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Climate Action Summit: Mostly smoke, little fire

Early this month, the AFP published a damning report on a leaked draft of the yet-to-be-published IPCC special report on the Cryosphere and Oceans. The 900-page draft scientific assessment, due to be published next month, warns of dire consequences, including the displacement of hundreds of millions, even under optimistic emission reduction scenarios. As all eyes turn towards UN secretary general António Guterres’ Climate Action Summit to see how countries respond to his call for “concrete plans, and not just speeches”, the tone of the report has assumed importance as member states are slated to receive summaries for consideration during the summit. The World Meteorological Organisation, too, is due to present its State of Global Climate report, which highlights increasingly untenable climate change impacts.

Over the past couple of years, the scientific community has amped up its message on the severity of the situation, and ominous scientific assessments of climate impacts and actions have come thick and fast. Parallelly, the UN has stepped up its own calls for greater urgency in action from countries. But while the UN has put up a confident front on achieving increased ambitions during the climate action summit, nations seem less than prepared to move beyond the usual platitudes reserved for such forums.

As it stands, the picture isn’t rosy. While the world is set to breach the 1.5 degree mark by 2040, even successful implementation of the Paris Agreement would lead to warming by up to 3-4 degree Celsius. Several assessments have now pointed at the stark inadequacy of current commitments. 

But while the shrillness and volume of calls for action have undoubtedly increased along with evidence of dire consequences of inaction, the response from nations, especially large emitters, has been deafeningly silent. As far as current commitments go, large emitters of GHG, including the US, Canada, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia and Turkey, are critically inadequate to limit global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. And there has been little reason to expect any improvement. While the US administration continues its effort to dismantle any climate regulations, Brazil’s Bolsonaro government has repeatedly expressed disdain towards the Paris Agreement and has eliminated 95% of the country’s environment ministry budget. The EU, too, faces internal disagreements over decarbonisation of energy systems and further disruption as the UK, one of the bloc’s largest economies, exits the union. In Australia, climate policy has been deteriorating with the government intent on pushing coal despite urgent calls by several Pacific Islands. Over months of repeated prodding by the UN, only a handful of countries (notably including the UK, Chile, and Norway), who account for less than 2% of global GHG emissions, have agreed to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Among developing economies, after India made it clear enough that it would not increase its ambitions beyond Paris Agreement levels, the UN has turned its attention towards China as a potential leader in increasing ambitions. Although latest projections see the country achieving peak energy demand years ahead of earlier estimates and China’s official line is that it is committed to climate action, it has so far refrained from committing to any increased ambitions. Although it has aggressively pushed renewable energy and has improved emission norms domestically, China continues to invest in thermal power overseas, particularly in Belt and Road countries. So will Guterres’ much-talked about Climate Action Summit see some concrete announcements or will it just be another hollow acknowledgement of the brewing crisis? The signs are clear, and unfortunately, they do not evoke optimism.