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Some take-outs from President Biden’s Leaders Summit

President Biden invited some 40 heads of State and government to join a Leaders Summit on Climate on 22-23 April, along with many members of the US government, heads of UN and other multilateral agencies, and leading figures from business and civil society around the world. What messages can we take out from the meeting?

Perhaps the most important take-out was that the United States are back in force. The announcement of a new nationally determined contribution of reducing greenhouse gases by 50-52% by 2030 compared to a 2005 baseline may not be as high as the US should do to get on a 1.5°C pathway, but it is a significant increase on the old NDC presented by President Obama before Paris and the return of the US to the Paris Agreement is a relief after four years of climate denial by Biden’s predecessor. The US also announced that it would double its financial support for climate action in developing countries from the levels in the second half of the Obama administration, with support for adaptation being tripled – and the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen signalled that they were at asking for a down-payment of 1.25 billion USD on their arrears of 2 billion USD to the Green Climate Fund and that they will consider further contributions to the GCF and other initiatives in due course. Voices from many members of the new US administration, including John Kerry in his new role as Special Climate Envoy, underlined that climate is now at the heart of their priorities for the coming years, including in transport, energy, trade, foreign relations, and finance.

All of that was a generally positive start, although more would have been better. That said, announcements are not the same as delivery and how far the US can deliver will depend on many factors especially internal politics. But despite that uncertainty on how far President Biden can deliver everything that he promised it was at least a welcome fresh start. What happens next will be crucial to the credibility of the US and have a big impact on what happens at a global level.

One of the key aims of the summit was to encourage other countries also to revise their NDCs and provide a platform for such announcements – also the integration of such action in the recovery plans from Covid-19. Some countries stepped up. The European Union and its Member States were able to confirm their net reduction target of 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels following a political agreement in Brussels on the EU climate law. The United Kingdom had announced last December its NDC of reducing emissions by 68% from 1990 levels by 2030, and it further announced just before the summit that it would go further and reduce them by 78% by 2035. Japan also announced an increase its target to reduce greenhouse gases to 46% below 2013 levels by 2030. Meanwhile Canada strengthened its NDC to a 40-45% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030.

Many were hoping that China would also update its NDC to complement the announcement by President Xi last September of a target to be carbon-neutral by 2060. It was, however, probably unrealistic in the current political climate to imagine that the Chinese President would make a major announcement at an event called by the US. In the event he stopped short of making a new pledge, repeating the target of reaching a peak in emissions before 2030. He did, however, add that China would maintain strict controls on coal in the next five years before beginning to reduce coal use from 2025. That remains to be fleshed out but a peak in coal use in 2025 by the world’s largest coal consumer would mark an important step.

India also failed to make any new announcements, either on its NDC or to adopt a net-zero target. Prime Minister Modi did however repeat its target, which already goes beyond its current NDC, of getting to 450GW of installed renewable capacity by 2030. He also insisted on India’s low per capita emissions compared to other countries and the importance of sustainable lifestyles.

Several other countries made announcements, like Argentina, or indicated that they were working on revising their NDCs later in the year, including South Korea which also announced an end to its public support for coal overseas.

Despite these positive steps, the interventions of a number of other countries were distinctly underwhelming. For example, Prime Minister Morrison of Australia announced a number of figures that seemed to have been forced or even twisted to put their climate action in a more favourable light. President Bolsonaro of Brazil announced a net-zero target for 2050 – ten years ahead of their old target – but provided no real measures that would give any credibility in the shorter term – already, analyses suggest that the revised Brazilian NDC submitted in 2020 constituted a weaker target than the original given changes in baselines. Russian President Putin also gave no new targets and President López Obrador of Mexico also failed to propose stronger action and seemed to push domestic oil consumption. Meanwhile President Erdogan’s Turkey still has not joined the Paris Agreement.

An analysis by Climate Action Tracker suggests that the latest announcements have narrowed the 2030 ambition gap by around 12-14% (2.6-3.7GtCO2) with the biggest contributions coming from the US, the EU, the UK, China, and Japan. That is a start, but at this stage we need much more than lip service to a 1.5°C target and net-zero – we are long past the time we should have peaked global emissions and be well into reducing them, but as the IEA alerted us just before the summit CO2 emissions are likely to rebound by around 5% this year.

Pressure up to COP26 in Glasgow in November will, therefore, have to be high to deliver NDCs that are truly credible with policies for implementation in the next few years to put the world truly on the path to limiting global warming to 1.5°C. as well as getting other countries such as China and Japan to follow South Korea in ending public support for coal overseas. What matters are the short and medium-term actions that are the only things that could truly put the world on track to such ambition.  

