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The Significance of US-Hosted Climate Summit

The US is far behind the curve of emissions reduction pledges and actual performance of European Union and United Kingdom.
US Hosted Climat summit

On Earth Day, April 22 this year, US President Joe Biden hosted a summit of world leaders to address climate change, something he had promised he would do during his Presidential campaign, to once again establish US leadership on this vital global issue that former US President Donald Trump had abandoned four years ago. The summit was attended by 40 countries, including most developed countries and other nations with large national emissions, such as China, the world’s largest emitter, Russia, India and Brazil.

Whenever the US returns to the climate agreement after leaving it, as it had done earlier too when George W. Bush walked out in 2001, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Cry because the US leaving creates a huge gap in international emission reduction targets, and also because the US continues to majorly influence the global negotiations as a member of the UNFCCC or United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

When the US finally does return, as at Copenhagen on the way to Paris, and now under the Biden administration, the muted relief at the return of the prodigal is soon suppressed, since the US parachutes into the leadership despite being way behind the curve.

The US-led summit this time gained significance as the first international meeting after the return of the US, and because the official Glasgow COP (Conference of Parties), where countries were expected to announce higher-ambition targets, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

US Targets and Promises

As anticipated, the US announced its decision to raise its Paris Agreement (PA) target of 26-28% emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2025, to a new target of 50-52% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 and indicated a goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. While many commentators gushed at the “doubling” of the US target announced by President Barack Obama, with UK Prime minister Boris Johnson calling it “game changing,” it is actually neither as large as it seems, nor does it come anywhere near what other developed countries have promised.

It has been estimated that Obama’s pledge to reduce emissions by 28% by 2025 is equivalent to a goal of 38% by 2030. Further, the US is already witnessing a roughly 1% annual decline of energy-related emissions since 2005 and an even steeper decline of emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) since the 1990s.

It should also be noted that the US is far behind the curve of emissions reduction pledges and actual performance of the European Union and UK.

In the first place, the US targets are set against a baseline of 2005 whereas Kyoto Protocol had called for targets against a 1990 baseline, followed by the EU and UK, but with many others adopting the US low-ambition model of a 2005 baseline. The Obama target at Paris of 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels amounts to a reduction of only 9-11% reduction below 1990 levels allowing for emissions increases between the two baseline years, and brings down the present Biden target to 33-35% cut by 2030 from a 1990 baseline.

All this makes the Biden administration target far less impressive than it initially looks. However, as the saying goes, perhaps one should not look a gift horse in the mouth.

The Biden administration has also set out other higher-ambition goals. Its proposed $2.8 trillion (Rs.196 lakh crore) infrastructure package contains major goals for electrification of the automobile fleet and for solar and wind energy, but this is yet to get through the US Congress, a doubt-laden proposition in polarised US these days.

Additionally, despite all the support for solar and wind, there is also considerable and continuing US policy and financial support for fossil fuel industries, including coal and natural gas in particular, such as in the various COVID-related stimulus packages announced earlier, with over 700 fracking plants sanctioned. This substantial fossil-fuel lock-in over the next several decades will continue to offset much of the gains made by renewable.

The Biden administration has also pledged to double its Obama-era second-term climate finance support to developing countries by 2024 and also to triple its adaptation finance support by the same year, again subject to Congressional approval.

Other Countries

Several developed countries also announced enhanced pledges either at the summit or shortly before, some who had earlier been laggards clearly pushed to do so being US allies.

Japan, whose Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had visited the Biden White House as the first foreign head of government to do so, pledged to cut its emissions by 46% below 2013 levels by 2030, along with an “attempt” to reach 50%, up from its earlier target of 26%.

Both targets are extremely low for an economic giant like Japan, especially considering the very recent baseline year of 2013, which is ahead of even the lukewarm baseline of 2005 adopted by the US and some allies. The low ambition is reflected in the fact that Japan’s energy plans call for only 22-24% from renewable, 20-22% from nuclear and a whopping 56% from fossil fuels including coal, oil and gas.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau  raised the country’s target to a reduction of 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030, a shade lower that the US target  which makes it sound all right, and up from the earlier pathetic 30% reduction target.

Among developing countries, even climate denier and Amazon destroyer Jair Bolsonaro, facing strong international criticism, announced that country’s most ambitious target till now, pledging to reach net zero emissions by 2050, ten years earlier than Brazil’s earlier 2060 goal. However, Brazil has also spoken of an international commitment of billions of dollars, including a demand for around $1 billion per month for it to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 30-40% without which Brazil would not be able to fulfill any emission reduction targets.

Brazilian and international civil society organisations have objected to such a deal saying it would be tantamount to extortion and rewarding the Brazilian government and loggers, farmers and others responsible for deforestation, besides providing the Bolsonaro government with huge funds.

