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UN Climate Ambition Summit: No shortage of intent, little in terms of plans

The highly-aniticipated UN Climate Ambition Summit reflected growing political momentum but delivered little in terms of solid plans of action

Five years after the landmark Paris Agreement was signed by 197 countries, political momentum is building. But a change in tide is still vey much on the horizon. This was the key takeaway from the UN “Climate Ambition Summit” held online on Saturday. The six-hour summit, hosted jointly by the UK, France and the UN, marked the five-year anniversary since the Agreement was signed and attended by more than 70 world leaders.

“Have we made any real progress at this summit? And the answer to that is yes. But have we done enough to put the world on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, and protect people and nature from the effects of climate change? The answer to that is no. As encouraging as all this ambition is. It is not enough,” said Alok Sharma, the president of COP 26 and UK’s business secretary. Sharma’s statement reflects the predominant sense of inadequacy of climate ambition at the summit’s conclusion.

While the fallout from the global pandemic has seen a global emissions dip by about a record 7%, fears are that efforts to resurrect the global economy could result in emissions rebounding over the next few years. “So far, the members of the G20 are spending 50 per cent more in their stimulus and rescue packages on sectors linked to fossil fuel production and consumption, than on low-carbon energy. This is unacceptable. The trillions of dollars needed for COVID recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations,” said UN Secretary General Anotnio Guterres as he urged nations to step up and deliver plans with greater ambition.

Although, the summit lacked concrete plans, more countries signalled mid-century  net-zero intentions. Among the biggest moves forward was the submission of eight new long-term strategies, showing the path to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 were landed: among them South Korea, Ethiopia. More confirmed they will submit LTS by the end of 2020 – Argentina confirmed they will institutionalize a net zero by 2050 goal into their long-term strategy, expected mid-next year.

Despite all eyes being on China, Premier Xi Jinping remained non-committal about the pathways it plans to employ to reach their recently announced net-zero target by 2060. Instead, the Chinese Premier chose to announce a marginal increment in China’s NDC target of cutting emission intensity from 60-65% to more than 65% over 2005 levels by 2030.

A further major development came from the US, where incoming President Joe Biden, in a statement delivered early on Saturday, reiterated his commitment to re-joining the Paris Agreement immediately upon entering office. The new president also said the US would increase its domestic emissions reduction target and commit to a 2050 net-zero goal. Biden’s plan would build on the new mid-century carbon-neutrality pledges announced by the EU and the UK in the past few months.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stuck to India’s conservative approach with respect to the climate negotiations, with the country comfortably on its way to achieving its NDCs, and being one of the only large economies with commitments somewhat in line with the targets of the Paris Agreement.

A surprise omission in the summit was of Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro who was reportedly set to speak right up to Friday but was left out of the final list. Brazil’s environment ministry  had said last week it would set a new net-zero goal for 2060 or sooner if it can raise $10 billion a year from other countries.

New announcements: A lukewarm mix
– Argentina and the Vatican have pledged net-zero targets by 2050
– Pakistan has committed to building no more thermal power plants, with a target of generating 60% of its power from renewables by 2030.
– Peru has committed to cutting emissions by 40% by 2030, up from a previous target of 30%
– Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has said China would seek to cut emissions per unit of GDP by more than 65% from 2005 levels by 2030, up from its previous commitment of 60-65% emission intensity reduction
– India has reiterated its commitment to increase renewable power capacity to 450 GW by 2030
– Italy will donate 30 million euros ($36 million) to the UN Adaptation Fund
– Austria has promised 100 million euros to the Green Climate Fund

The UN climate ambition summit closely followed the release of the UN Emissions Gap Report 2020 and the Global Carbon Budget for 2020, both of which have painted the daunting details of the required levels of climate action. According to recent assessments, emissions would require drastic cuts over the next 20 years for the world to have any chance of limiting warming to the 2°C limit set in the Paris Agreement.

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