Climate Cloud and Thin Silver lining: Virtual Climate Ambition Summit

A VIRTUAL Climate Ambition Summit attended by around 70 government leaders was held on December 12, 2020 on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement (PA). This Summit, organised by the UN, France and the UK, was expected to push governments to declare deeper emission cuts than their commitments under PA in the lead up to the next Conference of Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow next December.

The good news is that as many as 45 countries, among them 24 high-emission nations, announced additional cuts by 2030 than in their PA commitments, either at the Summit or over the past few months, despite the sharp economic downturn precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. This reveals greater political and public support in many parts of the world for a more urgent and sharper response to the threat of climate change.

Many countries committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 or a little later, that is emissions of greenhouse gases being equal to their absorption in sinks like forests, land, water bodies etc., or by other means. This is in line with scientific estimates that, in order to meet the global goal of keeping average temperature rise by 2100 under two degrees C, global emissions need to be reduced by 50 per cent by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.

Net-zero commitments were made by many nations including several low- and middle-income countries such as Barbados, Fiji, Malawi, Nepal and Argentina. Most of the serious impact, however, would be made by net-zero pledges by large emitters such as China, the EU and other high-income countries in Europe and Asia.

President Xi Jinping repeated the commitment of China, the world’s largest emitter, to net zero emissions by 2060 in his address to the UN General Assembly in September. China also stepped up other NDC targets by pledging to cut emissions intensity (EI) or emissions per unit of GDP by 65 per cent and to add 1,200 gigawatts (1 GW = 1000 MW) installed capacity of solar and wind energy by 2030.

The EU, the world’s third-largest emitter promised to cut emissions by 55 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2030, up from its PA commitment of 40 per cent, widely seen as highly inadequate. The EU Commission laid out a blueprint in September this year for achieving this target, including renewable energy (RE) generation capacity of 66 per cent from 40 per cent now and reducing fossil-fuel generation capacity to 20 per cent from 34 per cent now, involving an annual investment of Euro 350 billion in energy, about 30 per cent of EU long-term budget being spent on climate-related actions, and financial assistance to coal-dependent Poland.

The UK announced an even higher target of reducing GHG emissions by 68 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. UK Business, Industry and Energy Minister Alok Sharma as “co-host” and Chair of COP-26, while appreciating raised levels of ambition at the summit, called for commitments of even deeper cuts at COP-26. PM Boris Johnson in his speech declared the UK would become the “Saudi Arabia of wind power,” sufficient to “power all homes in the UK,” and aggressive efforts on hydrogen power.

Japan, South Korea, Canada and South Africa also committed to net-zero by 2050, even though Canada and South Africa have a mixed track record as regards sticking to commitments and emissions higher than their per capita “fair share.”

In any case, with these, a total of 127 countries accounting for 63 per cent of global emissions have either committed to, or are actively considering, net-zero targets (Climate Action Tracker But this is only half the story as we shall see further below.

A big unspoken hope around the Summit is the likely more positive role of the US under the incoming Biden-Harris administration which has promised to rejoin PA “on the first day.” Biden has often emphasised that climate action would be a significant part of his agenda, and had promised a $1.7 trillion clean energy plan, electricity grid free of fossil fuel energy by 2035, and a major push for electric vehicles. Importantly, he too has put forward a target of taking the US to net-zero emissions by 2050.

This is certainly an advance over its PA NDC aim to strive for 80 per cent reduction of emissions by 2050 (baseline unspecified but likely to be 2005) and its pathetic commitment to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels (as against the 1990 baseline adopted by the EU and most other developed countries), which effectively amounted to a mere 9-11 per cent reduction from 1990 levels compared to the EU’s 40 per cent. A formal upward revision may present domestic political challenges to Biden-Harris due to a likely Republican majority in the Senate, higher emission reductions should not be difficult to achieve as seen during the Obama years via regulatory measures and executive orders, as well as substantial mitigation actions by several states and cities. Several states in the US adopting “green growth” policies have also shown higher growth and employment rates, encouraging others.

While enhanced emission cuts under a Biden-Harris administration would take the world closer to the two degree goal, its larger significance may lie in other laggards no longer having the powerful climate-denying influence of the US to hide behind. There is also the faint hope that the US may resume at least some part of its Obama-era climate financing pledge of $3 billion which many LDCs and island nations were relying on.

