COP25: What World Leaders Should Do on Climate Action

The 20 major emitters that account for approximately 80% of global emissions have stood nearly mute at COP25 in Madrid.

The 80 countries that have committed to put forward stronger steps to curb climate change here at COP25 in Madrid are impressive. That might, though give the impression that national leaders understand the severity of the growing climate dangers facing our people and planet. Sadly, their leadership is outweighed by this reality: the big players are mostly a big no-show on stronger climate action.

These 80 countries making new commitments ahead of the COP26 climate summit next year in Glasgow may be heeding the call of science, evidence from punishing storms, drought, and heat we’re seeing all around us and the ever-louder drumbeat from millions of young people calling for world leaders to tackle the climate crisis now.

But the 80 countries represent only about 10% of global emissions. The 20 major emitters that account for approximately 80% of global emissions have stood nearly mute in Madrid. They’ve dithered over side issues and done absolutely nothing about the 800-pound gorilla in the room—the continually rising global emissions of greenhouse gases hurtling us toward catastrophe. The eyes of the world are squarely on them.

Perhaps most frustrating, driving down dangerous greenhouse gas emissions is not rocket science. It’s not for a lack of tools, technology, or money. The world’s biggest emitters simply lack the political will to treat climate change like the emergency it is.

Earlier this year, we showed exactly what world leaders need to do to realize the promise of the Paris Agreement and chart a course to a safer climate. NRDC and NewClimate Institute released a roadmap with 24 practical actions for major emitting countries and sectors that can put the world on a 2030 pathway to limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and closer to the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, of global warming.

The pragmatic actions outlined in “Realizing the Promise of Paris: Roadmap to a Safer Climate,” include: targets for the major emitting countries; ending overseas coal financing; speeding renewable wind and solar deployment; ending deforestation and restoring degraded forests; accelerating electric vehicle deployment, and more. Below are additional details on the steps leaders need to put in motion before COP26 next year to demonstrate the necessary political will to put the world on a safer climate trajectory.

European Union pledges stronger climate commitment through “Green Deal”

If the European Union cuts emissions by 50 percent, it has the potential to reduce more than 0.6 billion tons of emissions per year by 2030 according to our report, with even larger reductions if they stretch the target to a 55 percent cut. The E.U. is the only major emitter that has pledged to deliver a stronger Paris Agreement target in 2020. During the second week of COP25, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal with the objective to become the first climate-neutral continent. The European Green Deal proposes to strengthen the E.U.’s Paris commitment from 40% to at least 50-55% reductions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Unfortunately, there is uncertainty on whether they can wrap this up soon enough before next year’s climate conference.

Mobilizing deep decarbonization in the United States

Our report found that decarbonizing deeply in the United States by mid-century could close the emissions gap by 1.2 billion tons per year in 2030. While the Trump Administration is trying to move backwards on climate action, there is a growing number of states, cities, companies, and investors in the U.S. moving forward with stronger climate action.

A new study from America’s Pledge released at COP25 found that existing state, city, company, and investor actions would result in 25% emissions reductions by 2030 below 2005 levels. And if these actions were expanded to other decision-makers, emissions could be cut by 37% by 2030 below 2005 levels. While federal progress is stalled under the Trump Administration, more than 150 House Representatives cosponsors introduced a new bill laying out a framework to move the U.S. towards a 100% clean economy by 2050. Clearly more is needed much faster in the U.S.

Strengthening China’s Paris Agreement target

By capping coal consumption before 2020, peaking oil consumption by 2030, and mitigating super greenhouse gases, China could cut emissions by at least 3.6 billion tons per year by 2030. On the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Japan at the end of June, China and France issued a statement committing to strengthen their climate targets under the Paris Agreement next year. China’s decision to strengthen its climate target next year could well be one of the most important actions to help put the world on a safer climate trajectory.

China is already on the way to meeting this action, having cut its coal consumption by 9.4 percent from 2013-16, implemented a target to reduce the share of coal in total energy consumption from 64 percent in 2015 to 58 percent by 2020, and led the world in wind and solar installation. Even though recent reports found that China’s coal power capacity may increase in the next year, this may not lead to a significant increase in emissions as coal plants have low utilization rates and face greater and greater competition from renewable energy. For example, from 2013-16 as China’s coal power capacity increased, its overall coal consumption decreased, and the related carbon dioxide emissions also fell.

