21 September, 2021

The value of climate cooperation


Emma Williams, David Steven, Nick Mabey, Ronan Palmer, Bill Hare and Carl-Friedrich Schleussner

The picture on climate change is bleak. But 30 years of international climate cooperation have had a significant impact. This has included an extraordinary global effort to clarify the science, global agreement of a stabilisation target, an international treaty basis for mitigation and adaptation action, and a wide array of partnerships that have driven up ambition and developed technical solutions.

Without this cooperation, the world would already face even more dangerous and irreversible levels of climate change – and would have none of the tools we need to effect a low-carbon transition.

We present three scenarios:

  • Into the Abyss – where there has been no international action on climate change. In this scenario, the world would already be at or over the 1.5°C threshold and would be committed to an estimated 4.4°C of warming and >30% loss of global GDP by 2100.
  • Base Camp – which describes our current trajectory, with climate cooperation cutting our trajectory to an estimated 2.7°C of warming by the end of this century (range: 2.1°C – 3.5°C).
  • Ascend the Summit – which assumes the world takes immediate and decisive action to shift our trajectory down towards 1.5°C, with at least $36.4 trillion of averted costs through a transformation that relies on more equal societies, a stronger social contract, and greater empowerment of women.

Throughout its history, international climate cooperation may often have failed to deliver as anticipated, but each crisis in the negotiations has encouraged the emergence of more networked and inclusive models of multilateralism. The past thirty years have seen unprecedented cooperation to build the scientific evidence, agree a global goal, design governance systems that can ratchet up ambition in line with the science, and drive the technological advances we now need to deploy at scale. Progress to date, though, has been foundational rather than transformational.

The gap between the Into the Abyss and Base Camp scenarios can be measured in millions of lives and trillions of dollars but impacts and costs at Base Camp remain catastrophically high.

What has been achieved is keeping the path to 1.5°C open, if only barely, and providing the frameworks and tools that make it still just possible to Ascend the Summit within the next 30 years. The 2021 floods in Germany and China, wildfires across Siberia and the Mediterranean, and unprecedented North American ‘heat dome’ show climate change hitting harder and earlier than previously anticipated, and scientists are painting an increasingly dark picture of the future. But at the same time, solutions have rapidly become cheaper and more easily brought to scale. We are now poised at the threshold of what has to be a radical transformation of the global economy, based on these and other emerging solutions.

We don’t know what will happen at the Glasgow Conference of the Parties (COP26).

But whatever happens, it will mark the start of the next cycle of international climate politics – a cycle where:

  • We’re no longer asking politicians to start a journey, but to up ambition and stay the course.
  • New commitments are only as good as the integrity with which they’re implemented.
  • Climate change could drive geopolitical tensions or stimulate multilateral innovation.
  • The action is no longer in formal institutions, but in the networks that spring up between them.

The path to 1.5°C is most likely to stay open if we:

  • Put people at the heart of the transition to net zero, by changing the narrative to one of solutions, success, and inevitability, actively engaging across national, generational, and political divides, and making sure the global low carbon shift and ancillary race to resilience has more winners than losers.
  • Make net zero universal, credible, and inevitable, with binding targets that cover all emissions, an accelerated shift in the legal, regulatory, and policy landscape, and better carbon pricing and markets.
  • Accelerate delivery in the 2020s to keep 1.5°C within reach, by delivering on climate finance commitments, finishing the job on shifts already underway, shaping markets to accelerate uptake of low carbon technologies, filling gaps, and regulating new technology.
  • Organise global systems for a low carbon age, bringing climate institutions together to promote leadership, standards, and accountability, ensuring that climate targets and policies are driven by a full understanding of climate risk and not just mid-range scenarios, making climate core business for every international institution, building solidarity between people and the planet, and investing in resilience and adaptation to a climate changed world.