Rising to the Challenge Five Years after the Paris Agreement

On the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement—December 12th, 2020—countries are coming together for the “Climate Ambition Summit 2020” to commit to new and more aggressive climate actions as required under the Paris Agreement. We expect to see some important progress, but more action will urgently be needed in the months ahead. These announcements will likely show that countries are continuing to advance more aggressive climate action, but additional firm commitments will have to come forward from the big players before the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) meeting in Glasgow next November. 

A new report produced by the UN Environment Program—the Emissions Gap Report 2020 and the Production Gap Report—highlights the urgency of the task ahead. According to the “Emissions Gap Report”, global greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow for the 3rd consecutive year—reaching 59.1 GtCO2e in 2019. While they expect some downward trend in emissions in 2020 caused by the coronavirus, the “emissions gap”—the emissions level with existing commitments compared to where we need to be for a safer climate trajectory—is still dangerously large (see figure). To be on a trajectory to hold temperature increase below 1.5°C, the world needs to cut emissions by an additional 29-32 GtCO2e in 2030 from the current commitments under the Paris Agreement (see figure).

Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2020

Despite this gap, we know how to deliver a safer climate trajectory right now. NRDC and NewClimate Institute released a roadmap with 24 practical actions to put the world on a safer climate trajectory. Big actions are necessary from major players to bring global emissions to net zero no later than 2050 and put the world on the necessary trajectory to hold temperature increase to below 1.5°C. Here is what to look for over the next year and at the “Climate Ambition Summit 2020” on December 12th (you can watch the summit here).

European Union goes to 55% below 1990 levels by 2030

If the European Union (EU) cuts emissions by 55 percent, it has the potential to reduce emissions by than more than 0.6 billion tons per year by 2030 according to our report. The EU is poised to strengthen its target from its current 40-45% level to 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. The European Council—the heads of each of the 27 EU countries—has just concluded: that it "endorses a binding EU target of a net domestic reduction of at least 55% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. It calls on the co-legislators to reflect this new target in the European Climate Law proposal and to adopt the latter swiftly". The EU is now on a clear path to deliver this level of emissions reductions to help close the emissions gap.

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. U.S. states, cities, companies, and investors continued climate action the last four years which has helped to continue the downward trend in climate pollution, despite federal efforts to rollback progress. But the U.S. has a lot of catching in the next four years given the stalled federal progress. A group of 1,500 American leaders have called on the Biden-Harris Administration and federal policymakers to launch a national mobilization on climate action and clean recovery. The Biden-Harris administration laid out the strongest national plan ever to confront the climate crisis and their election gives us a shot at bolder U.S. climate action towards delivering these kinds of deep emissions cuts.   

Strengthening China’s Paris Agreement target

China can seize the opportunity to meaningfully enhance its target under the Paris Agreement which currently is set at peaking CO2 emissions “around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early”. By peaking CO2 emissions in 2025 and capping coal consumption this year, China could cut emissions by at least 2.5 billion tons per year by 2030. If China were to act even more aggressively it could make a bigger dent in global emissions. By peaking its CO2 emissions in 2025 and reducing them back down to 2020 levels by 2030, China could make an even more significant contribution to cutting global greenhouse gas emissions. For example, if China were also to implement a strong cap to peak oil consumption by 2025, it would result in an additional reduction of more than 0.4 Gt CO2 equivalent per year by 2030. And by committing to also put a cap on non-CO2 emissions, it could cut emissions by an additional 0.7 Gt of CO2e by 2030. The combination of these aggressive CO2 and non-CO2 cuts could together cut global emissions by 3.6 billion tons per year by 2030.

China is already on the way to meeting a number of these actions. It has 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 installing wind and solar power. And it has deployed a world leading amount of electric vehicles which could significantly cut global oil demand. President Xi made an important step forward in September when he announced his aim to “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”. What China announces in the near-term through its enhanced nationally determined contribution and its 14th Five-Year plan will be vitally important to achieve near-term alignment with its long-term target.

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—India can reduce its emissions by at least 0.6 billion tons per year in 2030. Aided by a suite of ambitious national policies (read our fact sheet), 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.

Prime Minister Modi has committed to a target of 450 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy installations by 2030—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). India also continues to make strides in energy-efficient buildings with fifteen states and two union territories making the building energy efficiency code mandatory and other states in advanced stages towards mandatory codes. Indian states have also made progress on electric vehicles with the State of Telangana adopting an electric vehicle policy. India’s cooling action plan has goals to reduce cooling demand across sectors by 20% to 25% by year 2037-38. 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. 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. Japan has revised its policy on overseas coal plants in 2020, while South Korea’s National Assembly is discussing legislation to ban overseas coal finance. China’s BRI Green Coalition released a rating system that lists coal plants as high-risk overseas projects, a small step in the right direction. Over 100 financial institutions have restricted financing for coal. Coal turbine makers and coal plant construction companies like General Electric (GE), Toshiba, Samsung and Siemens have indicated they won’t build new coal plants (though some remain in their pipelines that should be cancelled). The engineering firm Black and Veatch has indicated they will end services for new coal plants. And local communities continue to resist new coal plants, from Ghana to India to many places around the world. This is important progress, but the world needs to end public financing of overseas coal plants immediately.

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 112 countries that are party to the commitments. The U.S., China, and India aren’t yet a party to the Kigali amendment, but progress is still continuing in these three important countries. A new U.S. administration provides an opportunity to deliver the cuts in the U.S. emissions and drive greater global action.  

Nature-based solutions must realize their full climate potential

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. Unfortunately, much of our stewardship of natural systems is heading in the wrong direction. Brazil’s President Bolsonaro is facilitating the burning and destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Despite the call for countries to strengthen their climate targets, Bolsonaro just submitted a new nationally determined contribution that is actually weaker than their original target under the Paris Agreement. 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.

Investors and some companies are starting to help drive away from forest destruction. Procter & Gamble’s shareholders issued a clear directive to the company: stop destroying forests for your products. The EU has signaled that Brazil will need to strengthen its efforts to stop deforestation if it wants to secure the EU-Mercosur trade agreement. The Biden-Harris Administration can help work with the EU and other countries to pressure Brazil to change its forest destruction path. And, world leaders have a chance to commit to fully protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans and land by 2030 when they meet under the Convention on Biological Diversity next year.

The Most Vulnerable Countries are Showing the Way

Some of the most the most vulnerable countries—those that have contributed the least to climate change but will suffer the greatest harm—are continuing to show the way for the richest and highest emitting countries. A large number of developing countries have announced that they will strengthen their commitments under the Paris Agreement to cut their own emissions—despite being some of the poorest countries in the world. They are committing to go to zero emissions rapidly, significantly expanding their renewable energy, protecting their forests, and other measures to put their economies on a low-carbon pathway. And they are expected to announce more ambition at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020, even as they grapple with the coronavirus and the ensuing economic harm that is confronting their citizens.

The Path Ahead—Climate Ambition Summit 2020 to COP26

World leaders know what they have to do—they just have to show up at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020 and COP26 and step-up their efforts in line with the climate science. They need to translate those commitments into more ambition in their capitals, states/provinces, cities, and boardrooms.

In the effort to tackle the climate crisis we’ve never had the luxury of waiting. The urgency is clear, and the opportunities are right in front of us. Big actions are necessary from major players this year if we are to set the world on the right course. 

* This has been updated as the EU Council confirmed its commitment to cut emissions 55% below 1990 levels by 2030.

About the Authors

Jake Schmidt

Managing Director, International program
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