In late May 2021, a small subset of members of the independent Global Stocktake (iGST) gathered for a conversation prompted by the recently released United States Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and its potential impact on global climate equity, emissions reductions, and the upcoming Global Stocktake.
The dialogue elicited insights on the increasing level of political support for climate action by states, cities, businesses, and other subnational actors that enabled the ambition of the U.S. NDC to be ratcheted up. Participants discussed how the U.S. might support equity within the Global Stocktake (GST), the formal process for assessing implementation of the Paris Agreement. They also considered the ways in which the official GST, negotiated and conducted within the bounds of the UNFCCC, may be constrained and the ways in which the independent community can increase climate action by subnational and national actors alike.
The dialogue, edited for brevity and clarity, follows.
Participants: Casey Cronin, ClimateWorks Foundation; Jason Anderson, ClimateWorks Foundation; Leon Clarke, University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability; Nathan Hultman, University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability; Sivan Kartha, Stockholm Environment Institute; Tom Athanasiou, EcoEquity
Moderator: Hannah Roeyer, Independent Global Stocktake
Q: Our first question is for Tom and Sivan, who, along with others, co-chair the Equity Working Group of the iGST. You worked on USCAN’s “US Fair Share” position released in December and on the US Fair Shares NDC released in April. Now that the United States has rejoined the Paris agreement and released its updated NDC, what else can it do to make sure that the ratcheting process of the Paris Agreement is ambitious and considered in light of equity?
Tom Athanasiou: In my view, the ratcheting process is incomplete and cannot possibly work without an equity assessment. None of us really know whether a meaningful equity analysis is going to be possible within the constraints of the formal process.
The two-fold nature of the iGST is relevant here because if you conceive of the iGST as just an input into the formal process, then, of course, it’s constrained in the same way as the formal process is constrained. If you conceive of the Global Stocktake as an independent process and as a formal process that occur in parallel, you can have different kinds of conversations. The Equity Working Group is giving itself more latitude than that allowed in the formal process.
Sivan Kartha: That point is exactly right. Regardless of the formalities of the formal Global Stocktake, the Paris regime is a pledge-and-review system whereby countries put forward pledges, then look at other countries’ pledges, and then see how much follow-through there’s been. If there are no leaders, the pace is going to be set by the laggards, and the ratcheting up of ambition will instead be a race to the bottom.
What we need are leaders. If the U.S. wants to be a global leader, it has to be a global leader on climate. That means its NDC, that means its formal climate policy, that means coherence across the full range of its policies to really put it on a pathway toward decarbonization in line with the Paris goals. Not all of those policies are necessarily part of formal UNFCCC processes, but they are what other countries are going to be looking at. What is the U.S. doing on the supply side? Is it continuing to invest more and more in fossil fuel production domestically and internationally? Is it taking seriously political-economic and other domestic barriers to ambitious climate action? We don’t have climate action at nearly the pace that we could be having it because inertial structures make that action hard. Probably the single-most convincing climate policies that the U.S. could undertake are reversing the Citizens’ United decision and to enable real campaign finance reform and a politics of transition to a low-carbon economy.
Casey Cronin: I had been wondering what the new U.S. NDC was going to say about how it was “fair and ambitious.” The last NDC literally just said it was fair and ambitious, period. So, for this new NDC to actually include some explanation of that claim was a big leap forward.
The exact language in the new NDC is, “The United States NDC exceeds a straight-line path to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050. It also promotes the goal of keeping within reach a 1.5 degrees Celsius limit on global average temperature increase.”
I’m not suggesting that the NDC went as far as it could or even should have, but this statement sets a precedent for the next NDC to build on. When we talk about this Global Stocktake and our work with the independent Global Stocktake, we’re talking about influencing the round of NDCs that will be coming out in 2024, 2025. How can the U.S., as a UN negotiator or stakeholder, build momentum for greater ambition and equity in the forthcoming round of NDCs, and how can we as the iGST build on this momentum?
Tom: Of course, the second part of that claim needs to be fleshed out. What it means for the U.S. NDC to be consistent or inconsistent with a 1.5C pathway is not obvious.
One other thing needs to be mentioned in regard to this larger conversation: the emergence of the net-zero 2050 club. It is clearly going to condition a lot of the negotiations that take us into the GST. The idea that all countries are going to achieve net-zero at more or less the same time is not in itself a claim that can be said to be fair or unfair or a goal that can be said to be fair or unfair. Fairness will depend on the means of implementation and on the overall political economy of the transition.
