US-led climate talks get under way: 'Ambitious targets need strong domestic support'

·8-min read

After years of being a climate outlier due to Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the US will steer global negotiations as it convenes a two-day global leaders’ summit on climate change Thursday. Its remit has arguably never been so urgent, with 2020 ranking as one of the hottest years on record. FRANCE 24 spoke to Åsa Persson, research director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, to find out what leaders need to do.

The US-hosted climate summit of 40 world leaders, which runs Thursday through Friday, will be held virtually and is expected to yield tougher carbon emissions targets as countries recognise the need to make firmer pledges to protect the planet.

On the eve of the talks, the summit was already bearing fruit. The EU announced Wednesday it had reached a landmark climate deal to become the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 under a provisional new climate law that goes beyond the Paris accord targets, which climate scientists say is now necessary if a climate catastrophe is to be avoided. The new targets would cut greenhouse gases by at least 55 percent by the end of the decade from 1990 levels.

US President Joe Biden pledged Thursday to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030 in what climate change advocates have called a "highly ambitious but still achievable" goal.

Biden’s summit is expected to re-invigorate debate and ramp-up sluggish climate goals at a critical moment.

According to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization State of the Climate study published Monday, last year ranked as the hottest on record in a tie with 2016 and 2019. The study found that in 2020 the temperature was 1.2C above pre-industrial levels, despite Covid-19 lockdowns, which drastically reduced levels of worldwide pollution. The increase inched temperatures closer towards the threshold set by the Paris agreement to restrict the global temperature increase within 1.5C to 2C degrees to avoid irreversible climate damage.

The study concluded there was a "relentless" intensification of the climate crisis in 2020.

Biden’s summit comes before the next major UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, where countries in the Paris agreement are expected to update their emissions targets for the next decade. What transpires from the talks over the next two days could well be instrumental in setting the tone for COP26.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Åsa Persson, research director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, ahead of the US-led climate talks to find out what’s at stake and what leaders need to do to achieve a bolder climate narrative.

FRANCE 24: The EU pre-empted Biden and set their own ambitious carbon emissions targets 55 percent cuts by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, up from the Paris accord target of 40 percent. The European Greens wanted to hit 60 percent. Is it a good enough deal?

Åsa Persson: It is incredibly important that the EU continues to show climate leadership of this kind and in order to give incentive to other countries to join this race. In terms of the 2030 targets, it’s a little less than what science demands but it’s a good deal in that it’s an agreed deal that has broad support as it crosses political party lines and states. That’s necessary to have a strong foundation for more specific policies. This new EU package sends a strong signal that we need to see stronger action and no backtracking of any sort on policies. At the end of day, we can debate levels of targets but what the climate cares about is the result. At this moment we need to work with the targets that have been agreed and move into measuring results.

A report by the Global Energy Monitor shows that despite China making a "world-leading" pledge to get to net-zero by 2060 it added enough coal-fired power plants in 2020 to cancel out the number of plant closures. Is China paying lip service and is it waiting for the rest of the world to commit before it makes real changes?

The world is certainly waiting to see more concrete plans on how to reach net-zero targets – including more near-term targets and actions – so there’s still a chance for China to step up and provide a plan. However, the new data is very worrying. It shows a lack of coherence. But we also see this in many other countries which continue to invest in fossil fuel production while offsetting climate targets. Coal power in China is on a much bigger scale, so it’s important they show how they intend to be coherent in their policy.

What’s important to note with this international summit is that it’s partly about international diplomacy and countries showing leadership and luring others to join them. But at the same time, for a country to set ambitious targets there needs to be strong domestic support. Any new targets need to make sense in terms of domestic politics.

The WMO State of the Climate report released Monday showed that in 2020, temperatures rose by 1.2C above pre-industrial levels, despite dramatic reductions in global pollution due to lockdowns. Given this grim outlook, what would constitute a successful outcome at these talks?

Three things. The first and most urgent is for countries to immediately halt investment in fossil fuels to ensure their economic recovery from the pandemic is indeed green as many promised but which has yet to be delivered.

If more countries announce 2030 targets as the US is expected to do, it’s a positive step in climate ambition. Many had hoped for a higher target that would also take into account climate equity for how the US has a track record of higher historical emissions. It’s a good target and sends the right signal to the US economy.

And the third successful outcome would be if more countries commit to provide climate finance to vulnerable countries in the developing world. With more extreme weather, disasters and challenges it's so very important from a solidarity point of view that new financial commitments are made. We already have a Green Climate Fund, an international mechanism that started around the time of the Paris agreement. The US has been a laggard in providing its share of funding. However, the US has now announced a major commitment to this, so they are catching up. Yet if you look at the total level, all developed countries need to provide additional finance.

French President Emmanuel Macron admitted he had made a mistake in underestimating the impact of his ‘green transition’ policy on ordinary people, which included a tax on diesel. He said governments need to “accompany” ordinary people to help them and industry transition. What do leaders need to do to ensure that the burden of the cost of slowing global warming is more equitably shared?

This is the key issue now. That we seriously start our climate transition by changing our energy system, transport system, and even how we produce food. First, we need to think about how we make sure we create jobs and good jobs associated with this big change. Secondly, like the French example, pay close attention to inequality to ensure that climate transition and policies don’t disproportionately affect poorer or vulnerable groups. So, use compensation mechanisms and targeted support to make sure we don’t reinforce existing inequalities. And also for leaders to provide a compelling future vision and national identity of what a climate-transformed society would look like.

How do we make it work for everyone? How do we make it attractive and a story that people want to be part of? For example, in Sweden we have a lot of heavy industry, like steel, and they’ve made bold commitments to go fossil free, and this is engaging local governments and other industry. This is becoming a source of national pride and belief in the future. Stories are important to ensure broad support.

It's always an interplay between industry and government because the government sets framework conditions and high-level targets, but we need brave industry leaders to change their business models and innovate.

A new report by the International Energy Agency this week showed carbon emissions are expected to bounce back this year – last year they dropped because of the pandemic. As the economy opens up, there will be a compensation effect.

While the main summit is going to be COP 26 in Glasgow, what’s positive about the US with this meeting is it’s trying to increase momentum and what they plan to contribute to stabilising the global climate.

What is at stake at these climate talks compared to five years ago and the Paris Climate Pact?

The same issues are at stake: The health of our planet, security and the prosperity of humans. But we see a completely different urgency at this point because we have a very short time window to accelerate a green transition. Now we have five years less, so it’s even more urgent.