Global Climate Crisis Talks Are Underway. What Does It Mean For Angelenos?
You're probably hearing these phrases being thrown around right now: COP26, U.N. climate conference, Glasgow summit, 1.5 degrees Celsius.
If you don’t want last summer to be the coolest summer of the rest of your life (it was California’s hottest on record), then you'll want to know what these terms mean — and how the international conference affects us here in L.A.
What Is COP26?
COP26 is a more convenient way to say “the 26th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”
It’s the biggest and most important global meeting about the climate emergency. Many see this year's as a crucial turning point for humanity.
Starting October 31, and continuing for two weeks, world leaders and officials (including President Biden, California’s Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti) from 197 countries are together in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss how we can stop the earth from heating up more than it already has.
(You can see the full schedule for COP26 here. Many events will be livestreamed.)
Is It Connected To The Paris Agreement?
It’s the follow-up to the 2015 Paris global climate conference, COP21. That meeting led to 195 countries, including the United States, signing the Paris Agreement, which, for the first time required nations to submit their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limit global heating.
(Former President Trump took us out of the agreement, but President Biden put us back in earlier this year, soon after he took office.)
The agreement also pushed wealthier nations like the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom to scale up efforts to contribute a total of $100 billion a year to help developing nations deal with the impacts of the climate emergency.
So far, those wealthier nations have fallen far short on that pledge. COP26 could be a powerful moment to strengthen those promises.
What Will Be Happening?
It’s all about the numbers.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we've pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere more quickly, and in greater concentrations, than ever. Those gases, like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, trap energy from the sun, keeping it from escaping back out into space. That’s called the greenhouse effect. Some amount of the greenhouse effect is good because it's a big reason why so much life has been able to thrive on earth. But too many of these gases in the atmosphere makes us heat up too fast for ecosystems to adjust, which is where we’re at now. As a result, since the early 1800s, we’ve increased the temperature of the planet by a little more than 1 degree C (about 1.8 degrees F).
The world is on track to heat up by around 2.6 to 3.1 degrees C (about 5.4 degrees F) by the end of the century if we maintain our current volume of greenhouse gas emissions.
That is bad. Very, very bad. At 3.0 degrees C of warming, we will lose the majority of the world’s coral reefs, deal with more deadly heat waves, and see many major coastal cities go underwater.
At the summit, countries will review their Paris commitments and hopefully agree upon even more ambitious plans to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). And if they can’t do that, then no more than 2.0 degrees C (about 3.6 degrees F).
The U.S. is by far the largest perpetrator of the climate emergency. For more than a century, we have pumped more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country in the world.
China has now eclipsed the U.S. in annual global emissions, but it’s those cumulative emissions that matter most. That means the U.S. remains the biggest contributor to the climate disasters we’re experiencing today.
Countries that contribute negligible amounts of planet-warming emissions, like the Marshall Islands, Bangladesh, and Lesotho, however, are already dealing with some of the most devastating consequences of a warming planet, from rising sea levels to flooding and crop-killing drought.
What Does COP26 Mean For L.A.?
The climate emergency may be a global issue, but it’s felt locally. Take sea level rise. Even if we do limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, places like Long Beach and Huntington Beach will still experience significant coastal flooding, likely before the end of the century.
If global temperatures end up rising above 2.0 degrees C, we’ll see even bigger and hotter fires across the county, particularly in the San Gabriel Mountains, which will become more susceptible to fires, according to a recent study from L.A. County.
Places like Lancaster and Santa Clarita could see average summer temperatures, already about 100 degrees F, rise by as much as six degrees. This extreme heat will be even more dangerous in areas where there are fewer trees and shade.
Neighborhoods in central L.A., like Westlake and Crenshaw, will be prone to inland flooding as rainfall becomes even less common but more extreme when it does come.
The images below show what could happen to iconic L.A landmarks if we don’t curb our emissions.
Use the slider to compare the difference between a 1.5-degree C temperature rise and a 3-degree C rise.
Can We Slow Down Warming To 1.5 degrees Celsius?
Well, maybe. As a planet we’ve already made some progress since the Paris conference in 2015, when we were projected to hit nearly 4.0 degrees C of heating by 2100.
Even more good news is that over the last six years, much has changed when it comes to renewable energy technology and market demand.
Worldwide, solar and wind power are cheaper than ever. In 2020, 90% of electricity generated from renewable energy was less expensive than electricity produced from fossil fuels. Electric vehicles are gaining popularity and affordability. The coal market, a huge source of emissions, has started to collapse.
Countries are also actively working to reduce fossil fuel emissions. In 2014, no country had a plan to achieve net zero emissions. Now more than 84% of the world does.
But while economics may be on our side, political will is less promising. Though China’s new climate plan is more ambitious than its last, many say it’s not enough. Countries like Australia and Russia haven’t updated their previous plans. And Biden’s ambitious domestic climate plan has already been watered down. The path ahead will require political leadership and governmental coordination unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.
Where Are We Headed?
At this point, it’s looking like we’ll probably hit 1.5 degrees of warming sometime in the 2030s.
By 2100, if countries keep the promises they’ve put on paper, we could limit global heating to around 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius.
As of now we’re projected to have about 3.0 degrees Celsius increase by 2100.
Worst-case scenario climate projections forecast a global temperature rise of about 5.0 degrees Celsius.
What Can We Do At A Local Level?
At this point, maybe you just want to throw your hands in the air and give up. We get it — this stuff is scary, like, existentially scary. But don’t put your head in the sand yet, because especially as an Angeleno and Californian, you can push for changes at the local level that could reverberate globally.
California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, so it has significant heft in influencing global climate decisions. Los Angeles, the state’s most populous county, can play a big role in pushing California to achieve its goals.
Decisions that will help us adapt to the impacts of the climate emergency are often made by local governments, so who you vote for, what city council meetings you attend and how well you understand where you get your electricity and water from, really does matter.
Local governments also can make a big dent in statewide emissions through local initiatives like building electric vehicle infrastructure, retrofitting homes and old buildings, and banning new oil and gas drilling. These things are already happening, but they could happen faster.
As history shows, however, big industries with deep pockets too often sway policy. Many environmental and climate justice groups in L.A. have been doing grassroots work for decades to fight industry interests and address the fact that communities of color are hurt most by industrial pollution and the climate crisis — and they’ve had significant wins.
What Are Los Angeles And California's Plans?
L.A. already has one of the most ambitious plans in the country. It wants to become the nation’s first major city to rely entirely on clean energy by 2035. It's also working to make sure that energy transition happens with a heavy focus on racial and economic equity.
At the state level, California has already slashed its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels in large part because of bold new renewable energy standards. California has also pushed much of the nation to adopt stronger clean car rules.
But the state’s top clean air regulator says we need to move faster on emissions cuts if we’re going to achieve 40 percent below 1990 emissions levels by 2030 and carbon neutrality no later than 2045.
Still, with some of President Biden’s key climate initiatives hitting obstacles and the previous administration’s inaction setting the world even further behind, cities and states are increasingly taking the lead on climate action.
So whether you tune in to COP26 to hear firsthand what global leaders have to say, or you just want to listen to the comforting voice of Sir David Attenborough who will be at the conference as the People’s Advocate, you’ll be participating in a process that will have implications for generations of future SoCal residents.