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5 key questions for a crucial year of global climate diplomacy

Question No. 2: What will a Biden White House bring to the table?

Sign reads, "#ClimateActionSummit." Chilean Minister of Environment Carolina Schmidt and U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed pictured in background.

Chilean Minister of Environment Carolina Schmidt and U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed pictured in background.

Last year was supposed to mark the beginning of a "decade of action" to avert the climate crisis and accelerate sustainable development around the planet. But that was before the coronavirus crisis put a halt to most best laid plans, pushing many governments and companies into survival mode as they sought to protect their citizens against a deadly virus while simultaneously striving to revive their lockdown-ravaged economies.

As a result, where 2020 was expected to see a global diplomatic push to finalize the Paris Agreement and trigger a new wave of climate action, that momentum needs maintaining for a further year, with the crucial COP26 U.N. climate summit postponed until November.

Remarkably, 2020 still managed to deliver a host of significant climate policy breakthroughs and would yet be seen as a major turning point in global climate action. Donald Trump's reign in the White House was called to a halt by the decisive victory of Joe Biden, who has promised to return the U.S. to the Paris Agreement and shift the world's largest economy onto a net zero footing by 2050. China also joined Japan, South Korea and Canada in announcing new carbon neutrality targets, while the support for the net zero transition among companies, investors and even major oil and gas firms continued to go from strength to strength.

But while COVID-19 delivered an unprecedented decline in global emissions last year, it also delivered a great deal of economic hardship, and the scale of the challenge for those looking to build back greener and deliver a smooth, orderly and rapid decline in emissions over the coming decade remains significant.

While COVID-19 delivered an unprecedented decline in global emissions last year, it also delivered a great deal of economic hardship.

Moreover, for all the welcome new net-zero emission goals, decarbonization and climate funding pledges made by countries signed up to the Paris Agreement remain woefully underpowered, and pressure is on the U.K. and Italy as hosts of COP26 to ensure governments step up to the plate in 2021 with enhanced action to give the world a fighting chance of limiting average temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally 1.5 C.

With the Glasgow Summit in November set to provide a historic moment for the post-vaccine world, there are still a number of outstanding questions and crucial diplomatic work to be undertaken to turbocharge global climate action and revive the spirit of enlightened self-interest and co-operative multilateralism that gave birth to the Paris Agreement. BusinessGreen takes a look at some top issues at stake:

1. Will all nations announce higher ambition climate plans in 2021?

Under the so-called "ratchet mechanism" of the Paris Agreement, all signatories are required to come forward with updated climate plans — or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in U.N. jargon — every five years. That is because the architects of the treaty understood that, for various political and economic reasons, governments would be unlikely to deliver national decarbonization plans straight away that were consistent with the "well below" 2 C overall target. And so it came to pass: Present national Paris Agreement plans from countries would lead to hugely damaging levels of warming by the end of the century.

The deadline for governments to deliver new NDCs was therefore supposed to fall in 2020, but as it stands just 71 countries — including the U.K. and the EU — representing 28 percent of global greenhouse gas managed to do so, and many of those plans are not in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Now, with COP26 delayed by a year due to COVID-19, the remaining 130 nations are under mounting pressure to follow suit and submit new plans in the coming months, but just 82 have stated their intention to do so, according to Climate Watch.

In order to meet the original 2020 deadline, a flurry of NDCs were submitted late last month, including new plans from Argentina, Ukraine, Switzerland and Kenya. But while these marked a step up in ambition, according to Climate Action Tracker, updated NDCs were also unveiled by Australia and Brazil which appear to offer little improvement on their previous plans, the latter's even watering down certain aspects of its climate commitments.

With new net-zero targets either announced or expected soon from major economies such as the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Canada, the picture for the climate certainly looks far rosier than it did even a year ago. Last month's Climate Ambition Summit also saw a flurry of new commitments from across the globe. But it cannot be underplayed how urgently detailed plans are needed to back up these targets, and major economies such as China, the U.S. and Canada will be under pressure come forward with enhanced formal NDCs in the coming months.

It isn't just about going around the world and persuading people to do more on climate action, it's also going to be about tackling things like the global debt crisis in developing countries.

There is, in short, a great deal of ground work and diplomatic arm-twisting for the U.K. and its partners to do on the road to Glasgow later this year.

"There's room for optimism, but the 'asks' are really big — bigger than they were over a year ago, because back then we didn't have the COVID-19 pandemic," Tom Evans, a researcher for climate think tank E3G's geopolitics, climate diplomacy and security program, tells BusinessGreen. "That does add to the diplomatic to-do list. It isn't just about going around the world and persuading people to do more on climate action, it's also going to be about tackling things like the global debt crisis in developing countries and making sure they have the fiscal space to deal with the problem of climate change."

2. What will a Biden White House bring to the table?

The simple answer here is: a great deal, at least in comparison to the Trump administration. The icing on the cake of Biden's resounding victory in the November's presidential election is that he has gained the upper hand in the senate, with Georgia's two seats dramatically turning Democrat blue in last week's state run-off vote. That would give Vice President Kamala Harris the deciding vote on legislation requiring a simple majority, with the Dems and Republicans on 50 seats each. It will still be tough to get all of Biden's climate agenda through Congress, but not all of it is needed to send an influential signal of the USA's intent on the world stage.

