmatic strategy for tackling the problem. Although economists have made a robust case for why carbon taxes are the best solution, this option has proven politically infeasible, at least in those countries that account for some of the highest emissions (namely, the United States).

Commentators have also stressed that climate change is a shared problem involving important cross-border externalities that must be addressed through a multilateral approach to global coordination. But, as with carbon taxes, this argument has fallen on deaf ears. And, given the current geopolitical climate and the increasing fragmentation of the global economy, there is little hope that the message will get through anytime soon.

Having committed to assisting developing economies as they confront climate change, the World Bank finds itself limited by the country-based model underlying its financing operations. It is earnestly weighing its options and considering how it could coordinate climate-related financing across borders. But while such efforts are well meaning and consistent with the spirit of multilateralism, they inevitably will delay concrete action. World Bank financing would have to be completely restructured, and coordinating action across multiple countries that have limited financial resources and often conflicting interests seems an impossible task. For example, while some developing economies are rich in fossil fuels, others are starved for energy sources.

Given these limitations, pragmatism dictates focusing on the biggest polluters. Global carbon dioxide emissions are concentrated among only a handful of countries and regions. China, the US, the European Union, Japan, and Russia collectively account for 63% of the total, and none of these top polluters is a low-income country anymore. China, the poorest of the group, represents around 30% of all emissions, making it by far the world’s largest current polluter in absolute terms. But its government is taking steps to accelerate the transition to green energy – a winning strategy, given the country’s abundance of rare earth metals.

India, the third-largest emitter, currently accounts for approximately 7% of global CO2 emissions, and its size and growth trajectory imply that it could easily surpass China as the leading polluter, barring stronger climate policies. In fact, when it comes to helping developing countries decarbonize, considerable progress could be made simply by targeting India alone. The big advantage of this strategy is that it would avoid the paralysis associated with attempts to adopt a multilateral approach in an increasingly fragmented world.

This does not mean that we should eschew projects aimed at climate mitigation or adaptation in other countries. But we would not need to wait until everyone is on board before doing anything. Those insisting on a multilateral approach should learn from the experience of the ultimate multilateral institution: the World Trade Organization. Its requirement that every single provision in every multilateral agreement gain unanimous support has left it increasingly paralyzed, prompting demands for institutional reform.

Of course, India is not low-hanging fruit. It is rich in coal and has little incentive (beyond the health of its citizens) to hasten the transition to green energy. In focusing on India, we would need to employ the carrot, not the stick.

Since the stick generally takes the form of pressure to implement carbon taxation, it is a non-starter. A tax would be ineffective, because it would incite massive domestic opposition (as has been the case in the US). It would also be morally objectionable, because it is unfair to ask a lower-middle-income country to bear the burden of reducing CO2 emissions when rich countries (like the US) have failed to do the same. Moreover, even if China and India are now two of the world’s biggest polluters, they bear little responsibility for the past, cumulative emissions that led to the current climate crisis.

That leaves the carrot, which would come in the form of tax incentives or subsidies to support green energy. When paired with other policies, these can ease firms into adapting to higher environmental standards (such as those associated with a ). But such policies are expensive, which means that tackling climate change will require richer countries to help finance them. Whether or not India becomes the new China, it is still in our power to ensure that it does not become the new outsize polluter.

Sustainable food — not more of it — needed as global hunger soars

As global hunger swiftly rises — by more than a third last year — curbing it will require not growing more food but rethinking broader systems of trade and aid, farming’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels, food waste and meat eating, experts said.

Farmers today grow sufficient crops to feed twice the current population — but but nearly a third of food produced globally is spoiled or thrown away, said Philip Lymbery, the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming International.

At the same time, grain that could feed billions of people is instead fed to factory-raised food animals — suggesting a reduction in meat consumption is one clear way to cut hunger, he said at a conference on global food systems in London last week.

