Tackling climate change is rising on the international political agenda and that is a welcome thing. Around 40 heads of State and government and other participants will take part in a Leaders Summit on Climate tomorrow at the invitation of US President Biden. The topic is also high on the agenda for the G7 and the G20. And later in the year, the delayed COP26 should finally take place in Glasgow. What are some of the key challenges that need to be addressed at these and other international events on climate in the year ahead? What follows are some quick, personal views.
But before looking where we need to get, it is important to look where we currently are. 2020 was the third warmest year on record, 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels despite a cooling La Niña event, and the six years since 2015 have been the warmest on record. Global surface average CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere reached 412.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2020, rising by 2.6 ppm during the year – indeed, CO2 concentrations are now at levels unequalled since the mid-Pliocene warm period around 3.6 million years ago when temperatures were around 2.7°C-4°C above pre-industrial levels and sea levels far higher than today. And it is not only CO2, concentrations of other greenhouse gases such as methane are also at record highs. This is happening despite the one-off fall in global CO2 emissions of around 7% caused by the economic slowdown in 2020. And that is now behind us, the International Energy Agency predicts that CO2 emissions are likely to increase by around 5% in 2021 due to the strong rebound in coal demand despite the continuing increase in renewables. We live in a time when records keep falling – unfortunately, they are the wrong records.
So, the starting point for the political debate is clear – we are far from where we need to be to keep global warming to 1.5°C, or even 2°C, and climate impacts are set to continue getting worse around the world.
The Paris Agreement provides a guide for international action to deal with climate change, but on its own it is just a few pages of text. What matters now is how we implement the Paris Agreement – what national governments, local governments, business, civil society, and ordinary citizens around the world do to make the transformation we need.
The first challenge on the table for leaders is raising ambition. The targets set at the time of Paris were an improvement on the situation beforehand, but still left the world on track for around 3°C of warming by the end of the century. Some countries have already announced revised nationally determined contributions including strengthened 2030 targets, it is vital that all others do so shortly – the US is due to set out its new target and other announcements during the summit itself are needed. In addition, more and more countries are setting targets to achieve net zero emissions, carbon or climate neutrality by around the middle of the century. One estimate at the end of last year suggested that if all those net-zero targets were fully implemented we might be able to limit global warming to around 2.1°C by the end of the century.
That is taking us the right way, but it is still not enough. Above all, we need to distinguish between announcements and action. Ambitious plans are great, but their credibility depends on their being fully implemented and accompanied by real action, solid policies. Of course, developing a full set of laws and regulations – as the EU is now doing to implement its revised 2030 target of a 55% reduction by 2030 from 1990 levels – will take longer than developing the initial target. But announcements should be seen as just the first stage of setting out how governments are going to go about getting there – they need to be backed up as quickly and thoroughly as possible by concrete policies and actions.
A key test in the short-term is the alignment of recovery packages from Covid-19 with the Paris Agreement goals. Governments around the world are planning huge investments to boost their economies, but analysis undertaken by UNEP at the end of 2020 showed that many actions planned are not compatible with our climate goals although there was still time for decisions to bring them into alignment. There has been some progress since then, but a lot remains to be done. The risk remains that badly conceived recovery plans could make emissions go up and lock-in high carbon investment instead of preparing the transition that we need. Such investment also needs to anticipate future climate impacts and build resilience.
So, delivery is crucial, and it is not just about national action but also about delivering the necessary support to developing countries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, to help them transform their economies and societies, build resilience to adapt to climate change, and deal with loss and damage. Delivering the 100 billion USD a year from 2020 promised by developed countries from public and private sources is a key first step, including raising support for adaptation. It is not just how much is provided either, what is financed matters too, and in particular ending support for fossil fuels such as coal.
Beyond that, it will be important to transform wider investment – shifting the trillions – to align it with the Paris goals and build a low carbon and resilient future. The international financial system needs to integrate these challenges – for example, by the international financial institutions, but also changes in the decisions taken by private financial institutions. Messages from the IMF on the need to integrate climate vulnerability into debt relief for developing countries further illustrate the sort of thinking that is going to be needed.
The actions to put us on track to tackle climate change cannot wait for Glasgow, they need to be taken now and in the coming months. These choices are not only about national governments and international institutions. It will also be vital to provide opportunities to mobilise stakeholders – local governments, business, civil society groups, researchers, ordinary citizens, and many others – whose contribution is critical to success in Glasgow and beyond.
In addition to the high-level political discussion to drive increased climate action, there remains some more technical work in Glasgow to finalise some elements of the rules of the Paris Agreement including those governing article 6 to ensure that any exchanges add to the environmental integrity and not undermine ambition, but also preparing all the detailed tables needed for the implementation of the transparency system, agreeing common time frames, and of course action on finance, and where we need to go on adaptation.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the traditional, multilateral climate process. Some meetings have moved on-line, but full negotiations have stalled. It will be important that the virtual, informal session of the subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC in June can take forward as many issues as possible to prepare the ground for concrete decisions in Glasgow. But just as we need to think about building back better in the context of recovery packages, we should perhaps also reflect on how to build back better our climate process. Of course, it will always be a challenge for almost 200 parties with widely different interests, responsibilities and means to agree ways forward – the process must continue to respect this diversity and the spirit of the United Nations. But we should also be honest that the international climate process is often frustratingly slow and its results disappointing. There is scope to make greater use in the future of working on-line, although that cannot be an answer for everything, and in-person meetings and work will remain necessary for some activities, especially where major decisions are to be taken. However, the current crisis provides an opportunity to strengthen the multilateral climate process to make it more fit for purpose to support high climate action which has to speed up and build up massively in scale in the coming years. Failure to reform will not only hold back action, it might also risk our process becoming less relevant.