On December 12, 2020, five years after the Paris Agreement was created, 76 heads of state and government met virtually in the Climate Ambition Summit, co-hosted by the United Nations, United Kingdom, and France. It comes in lieu of the postponed 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) that would have been held in Glasgow last month had it not been for the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The Climate Ambition Summit is not only unique in its virtual format and status as the only major climate meeting of the year—again due to the Pandemic—but it has also made it so that there are conditions that leaders have to meet to be able to take part. Due to the virtual nature of the Summit, it was essentially a series of videos of world leaders highlighting the commitments they have made to tackle climate change. As stated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), “There will be no space for general statements.”
Indeed, a number of countries had apparently submitted expressions of interest but were not invited to send their videos. UN officials are practicing discretion with regards to those countries who were turned down, however, it seems that countries with very high emissions, such as Australia and Brazil, were not permitted to submit their videos. In essence, only those countries putting forward both consequential and new climate pledges were able to take part.
Perhaps the Summit’s most anticipated speaker was Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose surprise declaration in September of China’s aim to become carbon neutral by 2060 had kickstarted the Summit. Though many were hoping Xi would announce 2025 as the concrete date by which emissions would peak, such a pledge did not materialize. Nonetheless, the pledges that Xi made were still received in a positive, albeit cautious, manner, as being in the right direction.
Other pledges that can be seen as significant were those of the UK and the EU. Though the UK had announced its pledge to raise its 2030 emissions reduction target to 68%, the state of the EU’s pledge was only finalized the day before the Summit, in a meeting of EU leaders in the European Council. The EU, nevertheless, came bearing good news, having been able to agree to raise its emissions reduction goal by 2030 from 40% to 55%.
New pledges came from other countries as well, with Argentina promising to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and Canada pledging to raise its 2030 goals and raise the price of carbon. Furthermore, Pakistan also declared that by 2030, it would halt coal power plants and pledged to increase its share of clean energy to 60% by that time.
One country whose absence was particularly noted was the United States, which under the Trump administration had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, but now with the nearing inauguration of President-elect Biden, it appears as if this situation will prove to be short-lived. Biden tweeted on the day of the Summit that the US would be rejoining the Paris Agreement in 39 days, on January 20—inauguration day.
Despite such new pledges and positive developments, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was not satisfied, saying, “Paris promised to limit temperature rise to as close to 1.5 degrees as possible. But the commitments made in Paris were far from enough to get there. And even those commitments are not being met.”
Indeed, based on the annual Emissions Gap Report produced by UNEP, the world is on course for warming upwards of 3 degrees within this century. While many welcome the increasing targets set by countries, where according to the UK 24 countries have announced net-zero emissions commitments, it is clear that this is not enough to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees.
A specific area which can be said to be characterized more by underperformance is that of the climate finance pledge by wealthy countries, which was supposed to reach $100 billion this year, but according to OECD data on 2018, is at $78.9 billion. Even this number seems to be the best-case scenario due to the impact the Pandemic has had on countries’ economies.
Such skimming down on the climate pledge leads to serious concern because this pledge is meant to address the needs of developing countries. In the case where such finance is not adequately mobilized, developing countries—particularly in Africa—may decide that they would rather exploit the fossil fuel reserves they hold.
While ambition when it comes to national net-zero targets, even in the midst of a pandemic, seems to be promising, a similar level of commitment is difficult to detect in the area of climate finance geared toward supporting developing countries. As Mohamed Adow, director of the think tank, Power Shift Africa, has said, "It’s striking how many countries are still missing when the urgency of addressing climate breakdown has never been clearer. COVID-19 may have occupied the headlines, but 2020 has seen floods, hurricanes and droughts continue apace throughout the world."