In 2020, the world paused. Climate change did not (2024)

Nearly three decades ago, countries committedthrough the United Nations FrameworkConvention on Climate Change to preventdangerous anthropogenic interference withthe climate system by stabilising greenhousegas concentrations in the atmosphere.Today, however, this hazardous humaninterference is already well underway: wehave experienced 1°C of warming overpre-industrial levels and are seeing climatechange impacts on the ground. At thispoint, we must accept that climate changeis already happening and urgently reduceemissions to avoid warming to even moredangerous levels, while working to adapt tothe climate change impacts that can no longerbe avoided.


In the global governance of climate change, 2020was intended to be a year of intensive work toshorten the distance between the current anddesired trajectories in climate change mitigation.Concern about climate change was at a high pointin many constituencies: school strikes for climateaction were widespread, Oxford Dictionaries chose“climate emergency” as the word of the year, andin the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report2020, issues related to global warming occupiedall five top positions in the most likely risks for thecoming decade. Announcements of new climatemitigation targets and actions by states, regionalorganisations and companies were starting toemerge: Chile declared its intention to go carbonneutral in June 2019, the new European Commissionannounced the European Green Deal and itsgoal of climate neutrality by 2050, and Microsoftlaunched plans to be carbon negative by 2030.

However, this year has not gone according to plan.COP26, the major UN climate summit scheduledfor November 2020 in Glasgow, has been postponed. Governments, individuals and indeed the entire world have had toshift their attention to a problem requiring urgent, immediate and full dedication:the COVID-19 pandemic engulfing the globe. In the short term, the battleagainst the COVID-19 pandemic has made an unintentional contribution tothe fight against climate change. To prevent the virus’s spread, large swathesof the world’s economy were effectively shut down, which led local air pollutionlevels and energy-related greenhouse gas emissions to drop. However,this effect is likely to be only temporary – when the economy revs up again,so will emissions. More relevant, perhaps, are the lessons that the responses tothe COVID-19 crisis might yield for climate action, particularly those related toindividual behaviour and collective action.

There are a number of important similarities between the climate crisisand the COVID-19 crisis. First and foremost, they are clear examples ofcollective action problems. Both problemsaffect all of humankind – though some individualsand states may be more resilient andbetter equipped to deal with their impacts.In addition, both carbon dioxide emissionsand COVID-19 display non-linear growthrates. The solutions to the two problems areextremely expensive, and they require interventionsthat deeply affect our economiesand our societies. Furthermore, the solutionscannot come about without international cooperation,as neither problem respects borders.1 Finally, science plays a critical role: uncertaintyis the enemy of effective action and robust scientific research iskey to accurately diagnosing the situation and implementing the correctsolutions.

Nevertheless, there is also a fundamental difference between the challenges:their horizon. The measures currently being put in place to fight the novelcoronavirus would have been unfathomable just months ago. Yet the immediacyand visibility of the virus’s impact on human and societal healthjump-started governments, companies and entire societies into drastic action.The effects of climate change, in contrast, are already being felt, but theyare not felt equally around the world, and they are often subtler – for now.Scientists have been publishing warnings on the impending emergency fordecades. Endless graphs have confirmed rising temperature trends and extremeweather events are already becoming more intense and frequent; yetthe most invasive, direct and extreme impacts of our warming world still lieahead.

Some action has been taken, but it is far fromenough. If not addressed, the pernicious lagbetween scientific warnings and the action totackle the problem will have major and irreversibleconsequences for the planet and itsinhabitants. The issue is that humans, generallyspeaking, are not psychologically equippedto make the drastic changes necessary – exceptin acute crises, when we feel immediateand direct impacts. The same holds true forthe political systems humans have built. Thecrux of the question for climate change, then,is how to achieve effective and rapid collectiveaction on a critical problem with a longtermhorizon.

