On September 20, the biggest-ever demonstration over global warming was held worldwide. The demonstrations were more pronounced in big cities of developed countries; in most developing countries, the response was muted. There was a token demonstration in India, for instance. The biggest demonstration was in New York, where the teenage activist Greta Thunberg spoke passionately about climate justice, and the need for world leaders to take leadership. But, alas, no such leadership was visible at the UN Climate Action Summit held on September 23 at the UN headquarters in New York.
To say that the summit was a great disappointment would be an understatement. The US, the world’s greatest carbon polluter, didn’t participate in the summit, though US President Donald Trump did make an inexplicable appearance, and left quickly. China, the world’s largest current polluter, made ambiguous statements, and put the responsibility on the developed countries to lead. The European Union came with no concrete proposal. India made an ambitious announcement of increasing its renewable energy target from 175 gigawatts (GW) to 450 GW. But, overall, none of the large polluters met the UN chief António Guterres’ call to raise their climate pledges. And, this is the crux of the issue—the G20 countries, who are the biggest polluters, are lagging far behind in climate action.
A day after the climate demonstrations, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released an advance chapter of the 2019 Emissions Gap Report to let the world know how G20 countries are failing the planet. The Emissions Gap Reports are released every year to take stock of the gap between the emissions reductions required to meet 1.5°C/2°C target, and the reductions actually made, or pledged by countries collectively.
The 2019 Report shows that G20 nations, who account for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions, are collectively not on track to meet their Paris Agreement commitments. Around half of these 20 countries are falling short of achieving their own target, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), under the Paris Agreement. These countries are not yet taking on transformative climate commitments at the necessary breadth and scale to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. For instance:
Too few countries have committed to net-zero greenhouse gas emission targets;
Country commitments to fully decarbonise electricity supplies cover less than 1% of global CO2 emissions from electricity generation;
Countries are not setting ambitious targets for industry;
Very few countries have committed to phasing out coal-fired power plants;
Commitment to decarbonise the transportation sector is lacking; and
Commitments to zero net deforestation targets are not being backed with action on the ground.
What is evident from the report, which it does not spell out, is the laggardly actions in the US. While Europe, India, and China are making some efforts (though inadequate), the US is doing everything possible to increase its emissions.
First of all, the US is not likely to meet its measly Paris Commitments set under the Obama administration. Under Donald Trump, energy-related CO2 emissions of the country have grown in 2018, at a rate that is the highest since 2010, and is likely to be the second-highest in nearly two decades. In fact, the US, today, is more dependent on fossil fuels in absolute terms than it was 25 years ago, when the climate treaty was signed. With the anti-climate policies put in place by Trump, such as the reversal of the emissions and efficiency standards in the power, transport, and industry sectors, the emission scenario in the US is likely to worsen further.
The problem is that if the US doesn’t take strong actions to reduce emissions, China will not move. And, even if the whole world sets the most ambitious emissions-reduction targets, the emissions from the US, and China will be sufficient to burn the world. This is the key challenge facing the world—its top two economic leaders are the laggards on climate change.
The 2019 Emissions Gap Report concludes that countries must at least triple the level of ambition of their current NDCs to have a chance of keeping the global temperature rise under 2°C; to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C, they must increase their ambitions five-fold. These ambitions cannot be achieved without real decarbonisation efforts by the US, and China. How do we move these two behemoths? We need to quickly find the answer to this problem if we want to save the planet for future generations.
Author is an environmentalist
Views are personal