In that light, it was clear that US is raising significantly its diplomatic engagement with key countries with announcements of new partnerships or initiatives that are clearly designed to help accelerate climate action, including with countries such as Russia or oil producers. It will be interesting to see how much more these can deliver by Glasgow in terms of enhanced NDCs, finance, and action. Furthermore, the success of this US diplomatic effort will no doubt be stronger if it is coordinated with that of the future British COP26 Presidency and that of other key partners such as the EU and its leading Member States. China is unlikely to be persuaded to act – it will decide what to do in its own interests and in its own time – but when it moves further its impact on others will also be great. President Xi did also talk about greening the Belt and Road Initiative – what that means in practice will also be key to future success.

One of the themes that came through many of the interventions, and even more strongly in the panels on the second day of the summit, was the importance of a just transition and the social dimension of tackling climate change. This has traditionally been a second-level issue, but it is welcome to see that this is now clearly a high priority for the US, with President Biden making clear his personal vision of the need to reframe the transition from a vision of difficulty and struggle to one focused around opportunities, jobs, and social justice. That highlights a real opportunity for all parties and stakeholders to engage more strongly.

Bangladesh and Bhutan stressed the issue of vulnerability to climate impacts noting that many developing countries have to deal with major climate impacts and are acting to limit their own emissions despite having contributed so little to the problem. Support not only for mitigation but also with a balance for adaptation and to tackle loss and damage will be important.

Mobilising finance and investment for climate action was also a major theme with strong messages on the need to meet existing commitments, especially for developed countries to mobilise at least 100 billion USD per year from 2020. Unfortunately, few developed countries made new, clear commitments on finance – with the partial exception of the US starting to increase its funding after being largely absent for the past four years. Finance will be a key issue for the success of Glasgow and will no doubt feature much further in the preparation of COP, especially in the context of the recovery plans from the Covid-19 pandemic. It will also be important that other countries follow South Korea in ending public support for overseas coal. Fossil fuel financing and subsidies are simply not compatible with the climate targets we need to meet.

The debate also underlined the need for profound changes in investment for climate action with multilateral financial institutions and private financial organisations setting out the opportunities but also the need for mandatory transparency rules so that investors can take the right decisions with good data. The issue of the debt burden of many developing countries, especially in the follow up to Covid-19, also came over strongly with the need for debt relief or debt cancellation to fully integrate the climate dimension, for example with suggestions such as debt for climate swaps from a number of leaders.

The 22-23 April summit certainly did not solve climate change, nor did it guarantee that COP26 will be a success. It did, however, show a new resolve on the part of many key players – especially the US – and put the spotlight increasingly on those who are dragging their feet. Geopolitical tensions (especially between the US and China) may complicate matters in the coming months, but there is a basis to build on and other events map out a pathway to COP26, such as the ministerial Petersberg dialogue in May hosted by Germany, meetings in the margins of the General Assembly in September, the G7 hosted by the UK and the G20 by Italy – which is also preparing the pre-COP and a youth summit ahead of COP26 in association with the UK, and the Kunming COP15 of the Convention on biodiversity. Above all, non-State actors, especially public opinion, will be vital to keep the climate agenda high on the agenda of governments around the world, make sure it is fully integrated into the massive investments planned to recover from Covid-19, and that justice and international solidarity are kept centre-stage.

Finally, the event showed that a global, virtual meeting can work. Of course, there were a few glitches that are especially awkward when dealing with world leaders – something went wrong with the recording of Macron, Putin spend a minute watching the screen before speaking, Morrison was speaking with no sound (an interesting metaphor), and even Vice-President Harris and President Biden made their opening speeches with an annoying echo on the sound track. But not only was carbon budget of the event at least an order of magnitude lower than it would have been for an in-person meeting, the virtual format no doubt also allowed several heads of State or government to participate when they would not have been able to make a journey to Washington, New York, Glasgow, or some other city, and without the massive security challenges that usually accompany events of this sort. There are no doubt benefits from still meeting in person, but those need to be used with much greater effectiveness than in the past and virtual events will have all their place in high-level international diplomacy in the years to come.

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[Note: This is a set of quick take-outs that I drew from the summit, not a full summary of discussions. I have nonetheless slightly updated my original article to be clearer on the importance of increasing finance and to highlight the issue of vulnerability that I realise I had passed over too quickly.]

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