Lofty climate goals get reality check at global summit

The European Union and UK went into the summit with new emissions pledges in hand
The European Union and UK went into the summit with new emissions pledges in handPHOTO: ST FILE

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - Five years after the world signed the landmark Paris Agreement to avoid dangerous global warming, political momentum is building. But the lack of near-term detail means the planet is still on track for climate catastrophe.

The six-hour Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday (Dec 12) threw the problem into sharp relief: Activists were eager for China to put some meat on the bones of its bold 2060 carbon neutrality pledge.

They were disappointed. One country after another failed to raise the bar, as leaders offered only incremental steps.

"As encouraging as all this ambition is, it is not enough," said UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma, who is president of the next round of global climate talks in Glasgow next year, known as COP26.

The underwhelming summit puts more pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to assert US leadership on climate change when he takes office - starting with rejoining the Paris deal.

As political and corporate leaders jostle to prove how progressive they are on the issue, the challenge is getting them to make specific, short-term commitments that back up their impressive sounding long-term goals.

Countries' level of ambition should increase between three- and fivefold to deliver on the Paris pledge to try and limit warming to below 2 deg C, according to the United Nations Emissions Gap Report.

"We know we're in a race - be that a sprint or a marathon - and what's critical is momentum," said Professor Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a former UN climate envoy.

"We are not moving fast enough, but we are moving."

While greenhouse gas emissions will fall a record 7 per cent this year as the pandemic hit economic activity, the dip will result in only a 0.01 deg C reduction of global warming by 2050, the UN said.

Mr Biden wants to convene a summit within his first 100 days in office to convince some of the world's biggest emitters to step up, and set a net-zero target for the US for 2050.

His plans mean that 70 per cent of the world economy will have made commitments to be carbon neutral by 2050 or 2060.

In the private sector, companies from asset managers to oil majors have set long-term targets to eliminate carbon emissions.

The European Union and UK went into the summit with new emissions pledges in hand - in the EU's case after a diplomatic tussle.

Some of the more ambitious pledges by 75 the nations and companies on Saturday included Argentina and the Vatican pledging carbon neutrality by 2050, and Pakistan vowing to stop building new coal-fired power plants and setting a goal to get 60 per cent of its power from renewables by 2030. In addition, Peru pledged to cut emissions 40 per cent by 2030, up from a previous target of 30 per cent.

But more limited announcements were also made, such as President Xi Jinping saying China would seek to cut emissions per unit of GDP by more than 65 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, slightly raising the previous target of cutting pollution by 60 per cent to 65 per cent.

India's Mr Narendra Modi reiterated his commitment to increase renewable power capacity to 450 gigawatts by 2030, while Italy said it will donate €30 million (S$48.6 million) to the UN Adaptation Fund. Austria promised €100 million to the Green Climate Fund, while CEO Tim Cook said 95 of Apple suppliers have committed to transitioning to renewable energy.

The biggest challenge for Mr Biden and the COP26 hosts ahead of the Glasgow summit will be convincing world leaders who champion fossil fuels to make a u-turn.

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, and Australia were not invited to speak on Saturday after the UK and their co-hosts France decided they hadn't come forward with bold enough pledges.

Until Friday, Brazil's government had been preparing for President Jair Bolsonaro to speak and did not expect his name to be left off the agenda, two people familiar with the matter said.

Their surprise underscores how wide an expectation gap still remains between climate-aligned countries and laggards who have so far been able to avoid too much scrutiny on the international stage.

Brazil's Environment Ministry said this week it set a new goal to zero out carbon dioxide emissions by 2060 or sooner - if it can raise US$10 billion a year from other countries.

Even after new pledges, rich countries risk failing to meet a target set five years ago to mobilise US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor nations deal with the worst impacts of climate change.

And at home, funds aren't being deployed as well as they could be, according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

"So far, the members of the G-20 are spending 50 per cent in their stimulus and rescue packages on sectors linked to fossil fuel production and consumption, than on low-carbon energy," he said.

"This is unacceptable."