Some major laggards are still active though. Besides Russia and Saudi Arabia, there is Brazil under the right-wing Jair Bolsonaro, under whose rule huge tracts of the Amazon rainforest have been mercilessly cleared for plantations. Another outlier is the conservative government of Australia, which was denied a speaking place at the Virtual Summit because it offered no advance over its poor PA NDC emission cuts.

The UN Environmental Programme’s authoritative Emissions Gap Report 2020 (EGR20: released in September this year, taking account of some enhanced commitments made by then, estimates that its PA projection of end-century temperature rise of 3.5 degrees C may have come down to around 2.9 degrees C.

Another somewhat more optimistic projection comes from the reputed Climate Action Tracker (CAT: link above) which in November had an estimated temperature rise in 2100 to be about 2.6 degrees C. After the Virtual Summit, CAT has revised this down to 2.1 degrees C, within touching distance of the 2 degrees C global goal, although still far away from the aspirational 1.5 degrees C. Since EGR and CAT use slightly different methodologies, if the CAT projection were normalised to the EGR methodology, CAT’s projection for 2100 would be 2.3 degrees C.

These studies show that the downward trend of emissions has improved since the PA NDCs, largely because countries had performed better or, to put it another way, nations had submitted more modest NDCs than they were actually capable of.

However, the much harder challenge now is to get countries, especially the US and other developed nations, to re-align their medium-term 2030 emissions reduction goals with the 2050 net-zero target. If deep emission cuts are not spelt out now, achieving net-zero by 2050 would require a much sharper drop in emissions after 2030 at higher costs which countries might back out from. Without this, the net-zero 2050 or similar medium-term goals would remain distant dreams with few realistic policy drivers or action programmes.

India was probably lucky to escape Australia’s fate since the PM’s speech contained few concrete enhanced commitments over and above its PA NDC (PM’s Speech: In fact, the Prime Minister’s (PM) speech reflected underwhelming achievement or underperformance on important NDC targets and a vague promise to expand renewable energy (RE) installed capacity to 450GW from its current target of 175GW by 2022.

The PM noted that India has reduced its Emissions Intensity (EI) by 21 per cent since 2005, compared to India’s NDC promise of 33-35 per cent EI reduction by 2030, roughly at 1.4 per cent per year. At this rate, India would just about reach its target by 2030. However, India’s NDC submitted in 2015 had stated that EI had fallen by 12.5 per cent between 2005 and 2010, or at about 2.5 per cent per year, indicating both weaker GDP growth and slower emissions decline in recent years.

India’s NDC had adopted the BJP government’s earlier promise of 175 GW of RE, of which 100GW was to be solar, by 2022. The PM’s speech notes that India has now reached only 36GW of RE, which is far short of its commitment. Given the slowdown in new solar energy capacity after an initial spurt, the PM’s claim of achieving 450 GW by 2030 appears boastful and without foundation.

The PM’s other claim of making good progress on the NDC target of increasing forest cover to 33 per cent from the present about 24 per cent is also not supported by robust evidence. This is partly because the government has often used the ruse of speaking of “forest/tree cover,” including tree plantation along highways etc., even though a bunch of trees does not make a forest and also does not provide the ecological services a forest does such as soil and water conservation, biodiversity, and fuel, fodder and other life and livelihood support. With the government now systematically ignoring Environment Impact Assessments and going on a reckless spree of granting mining, industrial and infrastructure projects in forest areas, the claim of improved forest cover calls for deep scrutiny.

Critiques of India’s NDC and a broader approach to domestic climate policy, including in these columns, have often pointed to the huge limitations of restricting low-carbon trajectories to only RE and green cover. Many opportunities, which could yield not only mitigation, but also benefits in other economic, environmental and social dimensions are being missed. Mass public transport especially electric-powered would not only reduce emissions but also reduce air pollution and provide greater access for low-income groups. Similarly, re-designed urban spaces to encourage pedestrianisation and non-motorised transport, scientific treatment of both solid and liquid municipal wastes, green construction including in residential building and so on would bring multiple benefits. Further, not even small beginnings have been made in the huge challenges of adaptation and climate resilience, such as in urban flooding, sea-level rise and coastal erosion, and agriculture, which will only cost more the later they are undertaken.

India needs to seriously work out and put in place very different equitable low-carbon development pathways, not just for the consumption of the international community, but for the sake of our own people and their future well-being.