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High hopes for the Leaders Summit on Climate: what can we expect from the US’s return to the climate fight

Later today world leaders will gather to attend the virtual Summit on Climate, organised by US president Joe Biden.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Today is Earth Day, the annual event during which everybody can demonstrate support for environmental protection. And yesterday, the European Commission has welcomed a provisional agreement between the co-legislators on the European Climate Law, which will enshrine the EU’s commitment to reaching climate neutrality by 2050 and the intermediate target of reducing net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

As Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans said, the EU will come to the table with this positive news, hoping to inspire other international partners. Within a year already packed with international conferences on climate change, everybody is looking at the US and what big announcements Presidente Biden will make.

The goal of the Summit was to ensure close coordination with key players in the international community at the highest levels of government, right when the US is reentering the global climate fight. The Summit will focus, among others, on increasing efforts by the world’s major economies to reduce emissions during this critical decade; on mobilising public and private sector finance to drive the net-zero transition and to help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts; on the economic benefits of climate action, with a strong emphasis on job creation and the importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy.

Increasing the emission reduction target

Speaking at CERAWeek by IHS Markit at the beginning of March, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry referred to today’s summit saying that specifically, the US will ask all the major emitting nations to increase their climate ambitions before going to Glasgow. Additionally, he expected the US to announce new national contributions.

“The new climate plan must be aggressive, real and achievable,” he said. “We are on the verge to witness the greatest economic transformation since the industrial revolution.”

Predicting today’s big announcements, Nick Mabey, Chief Executive of independent European think tank E3G said that it must be an emission reduction of at least 50 per cent by 2030. It cannot be less than that, as even a 50 per cent reduction is less than the EU’s 55 per cent target and the recently announced UK’s cut of 78 per cent by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

“There were real concerns that the Summit would distract attention from the UN meeting later this year [COP26] and it would prefigure a new unilateralist US approach to diplomacy which, to be honest, was the style of the meetings which George Bush started in the 2000s,” Mr Mabey said during a media briefing organised by the European Climate Foundation. “Of course it’s primarily a chance for the US to show what it’s doing because it has been away from the process for four years.”

According to him, it is not just about new pledges, but this Summit also marks the beginning of a really intensive period of diplomatic activity to raise everybody’s ambitions, because everybody knows we’re not on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.

“Domestic audiences will feel that the US really has to show some leadership, so it would be nice to see some signals on the coal phase-out so to match other countries’ cold phase-out pledges,” he said. “And it would be nice to see some announcements on US public banks stopping to finance fossil fuels abroad.”

Integrity and solidarity: richer economies must help developing countries

The Summit is also an opportunity for richer economies to support developing countries, in the spirit of integrity and solidarity outlined by the Paris Agreement. It is kind of a follow-up event to the one in March, in which the US and the EU talked about building bridges with Africa and helping other countries affected at the same time by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

“We also resolved today to work together and with other countries to help the world’s most vulnerable cope with the devastating impacts of climate change,” read a US-EU joint statement released at the end of March.

Yamide Dagnet, Director, Climate Negotiations at the World Resources Institute (WRI) reminded us that the Paris Agreement was also about climate adaptation, an aspect that has been so far neglected. She highlighted that only 2 per cent of climate finance reached small islands while only 14 per cent of these funds went to least developed countries which, at the end of the day, are the ones paying the highest price. Therefore, for her, solidarity and integrity must be keywords at today’s Summit.

China, Russia and other international players

The other big elephant in the room is the US-China dynamic, especially after what Mr Mabey defined as a “pretty rocky start with some diplomatic grenades thrown at each other and the Alaska meeting.”

And there were some encouraging commitments following a meeting between Mr Kerry and China Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua a few days ago.
The two countries said to be ready to cooperate with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands. 

“We don’t expect China to make a big domestic climate pledge beyond what they announced last year at the UN, but to be honest, President Xi has surprised us before about what he does and no one really knows what’s in his mind,” commented Mr Mabey.

Earlier in March, Mr Kerry said that the US was ready to put China’s willingness to work with other countries at test, which is something they haven’t done yet. Of course, China is also funding coal mines in various parts of the world and the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate reminded us that the issue has already been raised.

Regarding other international cooperations, dealing with Russia is something that cannot be avoided this year. However, Mr Mabey points out that it is more of a European issue.

“In June, Europe will put forward its climate border adjustment measures,” he said answering a question raised by CEENERGYNEWS. “There is a lot of discussion about how China will respond, but China has very little trading in these sectors while Russia has a lot of trade and particularly in cross-border electricity. So, Europe needs to talk to Russia about the implications of its new rules.”

Surely, the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by President Biden is a critical moment to commit to clear and immediate action ahead of COP26. Especially after the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a new report that sees global energy-related CO2 emissions rising by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021, driven by a strong rebound in demand for coal in electricity generation. We are talking about the second-largest increase in history, reversing most of last year’s decline caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Thus, regardless of the Summit’s outcomes, one thing is sure: everybody needs to step up and deliver, otherwise, as IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol warned, we are likely to face an even worse situation in 2022.

Photo: White House Facebook account.

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