There are very few things that unite Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron these days — but climate change is one of them. The two leaders of the UK and France, who are spending the weekend deadlocked in painful last-ditch, Brexit negotiations, are also co-hosting a virtual climate summit on Saturday.
Amid the gloom of the coronavirus crisis and the geopolitical sniping it has prompted, the summit is likely to be a surprising success: the leaders of more than 70 countries have made new pledges in recent weeks and months to reduce emissions.
It has been exactly five years since the signing of the Paris climate accord, an idealistic pact in which 189 countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2C, hopefully around 1.5C. For most of the past five years, that goal has seemed very far out of reach. Squabbling nations struggled to agree on many of the rules of the agreement; global emissions kept rising; and the world’s second-biggest emitter, the US, withdrew from the pact entirely.
Meanwhile the planet has been getting hotter — the past six years have been the six warmest on record — and wildfires, hurricanes and heatwaves have intensified. As recently as last year, the UN secretary-general warned that the world was on track for at least 3C of warming by the end of the century, far off track from the Paris target.
But now the tone has shifted — and so has the prognosis for the planet. Amid the cheerleading remarks at the summit on Saturday, there has also been a decisive acceleration in national climate pledges, and legally binding carbon targets, that has helped to push down the planet’s warming trajectory, according to scientists.
During the past few months, China, Japan and South Korea have all announced targets of net zero emissions by the middle of the century. The election of Joe Biden, who has said he wants the US to reach zero carbon electricity by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2050, puts the US on a similar course. By the time Mr Biden steps into the White House in January, most of the world’s big economies, including the EU and UK, will have some form of net zero target in place — if the US is counted, some 63 per cent of global emissions are now covered by these goals.
Could this be a turning point? Some scientists think it is. “If all these countries meet their long-term targets of net zero, then the Paris agreement goals are within reach again,” says Niklas Höhne, professor of environmental systems at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Warming of 2.1C is now likely by the end of the century — much lower than seemed likely only a few years ago, according to analysis he has done with colleagues at the NewClimate Institute and at Climate Analytics, both non-profit research groups.
That 2.1C trajectory holds true only if every country that has announced a zero emissions goal — more than 120 nations have done so — achieves it on time, and if the US adopts a similar target. If countries are judged on their actual current policies, rather than future ambitions, the forecast looks less rosy.
That 2.1C forecast is also the lowest ever produced by the non-profit groups, which has been tracking climate pledges and temperature projections since 2009. Back then, they projected that existing pledges — mostly made under the Kyoto protocol — put the world on track for 3.5C of warming.
“The game-changer was China really moving into net zero, and that created a whole domino effect of others joining in,” says Prof Höhne. “For me that is the biggest impact of the Paris agreement so far.”
Others agree. “I think the 2C target now looks like it might be possible, whereas frankly previously, a lot of us were pretty cynical about it being possible,” says Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London.
The coronavirus pandemic has helped to speed this along, inadvertently. Global emissions have dropped 6.7 per cent this year, the biggest absolute decline recorded outside of wartime. While that may be a temporary blip, with emissions expected to bounce back soon, the economic recovery programmes under way will help channel hundreds of billions of dollars towards green projects.
In other ways the pandemic has been less helpful, including by delaying the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to next year. Governments have had their hands full with the health emergency, leaving less bandwidth to focus on the climate emergency. And public pressures to act on climate have been reduced in some areas: lockdowns have forced young environmental activists — who took to the streets in the millions in 2019, following the lead of Greta Thunberg — to stay at home. Their online protests are less visible, but every bit as angry.
Governments are not the only force driving emissions cuts, however. Big leaps in green technology, and new corporate commitments, have also helped generate a tailwind behind the Paris agreement. Several chief executives, including Apple’s Tim Cook, joined the summit at the weekend, underscoring the role that company climate pledges have played to help move things along.
Adair Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, says there is a self-reinforcing cycle, between technology, companies and governments, with each feeding into each other.
“That actually shows the power of the Paris process. Because at one level you can say, the Paris process isn’t a legally binding agreement. It is a political commitment to be part of some comparative process — you do this, I’ll do that. But actually, it is working, and it is working because of the technology process as well,” he said.
When the Paris agreement was signed five years ago, it was far from obvious the deal would succeed. Designed as a good faith agreement, with no enforcement mechanisms to punish bad actors, the pact allows countries to set their own climate targets, known as NDCs or “nationally determined contributions”, at whatever level they choose. The goal of limiting warming to below 2C was expected to be extremely difficult and expensive to achieve, even by those who supported it.