The EU, at a meeting in Brussels the day before the summit, decided to raise its emission cuts target to “at least 55%” by 2030 with reference to 1990 levels, up from the earlier target of 40% and way ahead of the US pledge by around 15-20%. The EU also said it would additionally invest in carbon sinks, like forests, grasslands, wetlands etc which may amount to about 7% reduction over and above the above pledge.

The UK, now severed from the EU umbilical cord, announced a week before the summit that it would raise its short-term targets over the next 15 years, as advised by its independent statutory climate advisory body, by reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.    

Misleading Net-Zero Mantra

Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 i.e., total global emissions being equal to total greenhouse gases absorbed by sinks globally, has become the new mantra. Unfortunately, it is misconstrued and misused by international authorities such as the UN Secretary General and by climate activists to mean that each country should promise to achieve net zero by 2050. This is completely wrong and in direct violation of the principle of common but differential responsibilities (CBDR).

Net zero is a global target for 2050 set by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Special Report of 2018 as essential for limiting average global temperature rise to 2 degrees C or lower. CBDR would imply that global net zero would be achieved through higher emission cuts exceeding net zero by developed countries by 2050, while developing countries may take longer to achieve net zero emissions. 

Developed countries, such as the US and the EU are misleading the world by adopting zero emission targets for 2050, whereas they should achieve this goal many years earlier to provide time for developing countries to achieve more emissions cuts.

The net zero goal is being misused in another way also. Adopting such a longer-term goal, relatively easy to promise but with accountability being difficult, enables developed countries to win brownie points while in actuality evading responsibility to spell out shorter-term goals and pathways towards the 2050 goal.

Just a few days ago, the highest constitutional court in Germany ruled that Germany’s 2030 justiciable goal of 55% reduction by 2030 compared with 1990 levels set out in its 2019 Climate Protection Act are too distant and must be revised by end-2021 to achieve the goal earlier. This ruling came despite the fact that the German Act requires spelling out annual emission reduction cuts from 2022-2050. The court ruled that distant goals are unconstitutional, as they violate generational equity and the rights of the younger generation.

In the UK, as recommended by the Climate Advisor and endorsed by Parliament, the government is required to spell out five-year emission reduction targets with annual reviews.    

India: Where it Stands

India and China were both right to resist making any major pledges for further emission reductions beyond what they had committed to under Paris Agreement. China did announce some increases, some time before the summit so as to delink any such pledges from the US-sponsored initiative.

China raised its targets to reduction of Emissions Intensity (EI i.e. emissions per unit of GDP) by “more than 65%” by 2030 compared with 2005, up from the Paris Agreement commitment of cutting by 60-65% by 2030. China would also increase solar and wind power capacity to 1,200 GW by 2030. All told, these measures would enable China’s emissions to peak sometime in 2025-30.

India is, at present, unable to make any realistic estimate about a peaking year and, given its current stage of development, nor should it be pressured to.

Before the summit, India had already raised its target for solar and wind power from 100GW by 2022 to 450 GW by 2030. In theory, that should be inadequate to qualify as “raised ambition,” however its feasibility is questionable since even the ramp up to 100 GW is stalling in the face of investment and grid constraints.

India also announced a new US-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership which had been agreed during the visit to Delhi of US Climate Envoy John Kerry and which Prime Minister Narendra Modi made much of during his speech at the summit. The partnership highlights India’s 450 GW target by 2030, and says the two countries will work on technology and financing to assist these goals as well as to decarbonise industry, transportation and buildings, besides adaptation to climate impacts.  Since this deal is lacking in specifics, one will have to wait for details to unfold in months or years to come.

For the moment, though, one wishes India would break free from US apron strings with regard to climate change. It may seem a good short-term tactic to ward off pressure from the US and other developed countries, but in the medium term would work against Indian interests and autonomy.

India has already bound itself too closely to the US in strategic and international relations leaving itself with few other allies and little room for autonomous decision-making. Now, with the bungling of the COVID pandemic in India exposing the soft underbelly of its extraordinarily weak health and other infrastructure, and with sharp drop in economic growth and likely further drop in foreign direct investment, India’s international stature has been severely undermined.

At home, this has left India with little room for significant climate action, even though numerous problems await urgent action such as climate-induced changes in agriculture, sea-level rise and threats to major coastal cities, recurrent urban flooding due to climate-induced extreme rainfall events etc. In fact, given past predilections of this government, one can expect further environmental de-regulation so as to attract foreign investment in an otherwise difficult climate (pardon the pun!).

D.Raghunandan is with the Delhi Science Forum & All India Peoples Science Network.

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