A turning point for climate action?

Week of 14 December 2020

A turning point for climate action?

Five years on, the world is still behind on the goals set by the Paris Agreement and not yet on track to avoid the worst effects of climate change. That said, some experts are cautiously optimistic about the future after seeing new commitments made by governments, investors and companies at the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit. We’ve collected a round-up of some of the biggest and most interesting outcomes of the summit to keep an eye on in the run-up to the next UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in 2021.

 This month marks the five-year anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement by 189 world leaders, as well as the 2020 UN Climate Ambition Summit. Read on for some highlights from the 2020 Summit.

First, a quick refresh: What does the Paris Agreement entail?

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding treaty. It was signed on 12 December 2015 by 189 countries, who committed to limiting global warming to between 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius, maximum. The agreement “works on a 5-year cycle of increasingly ambitious climate action carried out by countries,” with 2020 as the first milestone for signatories to submit their plans to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (in the form of nationally determined contributions – NDCs). All signatories are expected to make enhanced commitments at COP26, which was postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What happened at the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit?

In the interim before COP26, the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit was co-hosted virtually on 12th December by the UN, the UK and France, in partnership with Chile and Italy. The summit demonstrated some mixed results towards meeting the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, despite UN Secretary General António Guterres’s plea for governments to declare a “climate emergency” in order to cut global emissions by 45% over the next decade, relative to 2010. Below is our round-up of some of the biggest outcomes of the summit and interesting new commitments to keep an eye out for in the lead-up to COP26: 

Governments made new commitments

    • In total, 75 countries made new commitments at the summit, with 71 countries announcing strengthened NDCs and 15 of these “shift[ing] gears from incremental to major increases,” including Argentina, Barbados, Canada, Colombia, Iceland and Peru.
    • 24 countries announced plans to reach net-zero emissions, including some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change: Barbados and the Maldives (by 2030), Fiji (by 2050), Malawi (by 2050), Nauru (by 2050) and Nepal (by 2050). Other net-zero commitments came from Finland (by 2035), Austria (by 2040) and Sweden (by 2045), among others.
    • China pledged to triple wind and solar capacity by 2030, as well as to cut its carbon intensity by more than 65% by 2030. The Financial Times reported that the commitment by President Xi Jinping “was the most consequential at a virtual summit that included more than 70 heads of state.” (Notably, the summit was not attended by representatives from Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Russia—all crucial players in curbing climate change).
    • Italy, Germany and France committed new funds to help developing countries meet climate goals. However, Secretary-General Guterres pointed out that climate finance was still “lagging badly,” especially in light of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • More countries pledged to stop or curb financing of non-renewable energy projects, including Pakistan and Israel (coal); and Denmark (oil and gas). 15 countries committed to increasing renewable energy investment and use by 2030, including Barbados, Vanuatu, Slovakia, India and China. The UK, France and Sweden also committed to stop financing for fossil fuel projects abroad, and Canada will increase its carbon price to C$170 per tonne by 2030.
    • 12 countries announced plans to “increase the use of nature-based solutions to combat climate change,” such as protecting biodiversity. However, significantly more action is needed to protect ecosystems at a scale needed to meet the Paris goals, according to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD)’s 5th Global Biodiversity Outlook from earlier this year.

Source: Leslie Hook, China lays out steps towards climate targets at UN Summit (Financial Times, 12 December 2020)

The private sector is stepping up climate goals, sometimes in partnership with government

    • The Financial Times reported that 30 of the largest global asset managers, with $9 trillion in assets under management, formed the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative in the run-up to the summit. The initiative commits the participants to reach net-zero carbon emissions across their portfolios by 2050—a “move expected to have huge ramifications for businesses globally” who depend on financing from these major players. The initiative joins the Net Zero Assets Owners Alliance established earlier this year, which includes 33 institutional investors with $5.1 trillion under management.
    • Earlier in the week, the Financial Times reported that the New York State Common Retirement Fund, which is the third-largest US pension fund and has $226 billion in assets under management, committed to exclude energy companies that do not have a timebound plan to cut emissions and transition from fossil fuels.
    • The Race to Resilience campaign was launched, with a goal of “building resilience actions to safeguard by 2030 the lives and livelihoods of 4 billion people from groups and communities vulnerable to climate risks.” The campaign involves mayors, community leaders, businesses and insurance companies. Examples of commitments made under the campaign include: “Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance will triple funding by 2025 and expand its reach from 11 to 21 countries”; “Mayor of Freetown (Sierra Leone) committed to planting 1 million trees between 2020 and 2021.”
    • Some high-emitting industries made commitments to reduce emissions or meet net-zero goals, including airlines, cement producers, the automotive industry, the tech industry, and the garment and fashion sector. At the same time, the summit did not see major commitments from the highest emitters, such as oil and gas. 

Citizens are called on to take action

    • The European Climate Pact (part of the European Green Deal) and the Count Us In campaign announced a partnership to “mobilise millions of people across the EU to take concrete steps to reduce their carbon pollution and catalyse rapid action from leaders.” Citizens will be asked to take action to reduce their own emissions, and all contributions will be tracked by the global Count Us In aggregator.

What comes next?

The UK, in partnership with Italy, will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November 2021. COP26 will bring together world leaders to discuss global climate action and commit to enhanced ambitions towards meeting the Paris Agreement.  COP26 will also mark the first climate conference since the United States formally exited the Paris Agreement on 4 November 2020 under the Trump Administration—and the first under the new Biden Administration, which has pledged to rejoin it as a first priority, among other climate-forward policies.

“Somehow the stars are aligning again. With the green new deal in Europe, with the election in the US, and with the Chinese pledge in September … we are probably entering a new phase, where multilateralism will regain momentum.”

Rémy Rioux, CEO of Agence Française de Développement and former French negotiator for the Paris Agreement, in Leslie Hook, China lays out steps towards climate targets at UN Summit (Financial Times, 12 December 2020)

“Despite the global pandemic and one of the worst economic crises of our time, we have shown today that climate action remains at the top of the international agenda. The crisis gives us the opportunity to accelerate our ecological transition and I welcome the announcements made today by more than 70 heads of State and government. This summit has confirmed that the Paris agreement struck under the French COP Presidency five years ago remains, more than ever, the compass of international climate action.”

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, Climate Ambition Summit 2020, press release (12 December 2020)

“The action needed is still nowhere in sight. … Distant hypothetical targets are being set, and big speeches are being given. Yet, when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial.”

Greta Thunberg, Twitter video (10 December 2020)

Source: Leslie Hook, China lays out steps towards climate targets at UN Summit (Financial Times, 12 December 2020)

Source: Leslie Hook, China lays out steps towards climate targets at UN Summit (Financial Times, 12 December 2020)