The past week was historical for climate change commitments when the United States took the lead — after a long hiatus under the climate denying Trump administration — in pushing world leaders to commit to more ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions over the next decade.
This week saw big polluters, who carry the lion’s share of historical emissions, commit to phasing out coal and to boosting the transition to clean sustainable energy.
But the likes of South Africa, China and Russia have left room for their emissions to peak, which will put these countries off the Paris Agreement pathway — to limit global warming to below 1.5°C.
Leaders in wanting to meet emissions targets
The United Kingdom took the lead early, announcing two days before Earth Day, 22 April, that it would implement the world’s most ambitious climate change target into law to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 from its 1990 levels.
For the first time, the UK’s carbon budget will incorporate its share of international aviation and shipping emissions, a move it said was an important part of decarbonisation efforts that will allow for these emissions to be accounted for consistently.
“The carbon budget will ensure Britain remains on track to end its contribution to climate change while remaining consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goal to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursue efforts towards 1.5°C,” a government announcement said on Tuesday.
As president of the Conference of the Parties (CoP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, later this year, the UK is on its own campaign to push for more ambitious mitigation commitments when countries formally submit their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), their emission cut targets.
Scientists have found that the planet will be locked into a climate disaster after warming above the 1.5 °C threshold. This means the world has a limited amount of burnable carbon it can continue to emit to prevent a carbon lock-in.
The amount of carbon is referred to as the carbon budget. Big polluters such as the UK, China, US, the European Union and Saudi Arabia have accumulated much of their riches from historically “burning” through that carbon budget.
The UK is currently the 16th highest global emitter and the sixth highest historic emitter since 1850. For the former coloniser to contribute its fair share, civil society groups such as War on Want have estimated that the UK would have to cut domestic emissions by up to 100% (800 metric tonnes CO2 equivalent) by 2030.
Higher domestic percentages to go to climate objectives
This week also saw the EU secure a new climate law deal after more than 10 hours of negotiations. On Wednesday morning countries agreed to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. But this was 60% lower than the parliament’s initial vote.
The negotiations further resulted in the establishment of a new scientific advisory committee for parliamentarians on climate change. According to the Congressional Research Service, of the €1.85-trillion (about $2.2-trillion) pandemic recovery and 2021- 2027 budget package, 30% of total expenditure is to be devoted to climate objectives.
“A number of EU countries likely will need to make structural changes and implement further measures to meet their shares of the EU 2030 targets,” the research body said.
“These countries may meet their EU obligations in part by acquiring extra GHG [greenhouse gas] reductions from other EU member states. For some members, such as Belgium and Germany, reducing GHG emissions is made more difficult by cutbacks in nuclear power generation. The EU is expected to unveil new legislative proposals in June 2021 to help meet the new 55% emissions reduction target.”
US accounts for 15% of global emissions
On Thursday US President Joe Biden launched his World Leaders Climate Summit, which coincided with Earth Day. He kicked off the glitch-plagued virtual proceedings with a pledge to halve his country’s emissions by 2030.
The ambitious target will need major reductions in every sector of the US economy, but it will also need buy-in from Republicans, because the commitments translate into policy across states and sectors.
America’s climate action backtrackers are expected to use low commitments from other big polluters as an excuse for why the US should not be expected to carry such a large share of climate commitments. The US currently accounts for 15% of global emissions and is, historically, most responsible for more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than any other country.
Can China meet its emissions goal?
Both China and Russia joined world leaders at the summit, which concludes today, 23 April.
China’s President Xi Jinping committed to reaching peak coal consumption by 2025. The world’s largest current CO2 emitter will start to phase down coal consumption over 2026 to 2030. This is also an improvement from last September when XI Jinping committed to emissions peaking in 2030.
The president called on the international community to work together to foster a community of life for humans and nature with unprecedented ambition and action. But despite China’s commitment to reaching a net-zero economy by 2060 last year, critics say there is too much room for fossil fuel expansion.
The country’s 14th Five-year Plan states that it will reduce carbon intensity by 18% between 2021 and 2025, but the net overall effect is that China’s annual emissions will continue to rise by 1.9% over the same period, according to analysts at HFW Consulting.
China’s carbon emissions trading scheme (ETS), which is only relevant to the power sector for now, is expected to make a difference to this.
“Despite the lofty climate goals, 80% of all new coal-fired capacity commissioned worldwide in 2020 was located in China. Coupled with the fact that China has one of the youngest coal power fleets globally, large amounts of CO2 emissions are potentially locked in for the next decades. At the Two Sessions meeting held in Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang stated that the 14th Five-year Plan would promote the clean and efficient use of coal, an indication that coal continues to be a mainstay in energy generation for China,” according to HFW’s analysis.
And what about Russia’s big emission plans?
Russia, the world’s fourth largest CO2 emitter, in 2020 announced measures for carbon pricing and trading that will allow Russia to become carbon-neutral as early as 2025. Last year Russia released a long-term climate emissions plan with four scenarios that have all been described as insufficient to limit global warming at the pace and scale needed.
In March this year, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said Russia has not pioneered advances in understanding of climate science and has one of the worst climate change mitigation efforts in the world.
In November last year, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on emission reductions, which set a new aim of lowering emissions by 30%, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030.
“This means that Russia’s carbon emissions can actually rise by 40% and still remain below the target threshold,” the research body said.
Climate aid separate to developmental aid
Back home, Africa’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, South Africa, reiterated its draft targets out for public comment until 30 April. The proposed targets will see the country reduce emissions by 28% in the upper 2030 level but remain the same at the lower 2025 level.
“South Africa’s emissions will begin to decline from 2025, effectively shifting our emissions decline 10 years earlier. With regard to our energy resource we plan to build capacity to generate over 17 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told about 40 world leaders who joined the summit.
Ramaphosa used his address to call for aid on climate change to be provided separately, and not part of conventional development assistance.
“When it is given in the form of loan financing the debt burden of developing countries is worsened,” he said.
Climate Action Tracker has graded South Africa’s proposed new greenhouse gas reduction targets as insufficient because of the lower 2025 range, which has not improved since the country deposited its first NDC in 2015.
Tunicia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.