In her monthly column, Angeli Mehta rounds up the policy developments of the Earth Day meeting of 40 world leaders, and highlights concerns about ability to deliver in countries like the UK
There’s a saying that the proof of the pudding is in the eating – or in this case the heating. Many of the 40 world leaders who took part in the U.S. climate summit this month reiterated promises to dramatically cut emissions over the next nine years that were in stark contrast to their actual achievements in the six years since the Paris Agreement was signed.
The virtual summit, convened by President Biden, was intended to demonstrate that the U.S. was back as a credible force, and to underline the urgency of acting in this decade. Encouragingly, there were new targets for 2030 set by Canada and Japan, while Russia, Brazil and, most importantly, China attended, despite fears they might snub the meeting, which is seen as a critical staging post ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November. Developing countries reminded their rich hosts that they needed financial support, now more than ever.
The U.S. committed to a 50-52% cut in emissions by 2030 (compared with 2005 levels), which climate envoy John Kerry later told reporters the country would probably exceed. President Biden and his team stressed the employment and economic opportunity of acting to avert the climate crisis and the role of technology in reaching net-zero.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm urged global collaboration and described the effort as “our generation’s moonshot” – martialling national laboratories, universities and the private sector to make breakthroughs in hydrogen, carbon capture, industrial fuels and energy storage to slash their costs. “For too long, this climate conversation has been viewed as a zero-sum game, one of trade-offs – the climate or the economy. No longer.”
However, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi told summit leaders that lifestyle changes also had to be part of climate action. He made clear that India, whose per capita carbon footprint is 60% below the global average, was not going to be pushed yet to make a net-zero commitment. But he reiterated the goal of deploying 450GW of renewable energy by 2030 and announced a collaboration with the U.S. to both mobilise finance and speed up clean energy deployment.
Manjeev Puri, a former Indian ambassador to the EU and distinguished fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute, told The Sustainable Business Review that he was sure John Kerry, who visited the country in early April, realises that India is “hugely invested” in green energy and understands “that India will do its best; that if there is good global cooperation and collaboration, we will be able to meet our goal.”
President Xi Jinping told the summit that China’s commitment last year to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality within a 30-year time span required “extraordinary hard efforts”, but he pledged to “strictly control” coal-fired power generation projects and consumption over the next five years and phase down consumption after 2025. But will that come too late? The International Energy Agency predicts that growth in coal will outstrip renewables this year by 60%, with the bulk of the projected growth in coal use set to come from Asia, led by China.
Developed countries need to make concrete efforts to help developing countries accelerate the transition
President Xi spoke of multilateralism and unity of purpose and effort, but put the ball in the court of developed countries, which he said “need to increase climate ambition and action and make concrete efforts to help developing countries accelerate the transition to green and low-carbon development”. China, he said, would promote joint efforts to build a “green” belt and road initiative, China’s strategy to invest in infrastructure projects in nearly 70 countries. Indeed, the urgency of the crisis and scale of the infrastructure needs are so great, that the world’s democracies will have to work with China.
After Kerry’s meetings with China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua in Shanghai a week earlier, the two said that by COP26 in Glasgow in November they’d develop their respective long-term net-zero strategies and continue to discuss “concrete actions” to cut emissions. Like India, it’s clear China wants to get there in its own time, and not be pushed by the U.S.
On coal, South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in said it would halt public financing of coal power abroad and boost spending on renewables at home and overseas. But there was no plan to phase out coal, which according to Carbon Tracker Initiative accounts for 40% of South Korea’s electricity generation and 25% of emissions. The financial thinktank says phasing out by 2028 would be its most cost-effective path to meet 2050 goals. President Moon promised to come forward with a new target to cut emissions. In December it pledged a 24.4% cut in emissions by 2030 (compared with 2017 levels).
Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, however, did announce a new 2030 commitment, to reduce emissions by 46% compared with 2013 levels, when emissions peaked after it turned to fossil fuels in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Its previous target was 26%. Observers say Japan will have to turn its nuclear plants back on to have a hope of meeting climate goals.
Nuclear is also proving a headache for the EU, with the bloc split over on whether to include nuclear energy in its sustainable investment taxonomy, which will guide investors on green credentials of economic activities. France is heavily dependent on nuclear power, and countries in eastern Europe see it as a bridge from coal. The sticking point is dealing safely and permanently with nuclear waste.
Just ahead of the summit, the EU put into law a commitment to cut emissions by 55% by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels). That’s lower than the 60% parliamentarians voted for last year. However, they drew some concessions from member states, including a cap on the contribution of carbon removal by forests and agriculture to the goal, and the setting up of a science advisory body to make recommendations and report on policy measures and their alignment with the EU’s climate targets.
