Why Climate Pledges Become Hollow Promises

Why Climate Pledges Become Hollow Promises

Photograph by Ira Grünberger / Connected Archives


Words by Molly Lipson

Allegations that the UK was retracting the £11.6 billion it had promised to put towards tackling the climate crisis has made clear just how ineffective government pledges can be in reversing global heating.

When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, governments are arguably the most powerful entities in making concrete change. Collectively and individually, world governments have made many climate pledges over the decades—non-legally binding promises to take action on the climate crisis. These promises come in two main forms. The first comprises global commitments that typically see wealthy nations promise to funnell spending towards less wealthy countries, providing them with the capital to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the US has pledged to donate $500m over five years to support Brazil’s efforts to end deforestation of the Amazon. The second type of climate pledge is based on countries’ internal targets around cutting emissions. Then, money is dedicated to these efforts as well.


The UN Conference of the Parties (COP) is where many of these pledges get made. Because wealth, carbon emissions, and the impacts of the climate crisis are distributed unevenly across the world, richer countries are tasked with taking on a greater responsibility in tackling the effects of climate change. At COP15 in 2009, for example, wealthy countries made a pledge to donate $100 billion per year from both public and private sector sources to poorer countries by 2020. This was not met.  


Many other pledges have been made and missed. At COP26, which took place in Glasgow, rich countries pledged another $100 billion to tackle the crisis. This included an £11.6 billion contribution from the UK government, but last week The Guardian reported that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was planning to retract this pledge and drop the target altogether. The news came after years of cuts to aid funding, but the government has since denied these claims, stating that it remains committed to delivering on the promise. 


Either way, the news brought into focus just how ineffective climate pledges can be. It’s not just financial promises that are being quietly repealed. Internal pledges to halt deforestation and reduce methane and fossil fuel emissions have continually not been met


In 2015, the Paris Agreement was hailed as the most significant pledge in history, though it has also been criticized for not going far enough. Its main goal was to restrict global heating to below two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the measurement for global temperature. It has since been widely agreed upon that we must keep temperatures to 1.5 degrees of warming at most.


Nearly a decade later, we are far from achieving this. “We are still nowhere near the scale and pace of emission reductions required to put us on track toward a 1.5 degrees Celsius world. To keep this goal alive, national governments need to strengthen their climate action plans now and implement them in the next eight years,” says the Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change Simon Stiell.


This perspective was bolstered by the 2018 IPCC report that reinforced the unlikelihood of reducing our emissions enough to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Alarmingly, the IPCC’s authors—leading scientists from around the world—reported that we had only twelve years to meet this. Now, the reality is it will be impossible to achieve this—pledges made at COP26 were not enough to meet the Agreement’s aims. Instead, the conference highlighted that we are currently on track for closer to 2.5 degrees of global warming.

Climate pledges are focused on the physical, scientific nature of the problem, not its socio-economic causes

The consequences of not meeting these pledges are disastrous. The last two IPCC reports have laid out what a world at 1.5 degrees of global warming will look like, and it’s apocalyptic: coral reefs would almost completely disappear; extreme weather would worsen in frequency and ferocity; we will lose countless plant and animal species; and melting ice and rising sea levels would create flooding across the world. The severity of the situation renders a world that is 2.5 degrees warmer almost unimaginable.


The problem with requiring change from wealthy states is two-fold. First, the kind of infrastructure that governments commit to don’t tackle the root causes of the climate crisis and global heating: racial capitalism. In fact, governments uphold racial capitalism and are deeply invested in maintaining it. Climate pledges are focused on the physical, scientific nature of the problem, not its socio-economic causes.


Secondly, and connected to this, is the fact that these are also the countries who will be least affected by climate collapse, lowering their incentive to provide aid. In reality “least affected” means very little—we are all being impacted by climate change already and though its impacts vary, it is bad for everyone. But countries in the Global South are being affected first and worst, as well as being disproportionately impacted by its causes. The lack of empathy and solidarity from Global North countries is clear, and it is already having lethal consequences.


At the same time, we have placed much of our time, resources, energy, and, worst of all, hope, in governments to instigate and implement change. It makes sense—they are the ones with the money and power to do so. Recognizing this isn’t working can leave us feeling hopeless and despondent. However, we can ease our reliance on the state to fix the problem by shifting our approach to ourselves.


We know what is needed, and rather than try to convince governments of this, we can focus on our own communities instead. For example, we know that Indigenous communities, whose practices and way of living have always been in harmony with nature and the natural world, hold many of the solutions. We could divert our time and attention to finding ways to amplify, support, and practice Indigenous methods without being extractive and exploitative.


With the onset of climate collapse, it’s also important for us to start preparing for the world state powers have led us to—and to start to build the infrastructure we need to keep us more resilient, safe and protected.


There’s a substantial move to fund and support grassroots communities and projects that are working towards climate resilience and protection. The CLIMA Fund, for example, partners with small organizations across the world that are working on climate protection and climate resilience. One example is OFRANEH in Honduras, which defends the cultural and territorial rights of the Garífuna people, a matriarchal community dedicated to preserving and protecting the natural world. There’s also the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, which supports women, youth, and Indigenous-led projects in parts of East Africa and the Bay of Bengal amongst other regions.


There’s no doubt that climate pledges sound good, look good, and allow those in power to put forward the notion that they are Doing Something. But the continuous failure to meet these pledges makes it clear that making them in the first place is a waste of time when they are not backed by substantial policy reform, especially for those of us building towards climate justice. We are strong, powerful, and dedicated, and if we focus our attention elsewhere, we can turn our distrust of government into radical action that better serves the communities who are experiencing the worst effects of the climate crisis in the first place.

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