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This Earth Day "2030 is the New 2050"

Brittaney Warren,
Director of Policy Analysis and Lead Researcher on Climate Change and Environment, G7 and G20 Research Groups
April 23, 2021

On the first day of the U.S.-hosted virtual 2021 Earth Day Summit, the leaders of G20 members made more poetic quotables than major emission reduction promises. Korean president Moon Jae-in said: "The Korean people turned their lights off to hear the whispers of the Earth." Italian prime minister Mario Draghi said: "The fight for climate change is a fight for history, for our landscapes" and urged that "we want to act now, not to regret it later." Argentina's President Alberto Fernández said that "this is the time to dream." The European Union's President Ursula von der Lyon said: "The Paris Agreement is humanity's life insurance." Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said: "We have to think that we are brothers in the universal way." Sisters were noticeably  absent here. French president Emmanuel Macron declared in a pre-recorded address that "2030 is the new 2050," referring to the long-term goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 versus the medium-term recommended goal of cutting emissions by about 45% by 2030.

Despite these nice sentiments, only three G20 countries announced new enhanced climate targets by 2030 — the U.S., Canada and Japan. Only the U.S. made a new financial pledge. A big breakthrough came from China and Korea, which committed to phase down coal production after 2025 and stop financing overseas coal, respectively. On 2030 targets, the EU and its four G20 member states, reaffirmed their commitment to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels and to embed this promise legislatively. These new and recent 2030 targets set a new and more ambitious benchmark for others to follow. As some observers have noted, this is a leap forward.

But barring a still missing execution plan, targets are no more than targets. In the first break-out session, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, noted that her community in the Sahel already has a culture that is net zero: "We respect the Paris Agreement not in 2030 or in 2050. We respect it now." Noting that the Arctic, island nations and parts of the African continent are already at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, Otomi-Toltec and youth climate activist Xiye Bastida, representing the Fridays for Future movement, demanded the world get to net zero by 2030 and make concrete plans to get there.

In all, U.S. president Joe Biden's summit had a few small successes, by raising the global climate benchmark and making progress on a coal phase-out. This should help boost progress at the upcoming G7, G20 and UN summits. But small successes are less than what is needed for a healthy and liveable planet, or to achieve the world of joy that Xiye Bastida stated her generation is striving for.

Common Threads in the G20 Leaders' Addresses

In the G20 leaders' addresses there were several common threads to thwart the climate threat.

The first thread was targets. Of the G20 members, the U.S. announced a new commitment to reduce its emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 below 2005 levels. Japan announced a 46% cut by 2030 from 2013 levels target. Canada announced a 40% to 45% cut by 2030 from 2005 levels. Brazil announced a new net-zero by 2050 target. Korea announced it would enhance its target, but did not specify what it was or would be. Korea, Japan, Canada and the EU — which includes Germany, Italy and France — reconfirming their addresses their long-term goals for net-zero by 2050. China stuck with its net-zero-by-2060 target. The EU reconfirmed its target of 55% cuts by 2030 from 1990 levels and noted it would start planning in June how it would implement its targets for policies "fit for 55%."

The second thread was climate finance. Several participants declared what money they had already contributed to climate finance, including through the Green Climate Fund. Countries, including South Africa and China, emphasized the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. The U.S. was the only member to make new financial commitments: Biden announced the U.S. would double its annual public climate financing development and would triple its public financing for climate application both in developing countries by 2024. He announced that the U.S. Development Finance Corporation will commit to net-zero emissions through its investment portfolio by 2040 and increase climate-focused investments to 33% of all new investments starting in 2023. Biden also announced that the U.S. would issue America's first International Climate Finance Plan. The only other new financial commitment came from Brazil, which committed to double funds for domestic environmental agencies to implement inspection actions related to illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Some leaders reiterated what they had already committed to. For example, Ursula von der Leyen reiterated that the EU had earmarked €1.8 trillion for climate-related goals. Although not a new target, this is significantly higher than what any other G20 member highlighted at the summit.

The third thread was coal. Korea newly committed to end all public financing for new overseas coal-fired power plants. China announced it would strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over its 14th Five Year Plan and phase coal down in its 15th Five Year Plan, which will start in 2025. A few days before the summit, China also committed, reiterated by Xi Jinping in his summit address, that it would accept the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol and tighten regulations for non-carbon emissions.