This chapter will examine the action that has– and has not – been taken, placing the spotlighton the United Nations’ past and futurerole. In order to do so, it answers the threedeceptively simple questions (Where are we?Where do we want to go? How do we get there?) that guided the so-calledTalanoa Dialogue in 2018,2 and that structure the present volume on theUnited Nations’ 75th anniversary. The reality is that a practicable globalframework exists to address the climate change challenge: the ParisAgreement, which was designed under the umbrella of the UN FrameworkConvention on Climate Change. Yet the world is not heading inthe right direction. The only way to right the course is through urgentglobal, national and individual action.

Where are we? In what direction is the world heading?

At the time of writing, the carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth’s atmospherestood at 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution,the concentration was approximately 280 ppm. Cumulative carbondioxide levels have been increasing year-on-year for decades, coming evercloser to the 450 ppm limit scientists have indicated as the level beyondwhich the effects of human interference with the climate system will becomemuch more dangerous and unpredictable. This number roughlytranslates to about 2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Today, however, our planet is already on average approximately 1°C warmerthan it was before the Industrial Revolution (IPCC, 2018). If global greenhousegas emissions were to continue to rise unchecked – that is, if noclimate action at all were taken – the world would see temperatures rise by4.1°C to 4.8°C on average by 2100 (Climate Action Tracker, 2019). If countriescontinue to implement the policies they currentlyhave in place, global temperatures areexpected to be around 3°C higher than pre-industriallevels by 2100 (UNEP, 2019). These numbersare far from compatible with the 1.5°C and2°C limits states have committed to in order tostem global warming.

For over 30 years now, countries have beencooperating to try to address the climate change challenge, primarily inthe framework of the United Nations, through two principle components:the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UN FrameworkConvention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The IPCC is the essentialscientific organ: through its regular assessment reports on the state of climatescience and special reports on specific issues, the panel compiles abroad and broadly accepted base of policy-relevant scientific knowledgethat countries can work from when designing international and nationalmeasures and policies.

The UNFCCC, on the other hand, is where the global governance of climatechange mitigation and adaptation takes place. Created in 1992, the conventionsets the macro-objective of stabilising “greenhouse gas concentrationsin the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenicinterference with the climate system”. It also defines principles that shouldguide states in their action towards that goal. One such principle is thatof Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities,which affirms that while mitigating climate change is the responsibility ofall, states with a larger historical role in the creation of the problem andthose that have more resources to address it should bear more responsibilityfor its solution.

Two main instruments with radically different approaches currently existunder the convention’s umbrella: the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.The 1997 Kyoto Protocol took a regulatory approach, defining staticemissions reductions targets for the so-called Annex I countries (essentially,the most developed countries) in a top-down model. Achieving ratificationwas difficult, however, and though the protocol did eventually come intoforce in 2005, it covered a relatively small segment of global emissions.

The Paris Agreement (PA), which was signed in 2015 and entered intoforce at record speed in 2016, could not be more different from the KyotoProtocol. Rather than covering action by the developed countries only, itovercame the divides of the past to involve all the countries in the world,189 of which had ratified the agreement at the time of writing. The PAoffers a hybrid model with a set of collective goals: to limit global temperatureincreases to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels; to improvethe ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change; and tomake finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhousegas emissions and climate-resilient development. These objectives areset collectively for the entire world, with no individual targets for statesimposed from the top down. Instead, states make voluntary pledges (theso-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)) on what they canand are willing to do in climate change mitigation and adaptation fromthe bottom up.

The question, however, is whether the sum of individual state pledges willsuffice to meet the global goal. The Paris Agreement foresees regular stocktakemoments to make these calculations, providing a clear view of thestate of ambition. States are expected to submit new NDCs every five years,representing a progression past previous NDCs and reflecting their highestpossible ambition. This construct is designed to create a dynamic “ratchetingup” mechanism to reach the global objective. Yet there is no enforcementmechanism to ensure states deliver on their pledges. Instead, the ParisAgreement works through an enhanced transparency framework, whereother states, civil society and indeed domestic constituencies can holdtheir leaders accountable when ambition or action is lacking. A final novelpoint in the Paris Agreement is the increased involvement of non-state actors:that is, sub-state actors such as cities or regions, private actors such ascompanies, and civil society actors including NGOs (see Garcia-Chueca inthis volume).

Is the Paris model delivering? At this point, no. Analyses have shown that ifall policies from the first round of national pledges are implemented, we arestill headed for a world which will be approximately 3°C warmer this century(UNEP, 2019). Does this mean, then, that the Paris model is broken? The answerto this question is also negative. The agreement was designed precisely as adynamic process to increase ambition – and this is why 2020, which is boththe fifth anniversary of the agreement and the 75th anniversary of the UN, is soimportant. This is the year that states are requested to communicate or submitnew and/or updated pledges to the UNFCCC. The UN Secretary-General,among others, has made it a top priority to encourage countries to increasetheir ambition substantially.

Where do we want to go? What kind ofworld do we want to create?

The world we want to create was defined in1992, when the UNFCCC was established: aworld without dangerous anthropogenic interferencewith the climate system. Today, however,this hazardous human interference is alreadywell underway: we have experienced 1°Cof warming over pre-industrial levels and areseeing climate change impacts on the ground.At this point, therefore, we must accept thatclimate change is already happening, andwork to create a world in which warming doesnot progress to even more dangerous levels,through emissions mitigation. For the climatechange impacts that can no longer be avoided,however, adaptation will be critical.

In the Paris Agreement, all of the world’s states agreed to limit global warmingto 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to keep warmingbelow 1.5°C. Even half a degree makes a difference: as shown in theIPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, many of the physical impactsof climate change do not follow a linear track. That is, the impacts of2°C of warming are far worse than those of 1.5°C in terms of sea level rises,extreme heat, water scarcity, crop yields and more. To provide an example,a modelling study found that under a 1.5°C scenario, approximately 14% ofthe global population would experience regular severe heatwaves (like theEuropean heatwave of 2003, which led to tens of thousands of heat-exposure-related deaths). At 2°C of warming, that rate shoots up to almost 37%percent (referenced in IPCC, 2018).

Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming andclimate change and aiming for the 1.5°C target is therefore imperative. Variousorganisations have generated mitigation scenarios compatible withthe 1.5°C goal. The good news is that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees isstill achievable. The bad news, however, is that it will require rapid actionat unprecedented scale – in the shape of a 7.6% reduction in emissionsevery year for the coming ten years (UNEP, 2019). Global emissions are nowprojected to drop by 8% in 2020 (IEA, 2020), but this has only been possiblethrough an inconceivably abrupt shutdown of a large portion of the world’seconomy and transport.

Moreover, once the world’s economic motors restart after the COVID-19crisis, it is likely that the trend of emissions andconsequent global warming will resume. Chinaprovides a demonstration: in January 2020, thecountry was the first in taking the unprecedentedstep of radically halting a large part of its economicactivity to stop the spread of the novelcoronavirus. While the measures were in place,China’s national emissions were a quarter lowerthan over the same period in 2019 (a reductionin carbon dioxide emissions of 200 milliontonnes). The decrease in economic activity ledto declining energy consumption and, in turn,lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, thischange was not permanent. Data showed fromearly March for example, that nitrogen dioxidelevels and coal consumption had returned totheir normal levels (Myllvirta, 2020).

Since greenhouse gas emissions are an inseparable part of our globaleconomy and lifestyles, reaching the 1.5 degree goal requires nothing lessthan a wholesale transformation of current economies and energy models.Today, there are competitive alternatives to fossil fuels for many (thoughnot all) applications. Renewable energy prices, for example, are droppingand solar and wind are vying with other fuels to provide new power generationcapacity. Yet up to now, this has not led to a true energy transition:80% of the world’s energy consumption is still provided through fossil fuelcombustion. Renewable energy sources have not displaced the other fuels:they have simply added a layer on top of the world’s cumulative energyconsumption, contributing to an ever-growing skyscraper. While the relativeshares of certain fossil fuels (such as biomass and coal) have decreasedover certain periods, their contributions to global primary energy supplyhave increased in absolute terms, along with the world’s growing energydemand (Newell & Raimi, 2018).

