It’s been a big week for climate. US President Joe Biden’s new emission cutting target has sparked a game of climate one-upmanship among leaders of the world’s most polluting countries.
The United Kingdom, Japan and Canada all came up with new ambitious climate goals, while the European Union agreed on a new climate law on Wednesday, following marathon talks that lasted 14 hours.
But as global leaders race to trump each other with their big climate pledges, scientists, activists and those most impacted by climate change are not holding their breath.
The new targets signal a turning point. They can make a real difference. But without a detailed plan on how to achieve them, they can easily become empty promises – it wouldn’t be the first time that happened.
The pledges made this week are already coming in too late. Under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, countries were meant to come forward with specific emission cutting plans by 2020 – a deadline that was missed by most because of the pandemic. The ones that were made on time were overwhelmingly insufficient.
“We received 75 plans, but we have almost 200 parties to the Paris Agreement,” UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa told CNN on Thursday. “We have also heard from the US, from Japan, from Canada that those plans are going to be coming forward very soon. And we are eager to see them,” she added.
Still, what happened this week mattered. Just the fact that the US has returned to the climate table marks a new beginning. The country is the world’s second-biggest polluter after China and its per person emissions are by far the highest among the world’s largest economies. Without America on board, it would be much harder for the world to achieve the goal.
That also means Biden is wielding a lot of power. If he delivers on his promises, he could steer the whole world into the right direction.
“The US never really took part in climate politics globally. There were brief periods of times when they tried, for example during the Clinton administration or during [the] Obama [administration], but it always failed because Congress wasn’t supporting the President,” said Reinhard Steurer, a climate scientist and an associate professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna.
“Now that has changed, Congress is in the hands of the Democrats and is very much behind climate policy making and that makes a huge difference,” he added.
Ambitious, but still insufficient
By signing the Paris deal, countries around the world agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures and to keep it as close as possible to a limit of 1.5 degrees (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Experts have repeatedly warned that exceeding the threshold will contribute to more extreme weather, greater sea level rise, wildfires, floods and food shortages for millions of people.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that to reach the goal, global greenhouse gas emissions must reach net zero by 2050 – which is why many countries have already pledged to become carbon neutral by the middle of the century.
Steurer said that while these big, long-term goals are important, they are more of a symbol, a way for the governments to indicate they are serious about climate. “There was a big fuss about those far, far away targets, the net zero targets in 30 years from now, but they are not that important for what happens today, while the 2030 targets are tangible, they are relevant for what happens now,” he said.
According to the IPCC, emissions need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 if there’s any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and by 25% to keep it to below 2 degrees.
The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) – a non-profit analysis group which tracks government climate action – said that, while the new pledges announced this week created a momentum, they are still not sufficient to keep warming to 1.5 degrees.
For example, CAT said that Biden’s 2030 target of cutting emissions to 50% to 52% below 2005 levels falls short of the 57% to 63% the US needed to be in line with the 1.5 degree target. Similarly, the EU’s 2030 target of 55% below 1990 levels is weaker than the 58% to 70% required to comply with the 1.5 degree goal, CAT said. The group’s latest global model suggests that if the current emission targets are met, temperatures would increase by about 2.1 degrees.
Other experts have pointed out the goals are set using a fair bit of creative accounting. For example, both the US and the EU include into the targets the carbon that will be removed from the atmosphere, for example through planting more forests.
“For the EU, the real number is 52.8%,” Steurer said. “Normally, when a government says ‘we reduce by 55%,’ it means 55% less emissions. In this case, they do a little trick and count in [carbon] sinks,” he said. “The bad thing is that when other countries start doing the same, we get quite a mess with the numbers, so it’s not a good move at all.”
On top of that, a big chunk of global emissions remain unaccounted for, because under the current agreements, individual countries are not responsible for international aviation and shipping. The UK became an outlier this week when it said it will – for the first time – include the two in its climate targets.
Governments also tend to set the baseline for their targets in a way that suits them the best. That’s why there was such a variety in the goals announced this week.
The American goal is set against 2005, which is roughly the time when emissions peaked before starting to decrease slowly. According to an estimate by the Rhodium Group, a private data analytics firm, American emissions have already fallen by about 21.5% between 2005 and 2020, partly because of a large short-term drop due to the pandemic last year. The EU and the UK measure their goal against 1990 emission levels, while Japan set the baseline at 2013.
However, Steurer points out these historical drops are largely down to the fact that manufacturing has shifted from the West to China and other Asian countries. “A lot of the stuff we consume is produced in China and the emissions are counted into the Chinese carbon emissions record, and so we [the West] feel like we did accomplish quite something,” he said.
It’s the ‘now’ that matters
So while the new targets are a good start, what happens in the next few months and years will be crucial. “We know that the make or break for 1.5 degree is in the the next decade,” said Imke Luebbeke, head of EU Climate and Energy Policy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
She said the signs are at best mixed, pointing out the UK’s new 2035 target to slash emission by 78% compared to 1990 levels.
“That’s a very ambitious target, but the implementation is lacking a good progress, and very contradictory policies are in place,” she said. “Just to give you one example, the building sector in the UK is a real problem, yet just recently, the government scrapped its Green Homes scheme, a £1.5 billion ($2 billion) commitment to support home owners to improve the insulation in their homes, so this doesn’t really make sense,” she said.
Oliver Geden, a climate policy expert and a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, warned that time is running out. “Even in the EU, the negotiations will take at least a year, if not more, and then you have something like eight years left until 2030,” he said.
The aggressive targets will require the whole economy to transform – and when that happens, some people are bound to lose out.
This has happened in the past. While the world as a whole benefited from the big changes brought by the industrial revolution or globalization, some people were left behind. That’s why global climate leaders keep stressing that, this time, the transition must be done in a just way.
That means that, when politicians decide to close down coal mines and dirty power plants, they have to think about the people whose jobs will disappear as a result.
“In a rich country, you’re going to be able to deal with that,” Geden said, pointing to Germany, which is funneling new funding into regions most-affected by the coal phaseout. In poorer countries, this becomes more difficult, which is why climate aid must be part of the plan.
But climate financing is another way in which the world is falling way behind its promises. “If you look at the global picture, in the Paris Agreement, countries pledged $100 billion a year into the Green Climate Fund … if you look at what they really delivered, it’s, I think, not even $20 billion so far,” Steurer said.
The harsh truth is that, as countries become better at cutting emissions, the goals will become harder and harder to achieve. Switching from coal to renewable energy sources is relatively easy compared to other changes that will be required.
“The power sector is really the easiest to change, because it does not really affect daily lives of the majority of the population, once you go into transport and building, then you interfere with people’s daily lives,” Geden said, pointing to the fact that reaching the climate target will likely require big societal changes, including people’s diets, their shopping and travel habits and the way they heat – or cool – their homes.
“That’s where politicians become a little bit more cautious because you run into discussions like ‘how dare you tell me that I can’t eat meat anymore’ and ‘how dare you make fuels more expensive,’” he added.