Every 10 years since 1972, the United Nations has organised a conference for world leaders to meet and cooperate on international development and environmental issues. One of the most celebrated meetings was the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established to address the issue of climate change, by ensuring stable greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The convention led to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 2005, and the Paris Agreement, which entered force in 2016. The Paris Agreement legally binds 196 countries to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. In addition, annual ‘Conference of Parties’ (COPs) take place for countries to determine the next steps to reduce emissions.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, world heads of state met again virtually for the Leaders Summit on Climate to stress the urgency of stronger climate action, organised by President Joe Biden. Once in office, he took immediate action to return the United States to the Paris Agreement and restore what former President Donald Trump had damaged. In November 2020, Trump formally announced the withdrawal of the most powerful economy from the Agreement. The US is the first country to ever exit the global accord, accounting for 15% of global GHG emissions, making it the second-biggest carbon dioxide emitter, just behind China.
The US has played a vital role in developing the Agreement and incentivising newcomers to participate in the global fight against climate change. Its abrupt retreat not only debilitates environmental regulations but also gives a stronger voice to the fossil fuel sector, consequently limiting critically international efforts. However, this year, new President Biden has sought to reclaim global leadership during the Summit, as the COP26 in Glasgow approaches. He tweeted “America is back. We rejoined the Paris Agreement and are ready to rally the world to tackle the climate crisis. Let’s do this”. He promised a target of net zero emissions by 2050, accompanied by a $2 trillion climate stimulus package.
Key participants in the Summit also made ambitious announcements, referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The European Union made its political commitment a legal one after thorough discussions among EU legislators. The European Climate Law “enshrines the EU’s commitment to reaching climate neutrality by 2050 and the intermediate target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030”. By establishing a law, the EU aims to reinforce its global position as a climate change pioneer. Britain, being the host of the COP this year, pledged to reduce emissions to 78% by 2035. Boris Johnson hopes this move will incentivise other governments to take concrete action.
In Asia, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga raised its target to a 46% cut. The government expects this to be achieved partly by a new coal power generation policy that plans to phase out inefficient coal-fired plants that “are not equipped with the latest clean coal technology”. By the end of last year, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s head of state pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 after submitting its 2050 carbon neutrality strategy to the UN. He stated that the government will discontinue subsidies and tax credits for new coal-fired power plants and will shut down those that are old and inefficient. Although both countries being prime consumers of coal, they aim to restructure and diversify their energy mix to include green sources.
Unexpectedly, the largest emitter, China has not made new commitments. During the summit, Xi Jinping stated Beijing’s full support and contribution to the UNFCCC and COP26, but argued that the country has already made an official announcement last year “to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”. This has been regarded as insufficient since it is the largest emitter in the world. In spite of being an active player in climate talks, it feels a strong animosity towards foreign interference.
Despite all these measures, scientists and activists around the world still believe that these promises, as ambitious and determined as they might sound, are not enough to make a concrete turn on the climate emergency. In 2020, global emission levels declined as the pandemic and restrictions on transport activity slowed down economic activity. Conversely, the Global Energy Review 2021 reports that “CO2 emissions are projected to rebound and grow by 4.8% as demand for coal, oil and gas rebounds with the economy”.
All over the world, climate activists have deemed these pledges as ‘empty promises’. The EU has been criticised as the new target falls short of the 60% target the Parliament had initially voted for. In the UK, green experts argue that Parliament has yet to “bring forward clear new policies and sweeping changes to government departments to show the leadership needed to galvanise action around the world”.
Asian countries, principally China, India and Japan, face a lot of pressure internationally because they will rely on fossil fuels to boost economic recovery. Although China is accelerating developments in wind and solar power technology, it still subject to coal-based energy to power its economy. Japan, on the other hand, has a strong preference for coal resulting from its traumatic experience with nuclear energy power and oil shocks. In India, the demand for coal is expected to increase almost 30 million tonnes (MT) higher compared to 2019, to meet the country’s electricity requirements. It is reasonable to submit that amid this period of economic recovery, ending the global usage of fossil fuels in the next coming years will be thorny.
All things considered, two salient trends will be affecting the developments of the COP26. Firstly, re-joining the climate change club means a lot of catching up to do for the US. As a previous clean energy adviser to the UN secretary-general, Rachel Kyte, notes that “the withdrawal has done lasting damage to the way the rest of the world views the US as a reliable partner, not just on climate but on other issues of global cooperation”. Thus, the US will have to build its credibility back if it aims to pioneer global efforts. Working closely with China will be essential for the success of the global transition towards renewable energy and green technologies. Biden will have the difficult task of appeasing trade tensions with Xi and ultimately persuade him to take firmer action to decrease its emission levels.
Secondly, the Paris Agreement will need to be re-examined as scientists consider that global carbon emissions will have to be cut by 45% within the 2020s if the Paris accords goal of limiting the rise in the average temperature to 1.5C can be met. Not only will advanced nations need to step up their efforts to assist the developing world but also the latter will have to assume greater global responsibility, as they count for more than two-thirds of emissions – there has been a shift.
Glasgow 2021, set to be hold virtually, will be a pivotal moment to fulfil the Paris agreement. Attention will be fixated on the main emitters, many of which were accused last year of hindering progress on carbon trading settlements. Likewise, the US will be under critical eye as it demonstrates commitment to lead the way to an international climate policy that fits with everyone’s national agenda and development stage.
Written by Sophie Hassam
Sophie Hassam is a columnist at DecipherGrey.