Attaining the goals of the Paris agreement is “do-able, but only if we treat it like the urgent crisis as it is, the war that it is”, John Kerry, the former US secretary of state and recently appointed special envoy on climate for the incoming administration, said in a 2019 speech.
In the years after the Paris accord came into force, global emissions ticked up to record levels. President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that he was withdrawing from the deal, and similar sentiments have been expressed by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and by the Scott Morrison administration in Australia (though neither Brazil nor Australia formally pulled out). Meanwhile China, the world’s biggest emitter, declined until recently to set a carbon reduction target, saying only that it would peak emissions before 2030.
The co-operative ideals on which the pact was based were in short supply. “It felt like we had lost it for four years,” says Rémy Rioux, who was one of the lead French negotiators for the Paris accord, and is now the head of the French Development Agency. “The way we lived it for the last five years, was some sort of ‘resistance’,” he says, explaining that it had been a “fight” to keep up the ambition of the climate accord in the face of opposition from countries such as the US.
Recently that has all changed though. “Somehow the stars are aligning again. With the green new deal in Europe, with the election in the US, and with the Chinese pledge in September . . . We are probably entering a new phase, where multilateralism will regain momentum,” says Mr Rioux.
It is not only political winds that have shifted dramatically in the past three months: the world has also changed profoundly in the years since the Paris agreement was signed.
Clean energy is much cheaper than it was then, and the pace of the energy transition has taken many by surprise. The combination of technological progress, along with increasing knowledge about the damage caused by climate change, has helped to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.
In the past five years — since the Paris accord was signed — sales of electric vehicles have quadrupled, from 572,000 in 2015, to 2.3m in 2020, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency. Renewables accounted for 90 per cent of new installed power capacity this year, up from 50 per cent in 2015. Global demand for coal, which has been sinking since 2013, has plummeted this year during the coronavirus recession.
The IEA predicts that renewables will soon overtake coal as a source of electricity generation, largely due to the fact that the cost of wind and solar has fallen so much. “In 2025, renewables are set to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, ending coal’s five decades as the top power provider,” said IEA head Fatih Birol.
And putting a price on carbon pollution, once seen as a pipe dream, is becoming more common. Prices hit a record high last week for carbon pollution permits in the EU.
In addition to progress on clean energy, advancements in climate science in the last several years have also lent urgency to climate policies. The latest modelling suggests the earth has already warmed by about 1.2C compared with the pre-industrial era, and has a one-in-five chance of temporarily passing the 1.5C mark by 2024, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
One thing scientists have been able to observe is that carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere up to a century after it is released, which means the warming impact of past emissions continues for a long time.
“The climate system has a lot of inbuilt lags, so to some extent we have already determined what the temperature will be in 2030 and 2040,” says Prof Rapley. “There is a lot of reason to believe that, whatever you do in the next few years, the temperature is going to go past 1.5C in the next few decades.”
Pledges and policies
That is cause for concern, and one of the reasons why the next few years will be critical for determining the planet’s temperature trajectory. Despite all the recent announcements, there is still a yawning gap between countries’ 2050 targets, and the policies that they have put in place to cover the next several years.
The countries that signed the Paris accord have all committed, in theory, to submit new climate targets to the UN by the end of this year. Many of those targets were announced at the weekend’s climate summit — including the EU’s, which was agreed on Friday. But coronavirus has delayed many other announcements, and the UN has said it will keep the door open for further pledges that trickle in next year.
As those pledges arrive, the proof will be in their implementation. Prof Höhne says that if countries are measured on their current policies alone, ignoring their long-term goals, the temperature projection for the end of the century rises to around 2.9C.
Even the UK, which as host of the COP26 climate talks has set itself an ambitious target for 2030, has not yet spelt out the policies that will enable it to achieve such rapid emissions cuts. And in the US, President-elect Biden may struggle to get his $2tn climate plan approved by Congress.
“Some very exciting public announcements have been made, but we are not there yet,” says Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Programme. She points to a recent UNEP report, which outlines how — despite the lower emissions due to the disruptions from coronavirus — climate pledges are still not quite on track, particularly over the next decade. “If we land at 3C or 4C, Covid is just a little overture to what we will see ,” she says.
Meanwhile the planet will keep getting warmer, even as climate action speeds up. The natural disasters that marked 2020, from devastating wildfires in California, to heatwaves across Siberia, are likely to come again. And for all the fine words at the weekend’s summit, the youthful climate protesters have no intention of letting up the pressure on political leaders.
“The action needed is still nowhere in sight,” said Ms Thunberg in a video posted on Twitter ahead of the summit. In her view, the five years since the Paris agreement have been five years of empty words. The 17-year-old climate activist added: “Distant hypothetical targets are being set, and big speeches are being given. Yet, when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial.”