In Europe alone, 60% of grain is now grown for animal food, said Tim Benton, a food systems expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, which raises questions about whether scarce land could be better used.

As global leaders look for ways to keep food available and affordable, and prevent rising hunger, “it’s not about food scarcity because there’s no food scarcity,” Lymbery noted.

Surging hunger

Globally, hunger is surging, with 258 million people in nearly 60 countries facing acute food insecurity last year, a 33% jump from 2021, according to the Global Report on Food Crises 2023, released in March.

Problems are growing not just in traditional aid recipient countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan but also in nations from Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo, it showed.

The report, backed by agencies from the U.N. World Food Program to the World Bank, found that climate change impacts — from floods in Pakistan to drought in the Horn of Africa — were key contributors to the surge.

But conflicts — including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which slashed wheat exports from Ukraine and drove up the prices of energy and fossil fuel-based fertilizers — also played a major role, particularly in contributing to rising food prices.

“We depend more and more on a small number of countries for production of the major crops we depend on,” said Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food, an international expert panel on sustainable food systems.

That means when climate change slashes production in one or more key producers, or a conflict breaks out in one, “global supply chains are disrupted … (and) the whole global food system is impacted.”

In the wake of the Ukraine invasion, food costs also rose as speculators, hedge funds and a handful of big agribusiness companies that control most global food trade made profits, said De Schutter, who is also a U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

He suggested that finding ways to wean global agricultural production off its heavy reliance on fossil fuel-based fertilizers could be a key way to protect access to food from volatile oil and gas prices.

Helping poorer countries escape their often heavy debt burdens could also help them shore up their food security, allowing them to focus more on growing food for their own people rather than raising export crops to bring in the cash needed to service debt, De Schutter said.

Competing answers

Benton, of Chatham House, said two very different views of how to achieve future security are now competing.

In the first, the assumption that the world will need 50% more food by 2050 — in part to meet growing demand for meat and dairy as poor countries grow richer — demands much more intensive production from limited agricultural land.

That view assumes agriculture in the future will become much more technological and centralized, with heavy use of drones, satellites and the “internet of things” driving smarter production — and likely resulting in fewer farm jobs.

The second view, however, envisions farmers shifting to more ecologically friendly, smaller-scale and less fossil fuel-intensive agriculture, with food demand not growing significantly because food waste is cut and meat-intensive diets decline.

“Everybody agrees food system transformation is needed” — just not what kind, said Molly Anderson, a food studies professor at Middlebury College in the United States.

Seth Watkins, a farmer in the U.S. state of Iowa, said at last week’s food conference that he had seen first-hand how intensive farming systems were damaging soil health, raising questions about the long-term viability of farming, especially as climate change impacts worsen.

“Often (a focus on) technology holds us back from the sustainable solutions we need to fix our food system,” he said, calling for a switch to more environmentally friendly and low-carbon ways of producing food.

Decisions made now are crucial because “it’s our own regeneration or extinction we’re talking about,” Watkins said.

Susan Chomba, director of the Vital Landscapes in Africa program for the World Resources Institute, said efforts to cut food waste were particularly crucial as key farm resources from available land to water grow scarcer.

“No matter how much we try to produce, if we can’t address what is lost and wasted it’s a counterproductive process,” she said in an interview.

A range of powerful vested interests stand in the way of shifting food systems to effectively manage growing hunger, climate threats and ecological decline, the analysts said.

Worsening disinformation and a rise in authoritarian governments around the world also are acting as a brake on change, they said.

But with hunger growing fast and new challenges appearing — from an expected drought-spawning El Nino weather pattern emerging this June to new conflict in Sudan, adding to humanitarian burdens — public discontent and pressures on politicians for change are also likely to increase.

“Because we’re not tackling the environmental crisis, the disruptions we see are going to get bigger and bigger,” warned Benton of Chatham House.

