The US-led Leaders’ Summit on Climate, held on 22 and 23 April as a video conference, attracted 40 world leaders (presidents and prime ministers) including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Also taking part were some 24 other speakers at ministerial level (environment, defence, economy) in addition to Pope Francis and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, as well as almost 40 heads of environmental organisations, indigenous communities and leading businessmen, including Bill Gates. The event coincided with Earth Day, an annual event first held in 1970.

The US had issued invitations to world leaders on 26 March. “As the US Government re-enters the global climate?fight, President Biden convened this summit early in his presidency to ensure close coordination with key players in the international community at the highest levels of government,” the White house said in a statement. “This summit aimed at setting the world up for success on multiple fronts as we work to address the climate crisis, including emissions reductions, finance, innovation and job creation, and resilience and adaptation.”

The Summit was viewed as a key milestone on the road to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) to be held in November in Glasgow (UK) “and was designed to increase the chances for meaningful outcomes on global climate action at COP26”. The Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted by 196 Parties at COP21 in Paris in 2015 aims to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial levels. Parties to the Paris Agreement are set to unveil updated emissions targets for the next decade at COP26. The European Union and the UK had already announced their more ambitious targets.

Opening the Summit, US President Joe Biden announced a new target for the USA to achieve a 50-52% reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. “You know, these steps will set America on a path of net-zero emissions economy by no later than 2050. But the truth is, America represents less than 15% of the world’s emissions,” he said. “No nation can solve this crisis on their own, as I know you all fully understand. All of us, all of us — and particularly those of us who represent the world’s largest economies — we have to step up.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “the world is on red alert” and that “we are at the verge of the abyss - we must make sure the next step is in the right direction”. He said leaders everywhere must take action by building a global coalition for net-zero emissions by mid-century. “All countries – starting with major emitters – should submit new and more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for mitigation, adaptation and finance, laying out actions and policies for the next 10 years aligned with a 2050 net-zero pathway.”

These commitments must be translated “into concrete, immediate action”. This includes: shifting taxation from income to carbon; ending subsidies for fossil fuels; ramping up investments in renewable energy and green infrastructure; phasing out coal by 2030 in the wealthiest countries, and by 2040 elsewhere; and ensuring a just transition for affected people and communities. He called for a breakthrough on finance. “Donors and multilateral and national development banks must move from 20 to 50% in all climate finance flows to resilience and adaptation.”

Pope Francis said the world was facing a crisis. "We need to ensure that the environment is cleaner, purer and that it is conserved. We must care for nature so that nature may care for us." He added: "We know that one does not emerge from a crisis the same: We emerge either better or worse."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, underlining the new US pledge, said: "There are many issues on which we don’t all see eye to eye. This isn’t one of them. No matter what country we're from, we know the world that we want to pass on to our children and our grandchildren. I can think of no better or more urgent cause to bring us together."

Similar sentiments were expressed by China’s President Xi and Russia’s President Putin. Xi re-affirmed China's commitment to peak emissions before 2030 and to be carbon neutral by 2060. China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, followed closely by the USA and India. Xi said China will "strictly limit" the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period and will phase it out in the 15th Five-Year Plan period.

Putin said Russia's ecosystems make a "gigantic" contribution by absorbing about 2.5 billion tonnes of global CO2 emissions a year, noting that decades of restructuring of industry and energy had halved Russia’s emissions to 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent compared with 1990. He said low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear power, currently account for about 45% of Russia’s energy mix, adding that emissions from NPPs were virtually zero throughout their life cycle. He was one very few speakers to specifically mention nuclear.

He added: “We will ensure the capture, storage and use of carbon dioxide from all sources and create the infrastructure for producing hydrogen as both a raw material and a source of energy.” He stressed the importance of developing broad and effective international cooperation in the calculation and monitoring of all polluting emissions. He said Russia is genuinely interested in stepping up international cooperation adding that “this should be the goal of the current video summit”. He invited countries to join "collaborative scientific research".

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted that the European Commission had just “agreed Europe's first-ever climate law with the European Parliament and our 27 governments” setting in stone the goal set out by the European Green Deal to make Europe climate neutral by 2050. “We have also agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled that Germany had already reduced its emissions by 40% compared with 2019, adding “'We want to have at least 55% less emissions by 2030 compared with 1990.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, noting that the UK was the first country to pass legislation for net zero by 2050, said his government would enact a new climate change law targeting a 78% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

"As host of COP26, we want to see similar ambitions around the world.”

