Did We Blow Our Last, Best Chance to Tackle Climate Change?

Itn mid-2020, after the pandemic had settled in, I wrote in a TIME cover story that the stars had aligned to make 2020 and 2021 the “last, best chance” to keep the world from experiencing the worst impacts of climate change. Temperatures have risen more than 1.1°C since the Industrial Revolution, and the COVID-19 pandemic had unexpectedly opened up new pathways to rethink the global economy to help the world avoid the 1.5°C of temperature rise, long seen as a marker of when the planet will start to experience the catastrophic and irreversible effects of climate change.

It seems that the world is on track to lose it 18 months later. All governments around the world have failed to invest big in green economic recovery. Political leaders from the world’s largest economies have made lofty promises to eliminate their carbon footprints but failed to offer concrete policies to get there. And President Joe Biden’s ambitions for bold climate legislation have been stymied in Congress.

“We’re sort of standing on the precipice,” says Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project. “I am loath to say it, but I’m deeply skeptical that we will reduce emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5°.”

So with two landmark years for the planet—not to mention everyone who lives on it—in the rearview mirror, it’s worth looking at the missed opportunities. But it’s just as important to consider what comes next: missed chances cannot be viewed as an excuse to give up.

How to spend money

The most obvious—and perhaps easiest—opportunity to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into progress in the fight against climate change boiled down to dollars and cents. The economic shock caused by COVID-19, and subsequent lockdowns required governments to invest trillions in order to keep the wheels moving. Both hardheaded analysts and optimistic activists agreed that governments need to spend more on projects that promote clean energy, and encourage the transformation of polluting sectors.

This message caught on quickly, and a “green recovery” became a key talking point for heads of government from countries large and small. However, the majority of these strategies failed to take root as the pandemic continued. According to the International Energy Agency’s October report, only 3% of $17 trillion spent by countries on disaster recovery has been dedicated to sustainable recovery and clean energy. This problem is even more acute in developing countries that can struggle to find financing for clean electricity. Other analyses have been more optimistic—but only slightly so. In April, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that 17% recovery spending would bring environmental benefits and 17% were negative or mixed. The remainder was neither and it supported the business of its usual.

This number presents huge obstacles to climate change progress. The first is that building new infrastructure based on fossil fuels ensures a sustainable future for coal, oil and gas for many decades. A country is unlikely to invest millions in a new pipeline and then shut it down years later. In many cases, infrastructure spending is a loss-making endeavor. Once the money is spent, it’s gone, and the opportunity to spend big again may not come back again for years or decades. “We’ve spent a lot of money very quickly,” says Jackson. “We won’t get that money back.”


Before the pandemic hit, 2020 was supposed to be an important year for climate action. The 2015 Paris Agreement established a cycle that required all countries to agree on new climate pledges before a conference called COP26 in Glasgow.

Organizers of the summit—originally scheduled for the fall of 2020 and held a year later as a result of the pandemic—planned the talks with the hope that, when the summit concluded, country commitments would leave the world with a clear and viable pathway to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C. The complex outcome came after two heated weeks of negotiation. If you extrapolate from countries’ promises to eliminate their carbon footprints, temperature rise might be limited to around 1.8°C, according to an analysis from Climate Action Tracker.

Countries committed to “phasing down” coal and eliminating “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. Perhaps more importantly, countries said they would return next year once again with new policies to bring the world even closer to the 1.5°C. “Despite what I would describe as a fractured international politics more generally, we did have consensus,” says Alok Sharma, the British minister who served as COP26’s president.

But promises don’t mean much without policies to make them possible. A leader could promise that it will eliminate its carbon footprint by 2050. However, to achieve this goal requires specific policies. These include deploying renewable energy or switching to electric vehicles. And, if you add up the real policies that drive enacted by countries by the middle of COP26, temperatures are expected to rise 2.7°C—a big gap from the 1.8°C suggested by the vague promises.

The outcome was better than many expected, but it seems fair to say that much work remains to be done to really put the world on a 1.5°C trajectory. “Is [the agreement] enough to hold global warming to 1.5°?” James Shaw, New Zealand’s climate minister, asked his counterparts at the end of the conference. “I honestly can’t say that I think that it does, but we must never, ever give up.”

Political Change

The U.S. is the world’s largest economy and second largest greenhouse gas emitter after China, and so what happens in Washington matters a great deal for global efforts to cut emissions. Donald Trump, the president of the United States, took America backwards by slashing climate rules, taking the country out the Paris Agreement and slowing down the rest of the globe at the same. Biden was elected to the presidency promising that the United States would recommit to climate action. The issue was at the center of his international and domestic agendas. He made an important promise in April: To reduce US emissions by 50% or less by 2030 as opposed to 2005 levels.

The Biden Administration has described its strategy as an “all of government” approach, meaning every agency and official needs to consider how their work can help address the issue. The Administration, however, has based much of its agenda upon a crucial piece of legislation called Build Back Better, in spite of a multitude of regulations and rules aimed at reducing emissions.

This spending plan was approved by the House of Representatives on November 25th. It includes more than $550 Billion in clean and climate investments. These would be used to promote electric vehicle adoption, conservation efforts, tax incentives, and encourage clean energy. That kind of investment is transformational at the macro level. Several independent analyses have shown that when combined with other measures, like tighter efficiency rules for automobiles and another key infrastructure package which Biden signed into law earlier this year, the investment would allow the U.S. to meet Biden’s 2030 target.

The target is an empty promise without it or something on a similar scale. “It’s impossible to get from here to there without these investments,” says John Podesta, the former advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who now works on climate issues, of the role Build Back Better bill plays in meeting Biden’s goal.

However, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin said to Fox News on December 19 that he did not support the current version. Because the legislation needs support from every Democratic member of the Senate to pass, Manchin’s statement undermined both Biden’s climate agenda and global climate efforts more broadly. “If we don’t pass this, we basically have lost the war,” Sean Casten, a member of the House of Representatives from Illinois, told me earlier in December. “This is how we actually make sure that the fires, the floods don’t get worse every year.”

The next step

All of that sounds sad. While keeping temperature rise to 1.5°C may still be technically possible, it becomes harder and harder to imagine leaders finding the political will to do so with each passing year. That means an increasing likelihood that we may soon trigger a tipping point that leads to non-linear changes—think of the melting of Arctic permafrost that releases huge quantities of methane, for example, that in turn leads to even faster warming.

Climate experts are often reluctant to acknowledge that a critical threshold is already passed. Acceptance of this reality can often be seen as a sign that we are giving up.

But there’s another way to look at it. On a recent panel I moderated, Michael Greenstone, a University of Chicago economics professor who served as the chief economist on Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, ran through his calculations of the damage done by each ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. His conclusion was simple: “Every ton matters.”

No matter how close we are to hitting 1.5°C of warming—or by how much we’ve passed it—every ton of carbon matters, as does every new effort the world makes in reducing the harm being done. Both 2020 and 2021 were disappointing years for the world. Leaders must go back to the drawing boards in 2022.

Here are more must-read stories from TIME

To Justin Worland at


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