Never has so much been promised by so many governments, businesses and financial institutions. China says it will cut its carbon emissions to virtually zero by 2060. BP is aiming for net zero emissions by 2050, as is HSBC, the EU, US president-elect Joe Biden and investors managing assets worth $9tn. This splurge of commitments to tackle climate change is welcome, but it risks being confused with something it is not: action to cut emissions at the scale and pace needed to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord.
The 189 countries in that pact are supposed to cut their emissions to keep global warming well below 2C, and ideally 1.5C, on a planet that has already warmed by about 1C since the 1850s. The pandemic has inadvertently shown what is needed. Scientists estimate Covid-battered economies produced 34bn tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuels in 2020, an epic plunge of 2.4bn tonnes from 2019.
However, the same scientists say a decline of around this magnitude is needed every year until 2030 to have a reasonable chance of meeting the 1.5C goal — and daily emissions are already edging back to what they were in late 2019. There is a vast gap between the safer climate being promised and the policies in place to achieve it.
This does not mean the world needs to go into permanent lockdown. But it must be borne in mind when China says it will reach carbon neutrality by 2060 but continues to build power plants that burn coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Or when an oil company says it will cut its emissions per barrel of crude produced, but not its absolute amount of carbon pollution. Or when an asset manager backs green accounting rules but votes against shareholder resolutions to drive faster emissions cuts.
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It is vital context for G20 countries, which account for 78 per cent of greenhouse gases. Their Covid recovery and rescue plans could shift their economies to a greener footing faster but the UN reckons that so far, they are spending 50 per cent more on sectors linked to fossil fuels than on low-carbon energy. Unfortunately for the British hosts of the COP26 UN climate talks in Glasgow in November, the international system of negotiating climate action has itself become part of the problem.
When these negotiations were launched almost exactly 30 years ago on December 21, 1990, they were ahead of public opinion. Today the talks lag behind a public rightly demanding faster, deeper action. As four former senior UN climate officials write in a new analysis of the negotiations, “continuing at the pace of the last 30 years is unthinkable”.
The UK must deploy all its diplomatic might to make COP26 a turning point. Instead of another unwieldy gathering marked by lofty speeches and distant targets, the meeting should be used to drive co-ordination of policies such as meaningful pricing and regulation of carbon; phasing out coal and ending the fossil fuel subsidies that G20 nations vowed to start eliminating back in 2009.
Governments of all sizes must follow the lead of Mr Biden, who is preparing to make climate change a priority across his incoming US administration, rather than consigning it to specialist agencies. The good news is that global cost estimates for shifting to a zero carbon economy have collapsed, though fierce headwinds remain.
The pandemic is far from over, not least in the UK. Yet if the nation that was the birthplace of the industrial revolution can seriously advance a zero carbon revolution, it will provide a legacy lasting decades or even centuries to come.