By 2022, Spain will have phased out 85% of the static coal power generation capacity it had in 2018
To meet the new target, the EU will have to make emissions cuts more than twice as fast in the next nine years as it did in the last 10, parliamentary negotiator Pascal Canfin told reporters.
The 2050 net-zero target is for the bloc as a whole, meaning countries will move at different speeds. That fact was thrown into sharp relief as Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, told the summit that closing coal mines would be challenging. Coal provides 70% of the country’s electricity, but nuclear, renewables and gas would replace it, he said. To that end, his government had reached agreement with miners to phase out coal-fired power by 2049. Spain, by contrast, has seen the closure of all its coal mines and by 2022, it will have phased out 85% of the static coal power generation capacity it had in 2018. (See Can clean energy giant Spain deliver on EU’s net-zero ambitions?)
Germany, which also increased coal consumption after Fukushima, has pledged to phase it out by 2038. COP26 host UK also signalled greater ambition by adopting the recommendations of its Climate Change Committee for a 78% cut in emissions by 2035. Emissions from aviation and shipping are included for the first time.
Like President Biden, the UK’s PM Boris Johnson stressed that climate action meant jobs and growth. However, Johnson’s pledge of even greater cuts in CO2 comes amid rising concern about policy decisions over the last several months that serve to undermine its ambition. These include the abrupt ending of grants to retrofit homes to make them more energy efficient, putting a freeze on fuel duties, boosting spending on roads and cutting the overseas aid budget by 30%.
“It doesn’t feel joined up,” says Rachel Kyte, an international relations expert who worked at both the UN and World Bank to promote clean energy. “You've got legislation in place, you've got recommendations; the question is: where's the delivery unit that is now interrogating every instrument of government, every policy tool, every department of government to make sure that their actions are commensurate with the plan?” The situation is in complete contrast to the U.S. administration, where every department is clear that climate is a critical priority, she adds.
Other observers share Kyte’s concern. “The focus on jobs is absolutely right, but it’s got to have serious investment and policy behind it,” says Harriet Lamb, chief executive of energy charity, Ashden. Just getting the skills required to retrofit homes is a decades-long project of education and retraining.
Money on the table?
Mexico wants the U.S. to fund a reforestation programme in central America, while Jair Bolsonaro told the summit that Brazil wants fair payment for the services its biome offered the planet. Although Bolsonaro’s recent overtures to the White House – dusting off a pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2030 – have been met with scepticism, Kerry acknowledged the need to fund countries that have contributed little to the climate crisis but are having to deal with its consequences.
In 2009, industrialised nations committed to mobilise $100bn a year of climate finance by 2020 for developing nations, a target that’s not been met. During the summit the White House said it would double by 2024 public climate funding to developing countries relative to what was spent in President Obama’s second term, but didn’t put a number on that goal.
Alok Sharma, the president designate for COP26, said the $100bn must be mobilised. “We must all see ourselves as champions of developing countries whose call for action we have heard loud and clear today.”
One area that the Biden team has not been championing to date is carbon pricing, preferring to use a new clean electricity standard as a tool to drive down emissions in the recently launched $2tn infrastructure package. This is in contrast to President Macron of France, who told the summit that “taking action for the climate means regulating and regulating at an international level – if we don’t set a price for carbon there will be no transition.”
Meanwhile Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said carbon pricing would help the country deliver on its new commitment to slash its emissions by 40-45% on 2005 levels by 2030, compared with its previous pledge of 30% made in 2015.
He said Canada’s carbon price will reach C$170/ tonne by 2050. “If major economies in the room were to follow Canada's lead and adopt a rising price on pollution and commit to phase out coal plants, we would accelerate our global path for a safe, prosperous, net-zero future.” Both the EU and U.S. are looking at carbon border tax adjustments, to address carbon leakage and prevent domestic industries moving abroad.
Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison stressed that his country, whose goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2030 remains unchanged, isn’t prepared to look at taxes to achieve net-zero. He prefers to rely on technology to answer the question of how to get there.
Kyte told The Sustainable Business Review that the “how” is largely missing from country commitments. Even pinning down what all the different baseline emissions reductions mean will be a complex process. Then there are major business alliances all setting sail for net-zero. “It’s incredibly important to get this nailed down,” says Kyte.
“From the U.S. perspective, there's a sense that somebody, somewhere needs to know whether this stuff is real, adds up and is the right size. You’re going to see a lot of validation and verification going on. There's a lot of learning about how to do this, and how to hold companies and countries to account, and then how to celebrate and learn the lessons from those who seem to be getting it right – and how to course-correct if you’re not.”
This article appeared in the April 2021 issue of The Sustainable Review: See also: