As world leaders gathered at the G20 Summit in Argentina, the question on everyone’s mind was this: How many can they share a cup of tea with? The newly agreed-upon climate deal is still only a wish list—not a binding agreement on reduction of carbon emissions. Countries will continue to announce changes, giving the impression of full implementation.
There is no doubt that climate change will lead to disastrous social and environmental changes, and the consequences will be irreversible. Despite this, an ambitious global climate deal is the only solution to restore a sustainable environment for our future generations.
Global climate leaders lacked political will to bring all governments on board the same page. The U.S. remains a top emitter, China produces more emissions than the U.S. combined, and India poses the biggest challenge to reduce carbon emissions.
The only way to ensure a climate deal is viable is to resolve the impasse over who must do what, and when. To achieve climate change control, at the heart of an agreement should be that no country has all the power.
Think of it as a series of arenas: First, we have to reach the international consensus to start a global warming fight. Second, we must agree on the steps that we want to take to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Third, we need to direct the actions to the specific sectors where emission reduction and efficiency are possible. And finally, we need to figure out how we will finance the transitions required to end the use of fossil fuels. All five pieces, leaving other parts for later, must be finished first in order to have one accord on climate change.
Today, more than 40 percent of emissions are from land use—indeed, over 80 percent of land is used to grow or harvest crops. Land is already a source of serious greenhouse gases. Land is particularly important for biofuels. On top of that, the use of methane—the main component of natural gas—is a significant part of methane emissions.
In the highly fertile north of Brazil, an area roughly half the size of England, the use of such enormous resources has allowed Brazil to enjoy economic growth and become a powerful exporter of ethanol. Thanks to these lucrative incentives, the area has ballooned from 90,000 hectares in 2010 to over 4.2 million hectares in 2015. More than 10 million hectares of available land is within the Amazon Basin. Reducing the use of these fertile landscapes will allow Brazil to become a leader in the world in biomass production and fuel. A good example of what is possible is the livelihood of many indigenous communities who support themselves by growing biomass on small plots of land.
To successfully ramp up such production, Brazil needs to overcome several challenges. First, Brazil’s state-owned company is also a producer of ethanol, buying large quantities of ethanol from other countries, including Russia, Argentina, Romania, and the Ukraine. This is the wrong choice. Producing ethanol locally creates jobs and the benefits for the local population. But this role has been delegated to state-owned companies, which face problems with profitability and regulatory challenges. Second, Brazil imports 20 percent of its ethanol, mostly from Europe. This does not give Brazil the credibility it needs to develop homegrown production.
The most important task facing climate leaders is to reach agreement on how we want to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. Without agreement, we will fail to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. We need all the countries to come to terms with one another and if there are large differences among them on policies—as there are between China and the U.S.—in such a situation the countries can and should work together.
Under the banner of “editing global warming,” the Brazilian government signed a statement with its international partners at the G20 Summit. Perhaps if some pressure were applied, the potential agreement on climate change would take a much stronger shape.
In the only way to ensure a climate deal is viable is to resolve the impasse over who must do what, and when. To have such an agreement, we need to resolve the individual players in the process, and this will require a high degree of political will, which not everyone has. Indeed, the G20 leaders did not give the climate summit the push it needed.
Ivan Comella is the director of energy and climate strategy at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.