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshide Suga announced plans to reduce emissions by 46% in 2030 compared with 2013 levels. This was an increase on previous pledges for a 26% cut. He said Japan “is ready to demonstrate its leadership for worldwide decarbonisation”. South Korean President Moon Jae-in also announced a new target. He pledged to increase its NDCs to 24.2% compared with 2017 emissions levels and to end all public financing for new overseas coal-fired power plants.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reconfirmed commitments to install 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030 and announced an India-US Climate and Clean Energy Agenda Partnership for 2030.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, a decade earlier than previously targeted, and vowed to end illegal deforestation by 2030, which would reduce emissions by roughly 50% by that date. Bolsonaro, who had earlier threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, has since asked the USA for $1bn to pay for Amazon rainforest conservation.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said the Kingdom has launched packages of strategies and introduced regulations with the aim of using clean, renewable sources to produce 50% of energy needs by 2030. The recently announced Green Saudi Initiative and the Green Middle East Initiative aim to reduce carbon emissions in the region by more than 10% of current global contributions and also aim at planting 50 billion trees in the region, he said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed that Canada will cut its emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Thanks to "hard work and a solid plan", Canada is now on track to "blow past" its previous target of 30%, he said, noting that more than 80% of Canada's electricity is now emissions-free.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to improve long-term targets before COP26, noting that Australia has already achieved a 19% reduction on 2005 emission levels. It aims to achieve net zero "through the application of technology rather than taxes", he said.

"Our ambition is to produce the cheapest green hydrogen in the world," he said, adding that Australia will work with other nations through technology partnership programmes.

South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa said South Africa had finalised its national climate change adaptation strategy and was updating its NDC under the Paris Agreement. He noted that climate change is “a phenomenon to which developing economies, especially those in Africa, are particularly vulnerable” and called for aid on climate change to be separate from conventional development assistance. Gaston Alfonso Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said his people are "teetering on the edge of despair". He asked the international community for debt relief and assistance.

The most powerful contribution to the first day of the Summit came from Xiye Bastida a young Mexican-Chilean climate activist and member of the indigenous Mexican Otomi-Toltec nation. “‘I did not want to stand here and read our concerns and demands because if you had been listening, you would know what they are,” she said. “Nevertheless, I think it is important for all of us to be on the same page from now and moving forward.” She questioned why the 40 leaders attending the conference mostly represented the “global North” arguing that “the communities who are most affected … are not fully represented”. She criticised continued discussion on what needs to change “because we already have all of the solutions that we need, so all we have to do is implement them”.

She said: “You will often tell us, again and again, that we are being unrealistic and unreasonable. But who is being unrealistic and unreasonable with unambitious, non-bold, so-called solutions? You are the ones creating and finding loopholes in your own legislation, solutions, policies, and agreements. You are the naive ones, if you think we can survive this crisis in the current way of living. You are the pessimists if you don’t believe we have what it takes to change the world.”

On the second day of the meeting, International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol said commitments to combat climate change are not enough. “We need real change in the real world. Right now, the data does not match the rhetoric and the gap is getting wider and wider." The IEA's latest estimates for global emissions in 2021 are "a warning for humanity", he said, because they are on track to be the second largest increase in history.

"We have today many technologies at our disposal - energy efficiency, solar, wind, electric cars, nuclear power, and many more - and we need to deploy these as quickly as possible. However, IEA analysis shows that about half of the reductions to get to net-zero emissions in 2050 will need to come from technologies that are not yet ready for market today. This calls for massive leaps in innovation; innovation across batteries, hydrogen, synthetic fuels, carbon capture and many other technologies."

Noting that participants in the summit had used the occasion to make new announcements, he said: “Let me add one from the IEA. According to our upcoming Roadmap, reaching net zero will triple clean energy investment opportunities over the next decade. This will generate millions of well-paid jobs and create the industries of the future. But our priority is to make sure these benefits reach as many people as possible."

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told the Summit that the Department of Energy would be announcing new goals for next-generation technologies starting with hydrogen, carbon capture, industrial fuels, and energy storage. “We will marshal our National Labs, our universities, and our private sector to unlock major breakthroughs,” she said. Having already announced a goal of halving the price of solar by 2030, the US also planned to: lower the cost of clean, renewable hydrogen by 80% before 2030, making it competitive with natural gas; slash battery cell prices in half and reduce the need for critical materials, making electric vehicles affordable and dramatically reduce the costs of industrial and atmospheric carbon capture, while ramping up incentives for large-scale efforts, here and across the world.

Bill Gates also joined day two of the Summit. He said using today’s technology, it will be virtually impossible to meet climate goals because nearly all zero-carbon technologies are more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts. “We need new zero-carbon products that are just as affordable.” To create those products we will need to do three things at once: develop and deploy breakthrough technologies; tap the power of markets to fund and deploy these innovations by levelling the playing field so they can compete with fossil fuels; adopt policies that will make it faster and cheaper to make the transition, rewarding those who take difficult steps.

To accomplish this, international cooperation will be essential, he noted. “I am also working with partners on an exciting new programme we call Breakthrough Energy Catalyst. It will raise money from governments, philanthropy, and companies to make the large capital investments needed to bring down the cost of emerging technologies.” He concluded: “If we take all these steps together, I believe we can avoid a climate disaster.”

Date: Tuesday, 27 April 2021
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