Sivan: I think Tom’s point is particularly relevant to the point you just raised, Casey, because to benchmark the effort against whether it exceeds or falls short of a straight-line path implicitly assumes that what would be natural for everyone to do would be a straight-line path. If the default contribution of every country—rich, poor, high emitting, low emitting, with crushing energy poverty, or with energy luxury, if that’s supposed to be fair for all of them, then it doesn’t sound like it’s a terribly fair regime. The U.S. put forward a default contribution, but I don’t think it’s actually a valid benchmark.
Q: In addition to political economy, what other social and political factors are constraints on or necessary preconditions for mitigation action? Nathan and Leon, along with others, co-chair the Mitigation Working Group of the iGST, which is contending with this exact question. In your capacity at the University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability, you recently released a working paper finding that a multi-sector approach could reduce U.S. net GHG emissions by 51% by 2030. You wrote in that piece that “all approaches depend fundamentally on the ability to implement ambitious actions and a durable commitment to maintain and enhance them over the coming decade.” Can you say more about what will determine whether the U.S. has the ability to implement, and maintain a commitment to, the new NDC and even more ambitious NDCs?
Nathan Hultman: In the U.S., the world of 2021 is very different from the world of 2014 in terms of climate action. I don’t want to say, look, everything’s fixed. At the same time, change has happened. There is a different basis for action on climate in 2021 in the United States than there was in 2014, when the U.S. presented its first NDC.
There is a theory here—I don’t know that we’ve proven it—that big change in the United States doesn’t happen from the top down. It doesn’t happen anymore by Congress passing the Clean Climate Act that solves everything for the next 40 years. Instead, change comes from the bottom up. Laboratories of democracy—states, cities, businesses—experiment, identify strategies that work for them, increase their leadership, and support peer-to-peer learning. In the last four years, by our calculations, about 70% of the U.S. economy—the world’s second-largest economy, in approximate terms—has been doing this work. So that effort is pretty big.
The process is really important here. It’s not just that action is undertaken from the bottom up, but also that the approach to climate is embedded in diverse political systems. The theory is that what we’re seeing now is consistent with a transformation of U.S. climate politics. The fact is that a lot of recent and anticipated U.S. climate action is possible only because of the raised baseline created by subnational actors over the last five or six years. It’s also possible that by building the subnational story in a much more deeply rooted way, including at different jurisdictional levels, climate action is more likely to stick.
Leon Clarke: In the Mitigation Working Group, we hope to clarify metrics that go beyond simple measures of action. The way I think about it is that your starting point is the number of states, cities, federal agencies taking climate action and the number of laws or measures in place. Then you have to step back and say, any ambition is going to be dependent on democracy, on people voting for action with their wallets and also at the voting booth, an obviously huge issue for us in the United States.
The question then is what are the metrics that you would be evaluating to see whether folks really are going to be enthusiastic about climate action over the long haul and whether we can overcome political economy barriers, institutional barriers, and other barriers to progress? I don’t think we’ve figured that out.
The climate is not your entry point. Your entry point is issues like equity, jobs, energy security, energy access, and national security more generally. All of those issues are what actually drive progress on climate mitigation. The question to me is how well you’re structuring the process so that it is answering the call on those other priorities, that is, how much of the country believes that the process will lead to a brighter future and be better for them.
Sivan: Leon, I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that this is a democracy and, at the end of the day, what can get done at the political level really is entirely dependent on what politicians’ constituencies prefer or support or will stand for. The effectiveness of the bottom-up approach versus that of the top-down approach and the effectiveness of a regime have a lot to do with the politics of the moment.
Now there’s just a lot more support for climate action. There are a lot of interesting things going on at subnational levels, whether it’s a municipality’s willingness to adopt a stretch building code or whether it’s a city like LA signing onto the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty or deciding to divest.
Tom: Nate, the bottom-up story that you told—that this multilevel, distributed thing is happening—is clearly absolutely true. Subnational actors are incredibly important. In the United States the Overton window is too small to view the international challenge through. You wind up only talking about the domestic side of the equity problem. In that context, you can’t even really talk about planetary boundaries, though we all know they’re decisive.