Climate change continues to causeuncertainties for commodity prices

It can alter rainfall patterns, increase temperatures, and cause extremClimate played a major role in commodity prices last year and looks like doing so again in 2023.
Scorching heatwaves in the northern hemisphere hit production of wheat in the US and Europe in 2022, and climate change means that catastrophic weather events are becoming more frequent.
These include La Niña, which is stretching into an unprecedented third consecutive year and will be detrimental to maize and soybean production in the first half of 2023, in addition to other crops like sugar and coffee, according to Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
Wheat, which was heavily affected by war-related supply disruptions in 2022, faces significant climate risks. In the US large swathes of the southern plains remain under drought conditions, and crops are in unusually poor condition heading into winter dormancy. Extremely dry, occasionally frosty weather in Argentina is causing damage across major producing provinces there, but Russia and Australia are on course for a second consecutive year of bumper crops, which, for the moment, is alleviating concerns about production in the western hemisphere.
Weather will loom large in energy markets as well, EIU noted. Europe’s heatwave drove up demand last summer, causing gas and electricity prices to spike, especially as winds dropped to levels insufficient to generate enough power to meet Europe’s electricity needs while drought affected hydropower generation in many countries.
These dry conditions, together with rising water temperatures, also hit nuclear power generation.
In addition, the severity of Europe’s current energy crunch depends largely on how cold temperatures fall over the winter, not just in 2022/23 but in 2023/24 as well.
“The colder the winter, the more countries will have to draw down stockpiles built up over 2022. Below-normal temperatures will not only raise the spectre of energy rationing, but also put upward pressure on prices over the summer as Europe scrambles to refill reserves—this time without Russian supplies,” EIU said.
Obviously, climate change can have significant impacts on commodity prices by affecting their production, transportation, and demand for various goods.
Climate change can impact commodity prices by affecting crop yields, energy prices, water availability, and transportation costs.
It can alter rainfall patterns, increase temperatures, and cause extreme weather events like droughts and floods, which can reduce crop yields.
This can lead to lower supply and higher prices for commodities like wheat, corn, soybeans, and other agricultural products.
Climate change can also impact energy prices by affecting the production and transportation of oil, natural gas, and other energy resources.
For example, extreme weather events can disrupt oil and gas production and transportation infrastructure, leading to supply disruptions and higher prices.
Changes in rainfall patterns and increased water scarcity due to climate change can impact the availability of water for agricultural production and energy generation. This can result in higher prices for water-intensive commodities like meat, dairy, and processed foods.
Climate change can also affect transportation costs, particularly for goods that rely on sea or river transportation.
Rising sea levels and changes in ocean currents can disrupt shipping routes and increase shipping costs, which can lead to higher prices for imported goods.e weather events like droughts and floods, which can reduce crop yields

The High Cost of Carbon Pricing

Amid the growing enthusiasm for carbon border taxes, Western policymakers have largely ignored the negative impact on the world’s poorest countries. For carbon-pricing policies to succeed, developed countries must show their commitment to shared prosperity by enabling knowledge-sharing and fostering equitable climate finance.

NEW DELHI – Carbon pricing is all the rage these days, at least in the developed world. But while global leaders and experts – most of them from rich countries – increasingly embrace the idea of putting the “right price” on carbon, the concept remains vague and ill-defined. Worse, its growing acceptance and increasingly protectionist bent may have the perverse effect of impeding efforts to decarbonize the global economy.

The idea of carbon pricing seems like a no-brainer. Meeting even the least ambitious climate goals requires decarbonizing developed and developing economies alike. Changing the relative prices of carbon-intensive activities would encourage investors to finance renewable sources of energy and the technological innovation needed to achieve net-zero emissions.

Fossil fuels account for most of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, so hydrocarbons seem like a good place to start. But how? Should policymakers consider the relative price of fossil fuels, or production based on consuming them?

