Biden’s climate summit: The good, the underwhelming and the road to COP26

Jill Duggan\

Last week, President Joe Biden convened 40 world leaders in a bid to ramp up new commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions and step up efforts to help the developing world tackle the climate crisis.

As set out in the landmark Paris Agreement, now is the time when we’re looking for countries to bridge the gap between their ambition to limit temperature increases to near 1.5 degrees Celsius and the commitments put forward in Paris, which amounted to temperature increases of around 3 degrees.

That may not sound like much, but these small average temperature increases will be truly catastrophic — causing widespread droughts, flooding, mass migrations, water shortages, species loss and the proliferation of invasive species.

Most climate watchers would agree that U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has kickstarted new, competitive momentum in the global climate conversation that has been lacking over the last four years — not only in Trump’s America, but in many other places happy to hide behind U.S. inaction on climate.

The U.S.’ climate diplomacy is also stepping up momentum in the run up to the most important climate conference since Paris, COP26 — due to be held in Glasgow in November, subject to the status of the pandemic and global vaccination rollout.

So what was good and what was underwhelming?

Coming quickly out of the gate, the Biden administration delivered on hopes for a commitment to reduce U.S. GHG emissions by 50-52% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels — an ambitious pledge that will require a very heavy lift. Japan committed to a seemingly underwhelming 46-50% cut below 2013 levels by 2030 (44-48% compared to 2005 levels), but is less inclined than Western countries to set ‘stretch’ targets.

Three governments and nine companies also built on work done by Environmental Defense Fund, announcing the LEAF Coalition to mobilize at least $1 billion this year for large-scale forest protection and sustainable development, which is designed to benefit Indigenous peoples and forest communities.

I’m encouraged by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s pledge to end public financing of coal-fired power plants overseas, but was unclear what that might mean for coal within the country itself. South Korea is yet to set its revised 2030 target and its current target is only a cut against business-as-usual emissions, which will no longer do.

Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to limit the use of coal over the next five years and reduce emissions from coal in the following five, while promoting greener investments through its Belt and Road Initiative — but stopped short of the more sweeping and absolutely crucial commitment to end coal finance in the BRI. Brazil’s pledge to go climate neutral by 2050 and to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 was overshadowed by criticism inside and outside of the country for President Jair Bolsonaro’s abetting of illegal land-grabbers and ongoing oversight of a significant increase in Amazon deforestation.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced no new commitments, with the world’s fourth largest carbon emitter instead pointing to vague efforts to “significantly limit” net emissions by 2030. On the only slightly brighter side, Russia did explicitly call out methane as a problem — although in a case of vice potentially paying homage to virtue, the targets and the timeframe it set does not match the urgency implied in the rhetoric. From India, we heard Prime Minister Modi reiterate a previously announced commitment to install 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, but unfortunately he did not mention a 2030 emissions target.

Some countries, with economies currently dependent on supplying fossil fuels to the rest of the world, still haven’t got with the program. What countries such as Saudi Arabia and Australia (yes, an interesting grouping) should take from the summit is that the markets they sell into are declining. Given the move away from coal for South Korea, China and Japan, fossil fuel suppliers will see their markets disappearing. It’s time for these states to recognize that they need to change their economies in order to thrive in a zero-carbon world rather than clinging to outdated business models.

How to move further, faster on the road to COP26

There’s little doubt that the United States’ reemergence as a climate leader has reinvigorated the debate, but climate action isn’t just about numbers on a page. It’s about understanding how exactly to make good on those numbers and holding countries to account for achieving them. Only with detailed plans for implementation can countries build confidence in their ability to walk the walk — anything less at this point in the climate crisis may be called out as green washing.

Make no mistake: The summit was a great start, but there is a lot left to do to make sure that COP26 is a significant step change like Paris. It’s now time for the U.K. presidency of COP26 to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight created by Kerry and company. They need to take the lead in a big way to keep this momentum going and ensure the summit’s rhetoric translates into real change.

Leave a comment