Right now, world leaders are gathered in Glasgow for the 26th running of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. COP26, as the cool kids are calling it, is focused around the radical idea that maybe we shouldn’t set the entire planet on fire to make a few incomprehensibly rich dudes slightly richer. The UN is aiming to make change through a series of vaguely-worded, entirely non-binding agreements, including one that sets a goal for new car sales to go zero-emission by 2040. It’s the absolute minimum a country can do, signing an agreement with no consequences for failure, but apparently still a bridge too far for the United States.
The declaration comes after over a week of panels, discussions, and agreements at the event. It’s specifically targeted at the automotive market, but not exclusive to consumer cars — fleets, both private and public, are included as well. From the full declaration:
A. As governments, we will work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission by 2040 or earlier, or by no later than 2035 in leading markets.
B. As governments in emerging markets and developing economies, we will work intensely towards accelerated proliferation and adoption of zero emission vehicles. We call on all developed countries to strengthen the collaboration and international support offer to facilitate a global, equitable and just transition.
C. As cities, states, and regional governments, we will work towards converting our owned or leased car and van fleets to zero emission vehicles by 2035 at the latest, as well as putting in place policies that will enable, accelerate, or otherwise incentivise the transition to zero emission vehicles as soon as possible, to the extent possible given our jurisdictional powers.
D. As automotive manufacturers, we will work towards reaching 100% zero emission new car and van sales in leading markets by 2035 or earlier, supported by a business strategy that is in line with achieving this ambition, as we help build customer demand.
E. As business fleet owners and operators, or shared mobility platforms, we will work towards 100% of our car and van fleets being zero emission vehicles by 2030, or earlier where markets allow.
Notice how incredibly vague and non-binding all this language is. “Work towards,” “strengthen the collaboration,” “where markets allow.” There are no hard responsibilities, deadlines, or penalties to be seen anywhere in the document. “Working towards” a goal could mean nearly anything — our country can’t even commit to something that open-ended?
Thirty countries signed on to this declaration, including Britain, Canada, and India, as well as other nations from Europe and Africa. California and Washington State even signed on, doing on a state level what the federal government still refuses to do. The COP26 declarationi s already less stringent than California’s executive order on ICE vehicle sales, but sets a new bar for Washington.
COP26 has been criticized and protested for its lax approach to making change. The conference aims to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a temperature that will already irreparably change the planet’s climate, and analysts claim that these new climate pledges won’t even come close to halting things there. If we can’t even sign on to a declaration that’s so lax as to be entirely ineffective, what chance do we have at actually making the changes necessary to let the planet survive?