The fourth thread was the use of technology and the protection of nature for meeting targets. Hydrogen, carbon capture storage and utilization, the circular economy, marine-protected areas, and deforestation were mentioned throughout leaders' addresses. The importance of these actions was emphasized by the leaders and strongly encouraged. But no new announcements were made.

The fifth thread was partnerships. The U.S. launched two. One was announced by India in its address at the Earth Day Summit itself — the India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030. The other was the Japan-U.S. Climate Partnership on Ambition, Decarbonization and Clean Energy, reaffirmed by Japan at the summit but launched a week earlier.

A Summit of Partial Success for Biden, But Not for the World

Biden's goal for the summit, as stipulated in his opening Earth Day address, was to "discuss how … each country can set higher climate ambitions … and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts." On the first measure, only three of the 20 biggest emitters set higher climate targets for themselves. Two others set stronger targets for reducing emissions from coal production and consumption. Thus not even half of the G20 members met Biden's call to raise higher climate targets. Still, three is better than none. On the second measure, only one big emitter, the host itself, made a new financial commitment to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts. Several countries stated what they were already doing, with the EU leading the pack by a significant margin. But if the goal was to inspire new action to help highly vulnerable countries, this was not achieved.

Moreover, the first break-out session featuring Indigenous and city speakers poignantly highlighted just how much the leaders of the most powerful countries in the world are falling short. This panel of all women, argued that engaging with local leaders and vulnerable communities is non-negotiable if the world is to meet the Paris goals. And unlike the fluffy poetry of the heads of state and government, the words of local leaders were direct and poignant.

City leaders emphasized intersectionalities, inequalities and interlinkages between climate change and well-being. Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, called for a change in the current economic model. She stated: "we're almost changing everything, and when everything has to change quickly that is called a revolution." She observed that "a new form of multilateralism is rising." LaToya Cantrell, mayor of New Orleans, spoke of filing lawsuits against oil and gas companies, of entrenched inequalities and of the "major cultural importance of wetlands." Michelle Lujan Grisham, governor of New Mexico, said "we didn't let the pandemic interrupt our [environmental] rule-making process." Claudia Sheinbaum, mayor of Mexico City, stated that "it is not just possible, but necessary and indispensable … to elevate the reduction of inequalities" and that "COVID showed us the importance of health as a right." Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo, said "we are facing two crises — climate change and COVID" and "non-state actors are on the front line of this battle."

Indigenous leaders emphasized their sovereignty and land rights and their vast ancient wisdom and knowledge. Sinéia B. do Vale, spokesperson for the Indigenous Council of Roraima of Brazil, stated that "when we talk about forest conservation, especially in the Amazon, we're talking about Indigenous lands that have served as a barrier to degradation" and "Indigenous peoples are experts on climate, so our rights must be ensured." Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, stated that "we have witnessed a world unhinged" and called for integrating tribal nations into all planning as "a brain trust of millennia of practices."

With the last word, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim reminded the world that Indigenous peoples account for 5% of the global population but protect 80% of the world's biodiversity. As such, she matter-of-factly stated to the non-Indigenous listeners, "you are smart because you [have] start[ed] to understand that without Indigenous peoples you can't get things done" and "you are lucky  — we say yes that we are ready to share our solutions, we are ready to share our capacity with industrialized countries." In exchange, she called for an end to the theft of Indigenous lands, a seat at the table and $1 billion from banks for Indigenous-led climate solutions. "Continue to be smart," she said, "and you will be lucky to have Indigenous peoples help you with climate solutions."

It's Time for Leaders to Lead

And help we need. Science shows we have only nine years to meet the Paris Agreement target of 1.5°C. From this, logic would suggest we indeed need a net-zero target within nine years, not 30, as Xiye Bastida demands. With such a short and critical timeline, Bastida also demanded that leaders have annual carbon budgets, concrete plans and roadmaps that, crucially, put justice and equity at the centre — all in order to reach net zero well before three decades from now.
The addresses by Indigenous peoples and city leaders show that much can hide behind and be missed by global multiyear climate targets. This does not mean that states or nonstate actors should not have targets or that targets have no impact. Targets matter. But short-term targets seem to matter more. Preliminary research shows the G20 members comply better with the climate commitments they make at their annual summits that have shorter-term timelines than with commitments with multiyear timelines. That so much is missing from the statements at the Leaders Summit on Climate speaks to the adage that actions speak louder than words. And with the clock ticking, it is past time for leaders to lead by doing.

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