Transitioning India’s economy to low-carbon

By developing a low-carbon pathway—accelerating renewable energy deployment, shifting away from coal, and implementing energy efficiency measures—our analysis shows that India can reduce its emissions by at least 0.6 billion tons per year in 2030. Aided by a suite of ambitious national policies, India is on track to meet, and likely exceed its commitment of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 33-35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, and its 40 percent non-fossil fuel electricity capacity by 2030 target. Yet, the third goal of creating a carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent additional forest and tree cover by 2030, requires more work.

In September 2019, India’s Prime Minister committed to a target of 450 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy installations—equivalent to five times more than India’s current installed renewable capacity (82.6 GW) and bigger than the size of India’s electricity grid in 2019 (362 GW).

At COP25, the Indian government reiterated its goal to achieve 450GW of RE by 2030. And, to help attract more investments to finance green energy, particularly in the under-served segments, the government also announced at COP its plan to develop a ‘green window’ (a green bank like structure) in the Indian Renewable Energy Agency.

India also continues to make strides in energy-efficient buildings, appliances, and transportation. But India has further work to combat air pollution and avoid lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure, while providing clean energy for its population, creating jobs, and protecting the environment.

Phasing-out overseas coal financing

Stopping the expansion of coal power plants in southeast Asia would help lower emissions by 0.6 billion tons per year in 2030 according to our analysis. At COP25, U.N. Secretary General called explicitly for raising ambition by ending new coal plant construction globally by 2020 and a rapid phaseout of existing coal plants. Ambitious action to deliver on this goal would have significant emissions impacts, since coal is the most carbon-intensive type of fossil-fuel power plant.

Many of these projects, backed by foreign government financing from China, Japan, Korea, could become stranded assets as zero-carbon emission energy sources displace them. Shifting away from coal plants would also have significant health benefits as pollutants from coal plants are linked to severe air pollution, serious respiratory illnesses and other adverse health impacts.

Implementing the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol

By fully implementing and accelerating the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) cuts under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, we found that the world could close the emissions gap by around 1 billion tons per year by 2030. On January 1st, 2019 the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol entered into force. The amendment now has 91 countries that are party to the commitments.

This includes a number of important countries that have joined the agreement and are now working on the domestic implementation to deliver on their legally binding commitments. While the U.S. federal government hasn’t yet joined, we’ve seen important progress at the state level—3 states have enacted legislation to cut HFC emissions and eight more are developing rules towards that end. And there are emerging signs of progress at the U.S. federal level, with the a bi-partisan group of 28 Senators that have cosponsored a bill to phase down these “super” greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Nature-based solutions must realize their full climate potential

Our report found that stopping natural forest loss by 2030 and restoring considerable amounts of natural ecosystems on degraded land could reduce approximately 2.5 billion tons of emissions annually by 2030. The “Blue COP” led by Chile included a strong emphasis on the role of nature-based solutions to climate change, including oceans and forests. Unfortunately, much of our stewardship of natural systems is heading in the wrong direction. Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is putting business interests ahead of the health of people and the climate by facilitating the burning and destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Governments and businesses that committed to halve tropical deforestation by 2020 have not lived up to their promises. And companies including Proctor & Gamble continue to facilitate the clearcutting of Canada’s boreal forest for toilet paper, putting Canada just behind Brazil in their rate of deforestation.

However, nature-based solutions to climate change are indispensable to holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in a cost-effective manner. Harnessing the full suite of nature-based solutions has the potential to provide approximately one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation required by 2030 to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. And the solutions are on hand. World leaders must commit to fully protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans and land by 2030. Protected areas are one of the most effective strategies to both mitigate and build resilience to climate change, as well as simultaneously address the extinction crisis that threatens over 1 million species.

The Path Forward

World leaders know what they have to do—they just have to show up next year and deliver. It just takes will.

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