The two most commonly discussed forms of carbon pricing – cap-and-trade schemes and carbon taxes – are based on the carbon intensity of production. A cap-and-trade system is designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions by dividing the total target amount into allowances that can be traded among high and low emitters. While this supposedly establishes a market price for carbon dioxide emissions, it does not consider their negative social and environmental externalities. A carbon tax, by contrast, sets a price on carbon by taxing emissions-heavy activities.

But these two models reflect a very narrow (and possibly even distorted) view of how carbon should be priced into the economic system. A 2017 report by the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, chaired by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Nicholas Stern, provided a much more nuanced analysis. In addition to cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, the report recommended reducing or eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies and creating new financial incentives for low-carbon projects; offsetting the negative distributional impact of carbon pricing by using the proceeds to finance policies to protect poor and vulnerable populations; and complementary policies, such as investment in public transport and renewable power. Perhaps most important, the authors noted, countries must be able to choose instruments that fit their specific circumstances, resources, and needs.

Amid the growing enthusiasm for carbon pricing and border adjustment measures, policymakers and experts have largely ignored these points. The European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism is a case in point. When the CBAM takes effect in October, it will impose a tax on carbon-intensive imports in order to “put a fair price on the carbon emitted during the production of carbon-intensive goods that are entering the EU” and to “encourage cleaner industrial production in non-EU countries” (emphasis added).

The CBAM will initially apply to imports of cement, iron and steel, aluminum, fertilizers, electricity, and hydrogen. At first, firms will simply have to report the (direct and indirect) emissions embedded in the goods they import. But, beginning in 2026, the EU will impose tariffs on these emissions based on the weekly average auction price of cap-and-trade allowances.

The stated purpose of this measure is to eliminate so-called “carbon leakage” and ensure that the EU’s climate efforts are not undermined by production moving to countries with lower emission standards. Effectively, it protects European firms from competitors in such countries.

By taxing imports to the EU, the CBAM imposes on exporters in other countries the nearly impossible task of measuring emissions. Most developing countries (and many developed ones) lack granular data on firm-specific emissions, not to mention the ability to track the emissions of all the inputs used. Even if such data were available, the costs of collecting and analyzing it over time would be enormous. As the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development noted in 2021, the CBAM attempts “to impose on developing countries the environmental standards that developed countries are choosing.”

The EU wants to be viewed as a global leader on climate change, but it is difficult to see the CBAM as anything but a protectionist device. While the CBAM purports to encourage countries outside the bloc to reduce emissions by imposing their own carbon taxes, the EU has done nothing to help exporting countries attract new green investment or gain access to new technologies. In fact, it has persistently reneged on its (paltry) promises on climate finance and the commitments European leaders made as part of the 1992 Rio Agreement, restricting access to green technologies controlled by EU-based companies.

For decades, advanced economies have exported their emissions to developing countries by offshoring carbon-intensive production and then importing those goods. Now that greener technologies are available to (and largely controlled by) Western companies, developed countries promote reshoring without sharing knowledge or finance, thereby undermining low- and middle-income countries’ economic prospects and ability to achieve a green transition.

In February, Republican US Senator Bill Cassidy said he would unveil an emissions tariff bill in the coming months, following similar proposals by Senate Democrats. Meanwhile, lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have done little to limit fossil-fuel production and trade – by far the biggest sources of CO2 emissions. The CBAM does not cover trade in fossil fuels, and neither would the proposed tariffs in the United States. If decarbonization is the real goal, rather than protecting domestic industries, then regulation and reducing direct and indirect fossil-fuel subsidies are far more promising policies.

For carbon pricing to succeed, developed countries must demonstrate their commitment to shared prosperity by enabling knowledge-sharing and fostering equitable climate finance. If they continue to focus on border taxes on goods produced (mostly) in developing countries, their carbon-pricing efforts will fail. Worse, they will exacerbate global inequality and reinforce the perception that all their lofty rhetoric about the need for international cooperation to fight climate change is merely a fig leaf for cynical and self-serving policies.

