Paris-anniversary climate pledges bring progress but fall short
IT WAS MEANT to be a marathon day in which all governments promised new, bigger, better efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and rich nations offered more financial assistance to poorer ones, in order to help them decarbonise their economies and adapt to a changing climate. But America has temporarily left the UN climate agreement and Australia, Brazil and South Africa were struck from the guest list for not offering enough. In the end, about 70 national leaders attended a virtual “Climate Ambition” summit on December 12th. And at the event’s close, Alok Sharma, Britain’s business minister and president of next year’s COP26 UN climate talks, asked rhetorically whether enough had been done to fulfil the promise of the Paris climate agreement. “Friends, we must be honest with ourselves,” he said. “The answer to that is currently: no. As encouraging as all this ambition is, it is not enough.”
The summit was a carefully orchestrated affair, held five years to the day after the adoption of the Paris agreement. At the heart of the agreement is a five-year “ratchet mechanism” and a tacit acknowledgment that the sum of the promises governments made in 2015 to cut national emissions was insufficient to reach the end-goal of stabilising average global temperatures at 1.5°C to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The ratchet mechanism requires that every five years parties to the agreement come forward with more ambitious national climate goals, taking into consideration the technological, economic and social progress of the intervening years.
Among the unexpected announcements at the summit, both the Maldives and Barbados, tiny nations of low-lying islands, said they would in effect eliminate their (admittedly meagre) greenhouse-gas emissions within just ten years. Argentina said it would aim for net-zero emissions by 2050. Twenty-four countries now have similar long-term goals, most of them for mid-century or thereabouts, though Finland is aiming to get there within 15 years. Climate models suggest that in order to meet the 1.5°C goal in the Paris agreement, global emissions need to be zeroed out around 2050.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came from Pakistan. The prime minister, Imran Khan, said his country would stop generating electricity from coal-fired power stations, and had already scrapped two coal power-station projects. Burning coal produces one quarter of the country’s power. Mr Khan was vague on dates for the transition, and noted that at least some of the coal power would be replaced by other fossil-fuel generation, but added that 60% of all energy produced in Pakistan would come from renewable sources by 2030. Pakistan is joining a growing global shift away from coal, which still accounts for 27% of global energy use. It is in marked decline in America and Europe but still strong in Asia, particularly China.
Ending coal will be a crucial part of China’s plan to reach its goal of carbon neutrality—zero net emissions—by 2060. But those who had hoped, in advance of the summit, that President Xi Jinping might use it to offer some indication as to how this would happen, were disappointed. He repeated his promise, made in September, that China would reach peak emissions before 2030 and announced new targets to be reached by then: to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP further; to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix; and to boost the volume of forests.
According to Li Shuo, a policy analyst for Greenpeace, all this should add up to a Chinese peak in emissions sometime between 2026 and 2030—no different from what was previously expected. Many have argued that, with a push, China could reach the peak as soon as 2025. Mr Xi may well be leaving himself room to manoeuvre in future climate talks with President-elect Joe Biden.
In fact, the big headlines had preceded the Ambition summit by days or weeks. On December 11th EU leaders signed off at last on a target to cut the block’s emissions by 55% compared with 1990 levels over the coming decade, up from the previous 40%. This is still incompatible with the Paris 1.5°C goal. Britain had gone one further a week earlier, when the prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced the goal of cutting emissions by 68% below 1990 levels by the same date, making it the first country to have a 2030 target that is in line with the Paris agreement.
On December 11th Mr Johnson declared that in addition the government would stop financing foreign fossil-fuel projects, a welcome move though in practice it represents a relatively small pool of capital. Britain has invested just shy of £4bn ($5.3bn) in overseas fossil-fuel projects since the Paris agreement was made in 2015. Over the same period, China spent at least $67.2bn.
And although, slowly, some governments appear to be heeding the calls of voters to move away from fossil fuels, many more have responded to the covid-19 financial crisis by pouring funds into carbon-intensive programmes. António Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, noted that G20 countries were spending 1.5 times more on industries linked to fossil fuels than on low-carbon energy. He also called for national governments to declare “a state of climate emergency” in their countries.
The importance of covid-recovery packages was highlighted in a UN report published earlier this week. The annual “Emissions Gap Report” provides projections of how global emissions are likely to evolve by 2030 and estimates the gap between these probable outcomes and the ideal ones needed to meet the Paris goals. This year’s edition found that emissions will decrease by 2-12% in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, but that this small blip had, as yet, done little to narrow the emissions gap. However, a strong emphasis on decarbonisation as economies recover from the pandemic could cause a 25% drop in 2030 emissions, compared with pre-covid scenarios.
Achieving this would require more ambition than was on show this weekend, but, as Mr Johnson expressed in his own remarks, it would benefit economies as well as the planet. “We’re doing this not because we are hair-shirt-wearing, tree-hugging, mung-bean-munching eco freaks—though I’ve got nothing against any of those categories, mung beans are probably delicious,”he said with his usual flamboyance and disregard for the sensitivities. “We’re doing it because we know that scientific advances will allow us collectively as humanity to save our planet and create millions of high-skilled jobs as we recover from COVID.”
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