Nathan: Leon and I have been working on questions for U.S. NDC framing. We’re thinking about long-term strategies in the context of the U.S. now. How do we understand the equity, economics, and political economy questions? I don’t have full answers for them.
Tom, regarding the Overton window in the U.S., I think that the sense of what is possible has shifted tremendously in the last three years. When we did our 2019 report, Accelerating America’s Pledge, we came out with a 49% U.S. NDC number for 2030 emissions reductions. It was really the first big U.S. NDC assessment of the modern era, and 49% seemed extraordinary. We’re now in a world where it’s seen as much more possible, and there’s an exciting possibility of a 50-plus percent reduction by 2030. Whether or not you agree with the number, even getting to 50 was a big deal, in terms of shifting windows.
That’s progress on the domestic side. The question is, how are we going to reframe and understand international action? My first thought was that there are a lot of actors taking on net-zero targets and not to support U.S. action. They’re adopting targets to support global action on climate, to contribute to a global 1.5-degree-compatible pathway.
Sivan: In the context of climate, international equity pretty quickly translates into means of implementation. It’s been so hard to have that conversation at the international level, but it almost seems irrelevant at the subnational level, and yet you brought up a really nice example of how subnational actors can take action that is also meant to have significance at the international level.
What does global equity among subnational actors look like? I think that is one of the key questions. In fact, Tom and I are engaging a lot more with U.S. NGO organizations that are focused on environmental justice at the community level. What does this mean for them, and how do they see their position as actors who can take action on that level? I feel like I have a ton to learn about that.
Q: Now that the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Agreement, how do you think inputs by the U.S.—as a party to the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement—can best support a robust and effective GST? How can independent communities, in the U.S. and around the globe, support it?
Sivan: I would go back to a comment that Tom made: take the “i” in iGST really seriously. That’s where our real value add is. I don’t mean just in terms of doing objective nonpartisan research, but in terms of recognizing the political constraints on the GST and deciding that we’re not going to be bound by those constraints.
For example, we can take up issues that are of importance to meet the goals of Paris like finance. We can also look not just at collective assessment but also at individual party assessment. Collective assessment is a screen that parties adopted in Lima and have retained. There are also parts of a decarbonization transition that just don’t appear in the UNFCCC, like supply-side policy. There is a lot that could be said about what countries might put forward as inputs to a GST to elaborate what they are doing on the supply side.
Casey: We need to start thinking now about the two-year timeline of the Global Stocktake that kicks off later this year, and how there will be several entry points. How do we sequence inputs over the two-year period? There are some formal inputs to the Global Stocktake, but as Tom and Sivan said, we need to lean into the “i” in iGST, and what we can do as an independent community. The next two years are critical in thinking about a narrative arc.
Tom: In the equity space, it’s clear to us that there are really, really profound issues that are out of scope and politically unmanageable from the point of view of the formal process. Nate and Leon, do you have a similar issue wherein there are questions on the mitigation side that you really need independence to investigate, or do you find that the mitigation challenge is circumscribed such that the independent analysis and the formal negotiation more or less map onto each other?
Leon: Absolutely, I think political economy, or your much broader framing, Tom, societal change, is fundamentally what the iGST is about. We can list a variety of solutions, such as how many renewables need to be deployed, how much coal needs to go away, and how much emissions need to go down, but those metrics are very different from getting at the root causes of the political economy surrounding these solutions. That reframing work, I think, has to be done by the independent community.
We have two questions for the Mitigation Working Group. First, how do you measure the progress of change on the political economy side? Second, once you have thought about how you measure equity, how do you make that have influence? In the UN process, it’s very clear. We have an official Stocktake. On the independent side, we know the independent community is extremely powerful and does a lot to move the ball forward, but how exactly do the outputs of our independent work make their way into the body politic?
This brings me back to an earlier point in our discussion: the increasing feeling that taking action on climate, at least in the near term, is not necessarily an economic loser. There was a storyline out there for some time about the uncertainty of climate impacts versus the enormous costs of climate action. You’ve seen the independent community countering that storyline, which is receding. What are some of the storylines that remain, that drive the way people think about climate action in the popular discourse?
Tom: One of the things that has changed is that the perception that equity is a side issue is gone. By and large, people realize that the equity issue is central. This new perception changes everything.