Green power is the first domino

As world leaders convene at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), it is obvious to all that bolder action is needed to avert disaster. The UN warns that global efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions remain insufficient to limit temperature increases to 1.5C, relative to pre-industrial levels.
To meet this target, decarbonising the power sector is critical. Electricity accounts for about 25% of the world’s GHG emissions, and it also will play a critical role in decarbonising other sectors, such as buildings, transportation, and manufacturing. The challenge, then, is to achieve “24/7 carbon-free energy” (24/7 CFE): the total elimination of carbon from the electricity sector – at every hour of every day, in every grid around the world.
Research in the United States and Europe has shown that 24/7 CFE strategies have a greater impact on the decarbonisation of electricity systems than the current practice of purchasing electricity from renewable sources to match annual consumption patterns. Recent International Energy Agency modelling for India and Indonesia shows that hourly matching strategies lead to more diverse technology portfolios, with the clean, dispatchable generation and storage needed for net-zero transitions in the power sector. Critically, this approach helps electricity systems shift away from fossil fuels by accelerating uptake of the full suite of carbon-free technologies needed to deliver around-the-clock clean power.
Decarbonising energy systems worldwide is possible, but it will require collective action to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced clean-energy technologies. New investments, supportive public policies, and partnerships among stakeholders are all part of the solution. That is why the UN, Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), Google, and a diverse group of signatories launched the 24/7 CFE Compact in 2021. The compact represents a growing global community of stakeholders that are committed to providing the support, tools, and partnerships needed to make 24/7 CFE a reality everywhere.
Among the most recent to join the 24/7 CFE Compact is the Scottish government. “Scotland was the first country in the United Kingdom to declare a climate emergency, and indeed among the first in the world to recognise the importance of taking immediate and bold action,” notes Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. “Governments must hold themselves to account in limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C. We are committed to putting accountability at the centre of all that we do. Our position is clear that unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with our climate obligations.”
Similarly, just last month, Google and C40, a network of almost 100 cities, launched a first-of-its-kind 24/7 CFE programme focusing on regional electricity grids. With urban areas accounting for over half the world’s population and more than 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions, cities have a critical role to play in driving the changes needed to tackle the climate crisis.
Developing and emerging economies will need more energy to bridge energy-access gaps, and to support economic growth and development. But as capacity expands, it must be clean. A 24/7 CFE approach can serve both purposes, providing both greater access and cleaner energy. We therefore must move faster to make 24/7 CFE cheaper and more accessible globally. According to the latest IEA data, the number of people living without electricity will rise by almost 20mn in 2022, reaching nearly 775mn. Most of that increase will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the size of the cohort lacking access has nearly returned to its 2013 peak.
The world cannot achieve net-zero emissions without first ensuring universal electricity access. That will require annual investments of at least $30bn – two-thirds of which will need to go to Sub-Saharan Africa – between now and 2030. Fortunately, not only is 24/7 CFE a moral imperative, but it also represents the most cost-effective option for connecting underserved populations.
Many of these populations will otherwise continue to rely on dirtier sources of energy. Small island developing states such as Nauru, Palau, the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago, for example, all have electricity grids that depend heavily on inefficient, carbon-intensive technologies such as diesel generators. These countries’ experience shows why 24/7 CFE must not be framed merely as a European or North American issue. It is a global one, and it has become increasingly urgent for developing countries on the front lines of climate change.
Implementing 24/7 CFE strategies globally will require not only funding but also measures to scale up the deployment of advanced technologies, to create more favourable market conditions, and to share best practices and data. If we can fully decarbonise our grids, the rest of the green transition should become cheaper and easier.
The 24/7 CFE Compact provides an opportunity to drive the much-needed policy change, investment, and research in this crucial next phase of climate action. We invite all governments, companies, and organisations to join us and help chart a more sustainable path toward a net-zero future. – Project Syndicate