A report from Climate Action Tracker provides an update of their analysis of the possible impact of countries’ climate targets, including announcements made during the recent summit hosted by President Biden. Taking account of these latest announcements, their estimate of likely warming by the end of the century has improved by around 0.2°C to 2.4°C. They also reckon that if countries that have announced or are considering net-zero targets implement them fully then, in an optimistic scenario, global warming by the end of the century could be as low as 2°C.
That sounds like good news since it shows some progress towards at least limiting warming to 2°C. There are, however, a lot of “ifs” in that analysis and, as the report from Climate Action Tracker makes clear, even under the most optimistic assumptions we are still well above the 1.5°C target. So, whilst things are less bad than they might have been, we are still not where we need to be. A few quick lessons we can draw from this.
Let’s start by a positive lesson – it is possible for countries and the world collectively to bend their emission pathways and bring them closer to those we need to be on track to limit warming to 1.5°C or at least well below 2°C. The nationally determined contributions announced in time for Paris were already an advance on business as usual, we are now strengthening targets further. Action is possible, targets can be strengthened to get us closer to where we need to go.
However, whilst that is a start, it remains only a start. So, the second lesson is a reality check – there is no case for complacency. Saying it might be possible to limit warming to 2°C does not mean that is bound to happen – that figure comes from a rather optimistic reading, it assumes targets are fully met, and still comes with a 50% risk that warming might be higher. So, if anyone were tempted to think that meant that the bulk of the effort is now behind us they are deeply mistaken – instead, it means that the hard work is still very much ahead of us, we have to strengthen ambition further, we have to deliver, and we have to get on track to really have a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. We cannot relax, but we have everything to gain by engaging actively in strengthening climate action.
That is the third lesson – the need to focus on implementation. It is great to announce an ambitious target, but what truly matters is meeting that target – or even better exceeding it. That requires policies to be translated into law, implemented, budgeted, tracked, improved, to ensure delivery. That will also require cooperation and support to those developing countries that need financial and technical assistance to be able to fully deliver and further strengthen their own targets. It means transforming investment patterns – ending support to fossil fuels and unsustainable land management policies, giving priority to investment in clean infrastructure, technologies, and systems, changing not just public but also driving private investment in the right direction. It means integrating the social dimension into climate policy – ensuring a just transition, accompanying those communities that are affected by climate policies, enabling all to benefit from a low-carbon future and an equitable access to sustainable development. Transformation will not just be about replacing high-carbon technologies by low-carbon ones – it will also require changing how we organise our societies, and questions of behaviour and lifestyle will have to be addressed. Many countries have already upgraded their NDCs for 2030 but, as the report makes clear, countries that have not yet done so need to strengthen their targets (including the countries that have already submitted new NDCs that do not strengthen their targets) – and all countries need to back those up by implementation and further strengthening in due course.
A fourth lesson is that mid-century goals of reaching net-zero can be powerful tools, sending vital signals about where we need to go. However, net-zero goals come with some dangers. First, setting a goal several decades out could easily remain a hollow announcement, little better than wishful thinking. To counter that risk, and ensure that long-term goals are credible, meaningful, and above all useful, it will be important to embed them in national policies and link them to short and medium-term goals and implementation policies. There are also issues around the definitions, pathways, and assumptions that parties (and other actors such as business) may have when talking about “net-zero,” or “carbon neutrality,” or “climate neutrality.” For example, some may aim to reduce emissions to the absolute minimum with only those emissions that are truly incompressible being compensated by the use of natural sinks on their own territory. Others, on the other hand, may imagine that they could maintain higher levels of emissions in some sectors and compensate them by reductions elsewhere. Countries are not all going to be able to get to net-zero at the same time. Also, the degree to which parties imagine purchasing credits or using absorptions outside their own borders raises significant questions, as does the nature of such absorptions – some might limit their strategies to strengthening natural sinks, others might envisage the large-scale use of new technologies to remove emissions from the atmosphere that have not yet been tested. Some techniques could have negative impacts on other goals such as food security or human rights. None of this is intended to lesson the importance of long-term goals, but on the contrary it is because they are such key tools that there are important conversations to be had within countries, and at an international level, about the pathways they envisage, their assumptions, and the consequences for equity.
Finally, even when we get onto a pathway that is truly compatible with 1.5°C, a fifth lesson is that we will still have to deal with the impacts of climate change, and we should not forget that 2020 was already about 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. So, strengthening adaptation and building resilience, cooperation with the most vulnerable, working together to tackle loss and damage, are going to remain vital parts of climate action as we move forward.