In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Cutting Carbon in the Time of COVID
  • Alex Bowen (bio), Josh Burke (bio), and Sam Fankhauser (bio)

The COP26 in Glasgow—the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—is the most important global climate summit since the 2015 Paris conference, which led to the eponymous Paris Agreement.

Unlike in Paris, where consensus had to be forged around a common climate objective and countries' contribution toward it, there is not actually that much to negotiate in Glasgow. With the notable exception of the rules on international cooperation and carbon trading, the global governance architecture on climate change is largely in place.

The Glasgow summit is important because it is the first formal opportunity for countries to review their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement. Unlike the earlier Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement does not impose top-down emission reduction commitments on parties. Instead, countries determine for themselves what their contribution should be. Over a series of ratcheting-up rounds, it is hoped that these bottom-up pledges can be brought in line with the Paris objective of limiting the rise in global temperature to well below 2°C and preferably below 1.5°C.

At the moment this is far from the case. The first round of NDCs is estimated to result in a global mean temperature increase in excess of 3°C.1 The sharp drop in 2020 emissions due to COVID-19 will not change this.2 Emissions are likely to rebound, as they did after the 2008 global financial crisis, unless stronger mitigation measures are put in place. Environmentalists are, therefore, looking for a significant tightening of NDCs as part of the Glasgow summit.

The diplomatic process of securing more ambitious climate commitments will largely be completed before Glasgow, and the signs are good. At his April 2021 climate summit, President Biden pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by no later than 2050. This means that the world's three largest emitters—China, the European Union, and the United States—are now all committed to a netzero balance between the release of greenhouse gases and their removal into sinks. At their June 2021 meeting, the leaders of the G7 group of industrialized countries reiterated their commitment to net-zero emissions and to halving their emissions by 2030.3 Almost two-thirds of global emissions and a slightly higher share of global GDP are now subject to a net-zero target.4

The more difficult task of implementing these commitments will start after Glasgow, and here the signs are less good. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there was a disconnect between countries' emissions reduction targets and the policies that were in place to meet them. The United Kingdom, as the host of the COP26, is a case in point. Britain's emissions [End Page 200] targets are among the strictest in the world, and they are set in law. However, the Government's official advisor, the Climate Change Committee, has repeatedly warned that the country is not on track to meet these statutory targets.5 Globally, there are now over 2,000 climate change laws and related policies, but they reduce global annual carbon emissions by only about 15 percent, or about the annual carbon output of the United States.6

The economic slowdown triggered by COVID-19 could make it harder to close the gap between climate objectives and actual carbon policy. A statistical analysis of the time when those 2,000 climate laws were passed shows that lawmakers are demonstrably less willing to act on climate change in difficult economic times.7

There has been no shortage of exhortations to use the COVID-19 recovery for a "great reset" and to "build back better," that is, to align recovery packages with the Paris Agreement.8 However, to date, only a small fraction of the massive fiscal support packages to cushion the impact of the pandemic is Paris aligned.9 Many governments are using post–COVID recovery measures to roll back existing environmental regulations and to increase fossil-fuel intensive infrastructure and electricity.10

It is clear, therefore, that national policies...