Five years after the world signed the landmark Paris Agreement to avoid dangerous global warming, political momentum is building. But the lack of near-term detail means the planet is still on track for climate catastrophe.
The six-hour Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday threw the problem into sharp relief: activists were eager for China to put some meat on the bones of its bold 2060 carbon neutrality pledge. They were disappointed. One country after another failed to raise the bar, as leaders offered only incremental steps.
“As encouraging as all this ambition is, it is not enough,” said Alok Sharma, U.K. Business Secretary who is also president of the next round of global climate talks in Glasgow next year, known as COP26.
The underwhelming summit puts more pressure on President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to assert U.S. leadership on climate change when he takes office — starting with rejoining the Paris deal. As political and corporate leaders jostle to prove how progressive they are on the issue, the challenge is getting them to make specific, short-term commitments that back up their impressive sounding long-term goals.
Countries’ level of ambition should increase between three- and five-fold to deliver on the Paris pledge to try and limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, according to the United Nations Emissions Gap Report.
“We know we’re in a race — be that a sprint or a marathon — and what’s critical is momentum,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a former UN climate envoy. “We are not moving fast enough, but we are moving.”
While greenhouse gas emissions will fall a record 7% this year as the pandemic hit economic activity, the dip will only result in a 0.01 degree Celsius reduction of global warming by 2050, the UN said.
Biden wants to convene a summit within his first 100 days in office to convince some of the world’s biggest emitters to step up, and set a net-zero target for the U.S. for 2050. His plans mean that 70% of the world economy will have made commitments to be carbon neutral by 2050 or 2060. In the private sector, companies from asset managers to oil majors have set long-term targets to eliminate carbon emissions.
The European Union and U.K. went into the summit with new emissions pledges in hand — in the EU’s case after a diplomatic tussle. Some of the more ambitious pledges by 75 the nations and companies on Saturday included:
- Argentina and the Vatican pledged carbon neutrality by 2050
- Pakistan will stop building new coal-fired power plants, and set a goal to get 60% of its power from renewables by 2030
- Peru pledged to cut emissions 40% by 2030, up from a previous target of 30%
But more limited announcements were:
- President Xi Jinping said China would seek to cut emissions per unit of GDP by more than 65% from 2005 levels by 2030, slightly raising the previous target of cutting pollution by 60% to 65%
- India’s Narendra Modi reiterated his commitment to increase renewable power capacity to 450 gigawatts by 2030
- Italy will donate 30 million euros ($36 million) to the UN Adaptation Fund
- Austria promised 100 million euros to the Green Climate Fund
- Tim Cook said 95 of Apple Inc. suppliers committed to transitioning to renewable energy
The biggest challenge for Biden and the COP26 hosts ahead of the Glasgow summit will be convincing world leaders who champion fossil fuels to make a u-turn. The leaders of Brazil, Russia, and Australia were not invited to speak on Saturday after the U.K. and their co-hosts France decided they hadn’t come forward with bold enough pledges.
Until Friday, Brazil’s government had been preparing for President Jair Bolsonaro to speak and did not expect his name to be left off the agenda, two people familiar with the matter said. Their surprise underscores how wide an expectation gap still remains between climate-aligned countries and laggards who have so far been able to avoid too much scrutiny on the international stage.
Brazil’s environment ministry said this week it set a new goal to zero out carbon dioxide emissions by 2060 or sooner — if it can raise $10 billion a year from other countries.
Even after new pledges, rich countries risk failing to meet a target set five years ago to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor nations deal with the worst impacts of climate change. And at home, funds aren’t being deployed as well as they could be, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.