“Net-zero emissions by 2050” has become an increasingly popular target among industrialised countries, with nations such as the U.K., France, Denmark, and New Zealand passing laws in 2019 to formalise climate targets in accordance with the 2015 Paris agreement. Japan and South Korea followed suit this October, while China, currently the world’s largest emitter, aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. This flurry of activity has been capped by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledging to put the world’s largest economy on a “path to net zero emissions” by 2020 and committing to rejoin the Paris agreement on his first day as president.
António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said: “It is a very important signal. We look forward to a very active U.S. leadership in climate action from now on as U.S. leadership is absolutely essential. The U.S. is the largest economy in the world, it’s absolutely essential for our goals to be reached.” Biden’s statements stand in stark contrast to the actions of outgoing president Donald Trump, who used his term to repeal environmental policies relating to clean power, vehicle emissions, and methane pollution, in addition to withdrawing from the Paris agreement this November.
Recent years have been marked by inaction and even regression brought about by the election of climate change deniers such as Trump and Bolsonaro, resistance from major fossils fuel exporters such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia, and relative complacency in industrialised nations. But are these new developments a sign that international action on climate change is enjoying a resurgence?
Judging by the results of the Climate Ambition Summit held on 12 December, the answer is not so clear. While several countries made commitments to various emissions reduction programmes and projects to promote renewable energy, there is a distinct feeling that whatever has been mustered does not match the scale of the problem. U.K. business secretary and organiser of next year’s COP26 climate change summit Alok Sharma conceded: “Have we done enough to put the world on track to limit warming to 1.5°C and protect people and nature from the effects of climate change? We must be honest with ourselves – the answer to that is currently no.”
This can to some extent be understood as politicians wishing to save their juicier announcements for COP26 rather than have them drowned out in the COVID-19 dominated news cycle. However, the end result is another year wasted to take decisive action on climate change. The pandemic has seen countries spend 50 per cent more on fossil fuels than renewable energy in their stimulus packages, a situation UN Secretary-general Guterres has called “unacceptable”.
As Mohamed Adow, director of climate and energy thinktank Power Shift Africa, told the Guardian: “… it’s one thing to set a net-zero date for decades into the future and another thing to enact policies right now that will get us there. That is what must be on the agenda for all countries in 2021.” Economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must take advantage of this once-in-a-generation crisis shift to forge resilient economies that are prepared to tackle climate change, rather than see it as yet another reason to put off taking action. It is also important to challenge the use of fossil fuels and reduce emissions outright.
For example, researchers at Chatham House have criticised the “Circular Carbon Economy” (CCE) initiative, promoted at the most recent Saudi Arabia-chaired G20 summit. CCE promotes carbon capture technologies within the existing fossil fuel paradigm. While the technologies involved have some valid applications, they are not a catch-all solution for the social or environmental problems caused by fossil fuels, and CCE “risks undermining ambitious climate policy, mitigation targets and carbon pricing mechanisms that seek to incentivize a move away from fossil fuels altogether.” It is not tenable for the G20 to continue to subsidise fossil fuel production and consumption by an estimated $584bn a year instead of supporting sustainable energy technologies.
Failure to act or relapse in green policies could result in a worst-case scenario of 7 °C of global warming, double the 3.5 °C worst-case scenarios that could be seen at current trends, according to the U.K.-China Co-operation on Climate Change Risk Assessment, as explained by Daniel Quiggin of Chatham House. If historic decarbonisation trends continue, by 2050 half the global population will be exposed to major heatwaves for at least four days a year, and drought will severely impact crop yields around the world. Rising temperatures will melt sea ice and cause increased numbers of natural disasters such as flooding and typhoons.
While Joe Biden’s commitment to revitalizing U.S. climate diplomacy and the adoption of legally-binding of emissions targets in several countries are positive developments, these words need to be matched by urgent and bold action on climate change. Adair Turner of the Energy Transitions Commission writes in the Financial Times that decarbonisation to achieve global net-zero emissions by 2050 will cost less than 1% of global GDP while simultaneously increasing living standards and boosting GDP around the world. There is no longer a trade-off between the economy and the environment. Now is the time for ambitious and forward-looking policies that leave behind our fossil-fuel economy and embrace the sustainable technologies that will define the future.
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