A true energy transition (rather than a mere pattern of addition) is thus necessaryto create the scenario we want, and it will require action on all fronts:policies, technology and behaviours. Renewable or other zero-carbon energysources will need to be further incorporated into the mix, and energyefficiency must be ramped up. In regions that still rely very heavily on biomass(charcoal and fuelwood), including a large majority of the populationin Sub-Saharan Africa, it will be imperative to choose low- or zero-carbonoptions to meet growing energy needs. However, in order to attain the1.5°C target, further technologies will likely need to be implemented, includingcarbon emissions removal. The IPCC’s special report on the 1.5°Ctarget concludes that unless energy demand declines drastically (whichwould require major behavioural changes), there will be a need for carbondioxide capture and geological storage or use.3

While mitigation receives a lot of attention,adaptation to the already inevitable effects ofclimate change must advance in parallel. This,too, is urgent: the longer adaptation efforts arepostponed, the more expensive they will be.Adaptation will be necessary everywhere, butparticularly in the world’s least developed andsmall island developing states, which often do not have the means to adapt(and have only contributed tangentially to the problem of climate changein the first place). These states will require financial assistance, which developedcountries have committed to through the UNFCCC. However, moreof it will need to flow to adaptation: at present, only about one-fifth of climatefinance is used for adaptation purposes, with the rest flowing to mitigationprojects (OECD, 2019).

How do we get there? How can we shorten the distance betweenthese two worlds?

The only way to tackle this all-encompassing problem, shortening the gapbetween the current and the desired trajectories, is an all-in approach. Thisinvolves three levels of action, each of which is essential and feeds into theothers: the global, national and individual.

At the global level, the Paris Agreement is now nearly five years old. Despitethe fact that action under the agreement is not yet compatible withthe targets it enshrines, it remains the strongest and most representative(and therefore legitimate) instrument currently available to address climatechange, having been signed by all 197 UNFCCC parties after many years ofnegotiations. Given prior experiences (the failure to reach a global treatyat the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, for example) and the state ofmultilateralism in general, it is currently unlikely that a different model (forexample, with more top-down ambition or stronger enforcement mechanisms)would be acceptable to a large number of states. Unless a majorcrisis occurs, the Paris Agreement is therefore the most viable instrumentfor moving climate action forward in the coming years.

Moreover, the catalytic nature of the agreement is designed to enablestronger climate action (Hale, 2018). At this point, work is necessary ontwo main fronts. On the one hand, it is criticalthat the ongoing UNFCCC negotiationson the technical implementation of the ParisAgreement – such as on Article 6 (internationalcarbon markets) and common timeframesfor future NDCs – move forward and lead tostrong outcomes that will facilitate ambitiousclimate action. On the other hand, the newor updated NDCs that states submit this yearneed to represent a strong progression pastthe previous set, seeking alignment with the1.5°C target and carbon neutrality by 2050, as called for by the UN Secretary-General. At the time of writing, 104 countries had stated their intentionto enhance ambition or action in an NDC by 2020, but thesecountries only represent 15% of global emissions (Climate Watch, 2020).The COVID-19 crisis has shifted the world’s focus away from this issue, butit is vital that large emitters commit to enhance their ambition: withouttheir contributions, the window towards maximum warming of 1.5°C oreven 2°C will close rapidly.

The Paris Agreement should not, however, be the only instrument deployed.An all-in approach also involves action by other international organisations– for example, those working on energy-related or economic issues – andby smaller groups of states looking to advance a particular issue. The lattermodel, which some have termed minilateralism (Naím, 2009) or the clubmodel, presents well-known downsides, such as a lack of representativenessand sometimes accountability. However, the urgency and complexityof the climate change challenge calls for action on all possible fronts.

