On April 22nd 2021 President Joe Biden invited 40 world leaders to a virtual summit on the climate crisis. Heads of state, including Xi Jinping of China and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, were invited to the two-day meeting meant to mark Washington’s return to the front lines of the fight against human-caused climate change, after Donald Trump disengaged from the process. The Financial Times says the White House promised the summit would “catalyse efforts” to “limit planetary warming” to 1.5 degrees celsius, and to “highlight examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create good paying jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts”. After Trump’s denial of global warming and its impacts, the US is taking a leap forward to the global stage of climate mitigation. However, we are still not at the level of change the world needs. Greenhouse gases reached a record high in 2018 with no sign of peaking, according to a World Meteorological Organization report. Carbon dioxide levels reached 407.8 parts per million, a unit used to measure the level of a contaminant in the air. At the current rate, temperatures are expected to rise 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, the UNEP report states.

The US and other countries announced ambitious new climate targets, to ensure that nations accounting for half of the world’s economy will commit to the emission reductions needed globally to keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius possible.  . These include plans to halve greenhouse gas emissions. Many leaders underscored the urgency of other major economies strengthening their ambition as well on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) to be held in November 2021 in Glasgow. The summit, which was the largest virtual gathering of world leaders, convened the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (the world’s 17 largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters) and included the leaders of other countries especially vulnerable to climate impacts or charting innovative pathways to a net-zero economy. The full agenda and list of participants are available at https://www.state.gov/leaders-summit-on-climate/

President Biden began Session 1 (“Raising Our Climate Ambition”) by framing enhanced climate action as necessary both to address the crisis and to promote economic opportunity, including the creation of well-paid, union jobs. The summit highlights the need for extensive understanding of climate change to accelerate decarbonization efforts and cut back on greenhouse emissions, the summit holds potential to springboard COP26 later this year to even greater heights of climate mitigation, sustainability and environmental restoration. However, it has proved difficult to reach a global agreement, with different countries having varying targets of decarbonisation and fossil fuel cut-backs, as they hold onto precarious and poor energy supplies. 

Noted below are the key commitments of significant developed emitters:

·      Japan will cut emissions 46-50% below 2013 levels by 2030, with strong efforts toward achieving a 50% reduction, a significant acceleration from its existing 26% reduction goal.

·      Canada will strengthen its NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement) to a 40-45% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, a significant increase over its previous target to reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

·      India reiterated its target of 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030 and announced the launch of the “U.S.-India 2030 Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership” to mobilize finance and speed clean energy innovation and deployment this decade.

·      Argentina will strengthen its NDC, deploy more renewables, reduce methane emissions, and end illegal deforestation.

·      The United Kingdom will embed in law a 78% GHG reduction below 1990 levels by 2035.

·      The European Union is putting into law a target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and a net zero target by 2050.

·      The Republic of Korea, which will host the 2021 P4G Seoul Summit in May, will terminate public overseas coal finance and strengthen its NDC this year to be consistent with its 2050 net zero goal.

·      China indicated that it will join the Kigali Amendment, strengthen the control of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and phase down coal consumption.

·      Brazil committed to achieve net zero by 2050, end illegal deforestation by 2030, and double funding for deforestation enforcement.

·      South Africa announced that it intends to strengthen its NDC and shift its intended emissions peak year ten years earlier to 2025.

·      Russia noted the importance of carbon capture and storage from all sources, as well as atmospheric carbon removals. It also highlighted the importance of methane and called for international collaboration to address this powerful greenhouse gas.

Session 2 (“Investing in Climate Solutions”) addressed the urgent need to scale up climate finance, including efforts to both increase public finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries and catalyze trillions of dollars of private investment to support the transition to net zero emissions no later than 2050. President Biden stressed the importance of developed countries to meet the collective goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year in public and private finance in order to support developing countries. He also announced that the administration intends to seek funding to double annual U.S. public climate finance to developing countries by 2024. And yet, as Earth Day 2021 was observed around the world, climate activist Greta Thunberg took aim at both the US and the UK. She told the US House Oversight Committee in Washington, DC, that fossil fuel subsidies are “a disgrace”, while criticising Prime Minister Boris Johnson for supporting carbon reductions as some “politically-correct green act of bunny-hugging”. The climate activist demanded more action on the crisis and blasted the American government for continuing to subsidize fossil fuels. “I’m not even going to explain why we need to make real drastic changes and dramatically lower our emissions in line with available science,” Thunberg said. “It is the year 2021. The fact that we are still having this discussion, and even more, that we are still subsidizing fossil fuels directly or indirectly using taxpayer money, is a disgrace.” She urged the US government to end fossil fuel subsidies, stop all new extraction of oil and gas, and completely divest from fossil fuel companies.

Targets announced by other nations were more modest. The big pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping is to reduce coal consumption between 2026 and 2030. But Xi’s announcement was short on specifics, and China’s overall targets — hitting peak carbon emissions by 2030 before getting to net-zero emissions by 2060 — remained unchanged.

Even if the pledges from the US and other countries were broadly encouraging, the real test of whether these countries will actually commit to them is yet to come. Many are prioritising economic growth after a year of stagnation due to the Covid-19 pandemic; air pollution levels are already soaring again in China.

It’s hard to imagine President Biden choosing to hold this summit or to center his economic agenda on climate change without the persistent pressure of a wide range of climate activists across the globe. In the past few years, they have doggedly and persuasively demanded that world leaders increase their ambition and follow through on climate plans. Biden’s climate summit and the new pledges are examples of the success of applying that pressure.  The breakout star of Biden’s climate summit is 19-year-old climate justice activist and organizer with Fridays for Future, Xiye Bastida. In fiery remarks delivered during a session on climate solutions, Bastida, who relocated to New York from Mexico with her family at the age of 11 when they were displaced by drought and floods, demanded governments act decisively using the tools available to end the climate emergency. When pushed to address Bastida’s concerns at a press conference following the summit, climate envoy John Kerry (United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate) said President Biden’s climate summit is a big step in the right direction. “Is it enough? No. But it’s the best we can do today.” While it is being recognised that more needs to be done, it is doubtful that there will be efforts to reach climate mitigation before the 2030 tipping point of environmental degradation. .

Mia Clement

Mia (she/they) is a second-year geographer at Christ Church. Mia is now the Managing Director for the Blue for Trinity Term 2022 after working as a Junior and Senior Editor in the Global Affairs Section for the Blue.