A key United Nations climate report shows the world’s current nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are not close to meeting the Paris Agreement goals. However, President Biden’s upcoming climate leaders’ summit offers the opportunity to change that momentum and begin a new era of U.S. leadership on climate.
The first of a two-part report on parties’ mitigation commitments under the Paris Agreement, released last month, shows just how far off track the world is. While 75 parties have increased their individual levels of ambition to reduce emissions by communicating a new or updated NDC, their combined impact puts them on a path to achieve a less than 1 percent reduction by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. To put that in context, the IPCC has said that globally, emissions must drop by 45 percent over the same time period if the world is to stay on track to achieve the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa noted, however, that the early report is a “snapshot, not a full picture” of global efforts, being limited in scope only to those countries that submitted updated or new NDCs. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed many countries’ efforts to complete their submissions in 2020. A number of parties, including major greenhouse gas emitters such as the United States, China, India, and Canada, have yet to submit new or updated NDCs.
The international community celebrated the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement on Feb. 19. However, as noted in our Paris Agreement Q & A, formally rejoining the agreement is simple, but the greater challenge for the Biden Administration will be putting forward a new U.S. NDC that’s widely viewed as ambitious, credible, and likely to be fully implemented regardless of any future changes of administration.
Using preliminary economic and energy data, Rhodium Group has estimated that US emissions were down 21 percent below 2005 levels in 2020. Last year’s emissions drop should not, however, be considered substantial progress toward the U.S. meeting its 2025 Paris Agreement target of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels. Almost half of this sharp decrease in annual emissions was due to the enormous toll of economic damage and human suffering caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, not from existing policies and measures—certainly not the way to reduce emissions sustainably.
President Biden’s climate strategy aims for net zero emissions by 2050, consistent with what the science tells us needs to be done globally to avoid worsening climate change and costly extreme weather events. To put the United States on a pathway to achieve that, Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation and France’s Climate Change Ambassador and Special Representative to COP 21, said the new target must be at least a 50 percent reduction by 2030 from 2005 levels. Others have called for even more ambitious reductions.
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy have said that they would aim to have a new NDC in hand before hosting a virtual climate leaders’ summit on April 22. The eyes of the world are now focused on this Earth Day event for further evidence that the president will match his rhetoric on climate change with genuine international leadership. The Biden administration has promised to use the summit to persuade major emitters to strengthen their national commitments—but that will only be credible if the United States leads the way with an ambitious target.
China is also expected to step up with a new NDC in 2021. In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China would increase its NDC target, aiming to peak CO2 emissions before 2030. It also pledged to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. To match its long-term ambition for carbon neutrality, green groups have been calling for China to peak its emissions closer to 2025, accelerating its actions sooner.
Last week, China presented a summary of its 14th Five Year Plan, or its social and development plans for the period 2021-2025. While the plan announces a target of reaching 20 percent renewable and nuclear energy in total energy consumption by 2020 and calls for reducing carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 18 percent over the next five years, it sets no target for limiting total energy consumption nor an overall carbon emissions cap, leaving room for emissions to continue to increase to 2025. A more detailed sectoral plan for the energy sector and an action plan for peaking emissions by 2030 are due in the second half of the year.
India has previously stated that it does not intend to update its NDC this year. However, it is coming under increasing international pressure to do so. And other major economies that have already submitted new or updated NDCs this year, such as Japan, Brazil, and Australia, will come will also come under pressure to revise their ambition upwards to a level consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. And with China’s five-year plan doing little to enhance near term climate ambition, President Biden’s summit will be a significant moment to push the world’s biggest climate polluters to enhance their climate action.
Aside from the 22 April summit, a series of high-level climate meetings throughout the year will continue to apply pressure to those countries that have yet to submit more ambitious NDCs. These meetings include the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the World Economic Forum Special Annual Meeting, as well as the G7 and G20 Summits in the leadup to COP26.
The UNFCCC aims to publish the final version of the synthesis report ahead of the climate summit in Glasgow. That version will assess all NDCs submitted up to that point, and should give a more accurate picture of where the world stands in terms of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, and what remains to be done. In many ways that report will be viewed as one of the first inputs into the first global stocktake under the Paris Agreement – a process that will inform the ambition of the subsequent round of NDCs to be submitted by countries in 2025. Both the report and strong climate leadership, by the U.S. and others, can compel the critical action needed today and in the years ahead.