A number of issues in particular will need stronger or more effective globalgovernance going forward. One is geoengineering, which encapsulates ahost of different techniques, from nature-based and technological carbondioxide removal to solar radiation management. At the very least, there isneed for transparency and reporting on these technologies and their useat the international level. Another concerns the areas of aviation and shipping,whose emissions are both growing – in fact, if global aviation werea country, it would feature in the list of the world’s top ten emitters (EuropeanCommission, n.d.). Both the International Civil Aviation Organizationand International Maritime Organization have shifted into a higher gear onemissions-related matters in recent years, but ensuring ambition is highand loopholes are closed will be critical in the near future.

With global governance of climate change-related issues taking place inmany different fora, it should be the role of the UNFCCC not only: (1) tomaintain and strengthen the Paris Agreement, its processes and mechanisms,while continually seeking opportunities for further cooperation;but also (2) to play a catalytic role in accelerating climate governance andactions on many levels; and (3) to monitor and report on the action takingplace in other institutions focusing on aspects of global climate governance.The IPCC, meanwhile, remains indispensable for its continuousassembly of a solid science-based battery of evidence to analyse the climatechange problem and its potential solutions. Finally, to complementthe communication of climate science, global governance organisationsshould also strive to disseminate and multiply success stories, showcasingclimate actions with net positive effects and co-benefits.

Moving to the next level of action, it is clear that global governance cannotbe effective without states. Simply put, and as described above, theParis Agreement objectives – and the world we want to create – cannot bereached without action at the national level. The most immediate contributioncountries can make is to submit highly ambitious NDCs to the UNFCCCprocess in the course of 2020, despite the recent COVID-19-related postponementof the 2020 COP26 summit. States and organisations aspiringto climate leadership, such as the EU, should submit their NDCs as soon aspossible despite the summit change, providing an example to the rest ofthe world. The NDCs submitted by major emitters (China, the EU, and India,among others) will be followed closely, as will the US presidential electionsin November: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has announcedthat he will rejoin the Paris Agreement immediately if elected. In light oftheir historical responsibility, developed countries must show and deliveron their mitigation ambition while meeting their climate finance commitments.

Another high-impact short-term action is to ensure that the post-COVIDeconomic recovery and stimulus plans target clean energies and technologies.The decisions taken now will be critical in the fight against climatechange – but in the current context, public support for ambitiousclimate action may wane as economic and employment concerns surge.Policymakers will therefore need to design stimulus programs carefullyand pragmatically, linking “green” initiatives directly with jobs and growth.Forward-looking national governments, furthermore, could also make themost of the low oil prices to remove fossil fuel subsidies while avoidinglarge economic impacts for their populations. Looking to the medium andlong term, the coming energy transition will create geopolitical and economicopportunities, which governments should study carefully (somestates, such as China, have already moved ahead of the curve in this regard).Finally, public opinion on climate change issues will be critical overall.As demonstrated by the gilets jaunes demonstrationsin France, governments will need toensure that climate policies do not unequallyaffect certain groups in society. The just transitionparadigm is a model here: for those groupsmost affected by the energy transition (workersin sectors such as coal mining, for example),policymakers will need to provide retraining,compensation or alternatives.

Shifting to the individual level, 2019 in particularshowed that public opinion can be a driver for the creation ofclimate policy. Both individual actions that grew into larger movements(such as Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future strikes) and work bymore established NGOs (such as Greenpeace, E3G and Carbon Tracker)can download framings of urgency from the global level or horizontallyand upload their preferences to the national level. Moreover, theParis Agreement offers many opportunities for individuals and NGOs tomonitor national and international ambition and action and make animpact, through its enhanced transparency mechanism. Finally, alongwith policy and technology, individual behaviour and choices will makean important contribution to climate change mitigation. In the case ofCOVID-19, an acute crisis led individuals to understand the importanceof their actions. In the case of climate change, except for those alreadysuffering the effects of global warming on a daily basis (as is the case ofthe inhabitants of some small low-lying island states), it may be moredifficult to instil the importance of behavioural changes. Narratives andeducation can play a major role in helping to overcome the issue of timehorizons that climate change poses.


