Reestablishing itself as a leader in the fight against climate change, the United States — one of the world’s top emitters — made a bold pledge last week to roughly halve its greenhouse gas emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
Several other countries committed to similarly ambitious targets while convening virtually at the first Leaders Summit on Climate led by the Biden Administration. However, the summit left some experts wondering: Will ambitions turn into climate action — and is it enough?
Conservation News spoke to Conservation International climate policy expert Maggie Comstock to discuss highlights from the summit, the next steps needed for countries to meet new climate goals and what could happen if they fail.
Question: What are the main takeaways from the climate summit?
Answer: Along with the United States’ ambitious pledge to halve its emissions, several other countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and the island nation of Seychelles, announced new — albeit more modest — climate targets.
Importantly, some leaders’ commitments went beyond reducing emissions within their own countries. For example, the United States pledged to double climate finance to US$ 5.7 billion by 2024 to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It will also triple the financing available to help these countries adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate breakdown.
Increased public financing could go a long way toward helping low-income countries grow more sustainably. If the global community is going to ask countries not to use coal or avoid deforestation for agricultural expansion, there need to be alternatives for sustainable development — and the financing to support them.
An initiative that emerged out of the summit could help countries find and fund these sustainable alternatives by focusing on one of humanity’s greatest allies to fight climate change: nature. Several countries including the U.S., United Kingdom and Norway launched the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) Coalition — which will pay tropical nations to reduce deforestation, avoiding emissions in the process. This initiative signals a clear demand for emissions reductions achieved by protecting forests. It builds on an existing framework known as REDD+, which provides financial incentives for communities, regions and countries to keep forests intact with the aim of avoiding emissions and capturing carbon.
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Q: How can countries make good on these new climate commitments?
A: Committing to more ambitious climate goals is a great first step, but countries are going to need to make transformational changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — which scientists agree is necessary to prevent climate catastrophe.
In the case of the United States, the Biden administration outlined several concrete steps to slash emissions, including massive new investments in clean energy, electric vehicles and natural climate solutions such as reforestation and the restoration of mangroves. By setting a high bar, the administration really puts a challenge out there for others to race to the top.
While other countries’ commitments were encouraging, many were not entirely clear on how they’ll reach their goals. Governments must find a way to transform their ambition into tangible actions such as shifting to renewable energy, investing in sustainable farming and decreasing deforestation. Luckily, countries have another opportunity to explicitly outline their climate goals, and the roadmaps to reach them, in the lead up to the international climate negotiations planned for Glasgow this November.
Q: Many countries’ economies are reeling in the wake of the pandemic. Why should they invest in sustainability while recovering?
A: We have less than a decade to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, which could threaten human well-being and the global economy. Shifting to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is not only good for the planet, it has the potential to create millions of green jobs at a time when unemployment rates are surging around the world.
Researchers recently analyzed stimulus plans created during or following the 2008 financial crisis and found that green policies, such as those that support renewable energy and energy efficiency, brought greater immediate economic benefits and higher long-term savings compared with traditional stimulus packages.
Finally, let’s not forget: Protecting nature is both a climate solution and a way to prevent future pandemics. In 2020, a landmark study co-authored by Conservation International experts found that reducing deforestation, restricting the global wildlife trade and monitoring the emergence of new diseases could decrease the risk of future pandemics by 27 percent or more — at a fraction of the cost of coronavirus response efforts to date. Since it was published, the paper has been used to inform pandemic prevention and recovery initiatives for the U.S. Congress, the Biden administration and European policymakers.
Cover image: Aleutian Islands, Alaska (© Chris Burkard)