As is logical and necessary, the COVID-19 crisis is currently dominating ourlives, economies and politics. However, another, slower-simmering crisiswith longer-lasting and potentially irreversible consequences for the planetand our species is still ongoing: climate change. Despite the similaritiesin the problem structures of the two issues, governments and individualswill be slower to react to the latter challenge, for one clear reason: climatechange represents a “tragedy of the horizons” (Mark Carney, 2015). Yet addressingthe longer-term climate crisis is of life- and generation-definingimportance. Indeed, the switch last year by many organisations to theterms “climate crisis” or “climate emergency” represents an attempt to breakpast the issue of the horizons to achieve the action that is so dearly needed.

While our focus must now necessarily be on fighting the pandemic, climateaction and urgency must not disappear.In the short term, the stimulus measures thatare put into place to address the economic situationafter the COVID-19 crisis must be green.When it comes to global governance, the UNat 75 has taken on climate change as one of itsmajor challenges. As a whole, 2020 may havecareened off track and COP26 may have beenpostponed, but the momentum for action in2020 must not be lost. The Paris Agreementand its ratcheting up mechanism are currentlythe world’s best shot at collective action to address climate change, andthis year more than ever, strong leadership – by the UN as well as ambitiousUNFCCC parties such as the EU – will be critical to keep climate action (andindeed the planet) on track.


Climate Action Tracker. Temperatures. December 19th 2019. [Retrieved April1, 2020]:

Climate Watch. 2020 NDC Tracker. n.d. [Retrieved August 21th 2020]:

European Commission. Reducing emissions from aviation. n.d. [RetrievedApril 20th 2020]:

Hale, Thomas. BSG Working Paper Series: Catalytic cooperation (Report No.BSG-WP-2018/026). September 2018. [Retrieved from Blavatnik School ofGovernment, University of Oxford website on April 28th 2020]:

International Energy Agency (IEA). Global Energy Review 2020. April 2020. [RetrievedMay 10th 2020]:

IPCC. Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of globalwarming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhousegas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response tothe threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicatepoverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R.Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidco*ck, S. Connors, J. B. R.Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Mayco*ck, M. Tignor, T.Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press. 2018.

Mark Carney: Breaking the tragedy of the horizon– climate change and financial stability. September29th 2015. [Retrieved April 1st 2020]:

Myllvirta, Lauri. 2020, Analysis: Coronavirus temporarilyreduced China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter.February 19th 2020. [Retrieved April 1st 2020]:

Naím, Moisés. “Minilateralism: The magic number to get real internationalaction”. Foreign Policy, 173 (July/August 2009).

Newell, Richard G., & Raimi, Daniel. The new climate math: Energy addition,subtraction, and transition (Issue Brief No. 18-09). October 2018. [Retrievedfrom Resources for the Future website on April 28th 2020]:

OECD. Climate finance provided and mobilised by developed countries in 2013-17. September 2019. [Retrieved April 28th 2020]:

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Emissions Gap Report 2019.UNEP, Nairobi, 2019.


1. In the case of COVID-19, national or regional borders may be temporarily closed and mayfor a time stem the increase in transmission; however, effectively maintaining border closuresfor an extended period of time seems unimaginable in our globalised world.

2.. A facilitative dialogue held under UNFCCC auspices to take stock of collective efforts towardsthe Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal; the dialogue involved governments,civil society, NGOs, businesses and cities.

3. Most of the scenarios in the report rely heavily on bioenergy with carbon capture andstorage (BECCS).

In 2020, the world paused. Climate change did not (2024)
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