Re-joining the Paris Agreement is of course the priority for his first 100 days in office, and thereafter Biden is expected to push for a new NDC ahead of COP26 — which will hopefully help bake-in a 2050 net-zero target for the U.S. — alongside a multitude of efforts to undo Trump's environmental rollbacks and deliver a post-pandemic green stimulus plan. Such measures will be noted by global governments, but they are also likely to have a significant and immediate impact on markets and investment, according to Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) think tank.

"If Joe Biden starts to implement his plan — which includes 100 percent renewable energy within 15 years, and massive changes to oil and gas, and so on — that would probably be more of a near-term market changer than anything we've seen so far," he tells BusinessGreen. "And then of course, governments often move as fast as they think they can. So if we're seeing bigger changes in technology developments in terms of uptakes in clean energy and so on, then that itself will have a marked effect on other governments."

Notably, Biden has promised to convene a climate summit of the world's major economies soon after taking office, which should provide a clear bellwether for his administration's climate diplomacy efforts. For that, he will have a wealth of experience to draw on in the shape of John Kerry as his new global climate envoy, likely to have a pivotal role as the U.S. re-engages with the EU, China, India and others to finalize the Paris Agreement he helped deliver back in 2015.

"There are big questions about exactly how the U.S. will use its diplomacy," says Black. "Obviously the U.S.-China relationship was absolutely key to getting the Paris Agreement in place. So how will that relationship be built, given that there are other issues on which the two governments disagree? I think that's the big one, because if the U.S. does diplomacy constructively, in the same way as it did in the run-up to Paris, I think that's something of a game changer."

3. What to expect from China in 2021?

Aside from likely growing tensions with the U.S. and EU over its human rights record, China also has a lot of mutual climate priorities with its biggest western rivals, leaving room for cooperation and progress from the world's biggest emitters in the run up to COP26.

Much is expected — and needed — from China in the coming months. Little detail is yet confirmed in support of its new 2060 net-zero goal, and although the government announced some key commitments at last month's Climate Ambition Summit on tree planting and renewable energy, it has yet to submit an enhanced NDC to the Paris Agreement. Climate diplomats will be hopeful more detail on China's short and long-term climate plans will emerge in the coming months, with the country's upcoming 14th five-year economic plan and chairing of the U.N. Biodiversity Summit in May providing a clear opportunity for further climate policy moves.

"China's NDC is the big question," says Evans. "The early indicators for that may be in the Five-Year Plan that will start to come out at the beginning of this year. That will really prove how serious China is about its net-zero target — it will be a credibility test of sorts."

Should both China and the U.S. — the world's 2 largest economies — come forward with ambitious NDCs and net zero plans in the coming months, the ripples it would send across markets around the rest of the world would be monumental.

Encouragingly, the year already has got off to a positive start for China's climate efforts, having last week finally unveiled an emissions trading system covering its thermal power industry — which account for around 40 percent of its national emissions — after years of development and pilot schemes. As with much of China's climate efforts to date, experts have warned the market-based measure appears somewhat underpowered, but as the Chinese government itself argues it offers "an important starting point" on the road to net zero emissions by 2060.

"The ETS is essential in reducing emissions and the associated costs, while also formulating an effective carbon pricing signal, which lays a solid foundation for the low carbon transition of society as a whole," said Zhang Jianyu, vice president of Environmental Defense Fund China. "As a result, the ETS will become an effective tool to help China achieve carbon peaking before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 — goals that Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged in 2020."

Should both China and the U.S. — the world's two largest economies — come forward with ambitious NDCs and net zero plans in the coming months, the ripples it would send across markets around the rest of the world would be monumental. It also would make it increasingly politically and economically difficult for climate laggards such Australia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia not to up their game.

4. Can the U.K. stake its claim to be a 'global climate leader'?

Having just submitted an enhanced NDC including a higher ambition 2030 CO2 target, the U.K. finds itself in the driving seat of not just COP26 in 2021, but ahead of that the G7 summit, providing a key opportunity to push climate to the top of the priority list among the world's major economies.

Domestically, meanwhile, the government is under pressure to finalize a sweeping green policy program to lay the groundwork for its 2050 net-zero transition over the coming months and bolster its claims to being a global climate leader.

It certainly will help to have the U.S., EU, and China backing the net-zero agenda, but even so there is a lot for the U.K. government to do to deliver a genuinely successful U.N. climate summit. Labor's Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband has called for the "biggest climate mobilization we've ever seen" in the run up to COP26, adding that "there's nothing that's going to happen on climate in the next five years that is as important as this."

It is perhaps no surprise then that Alok Sharma reportedly has offered to resign as business secretary in order to take on the role of COP26 president full time.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had sought a bigger name for the role — including former PM David Cameron and former Foreign Secretary William Hague — but it makes little sense to remove Sharma from heading up the crucial Glasgow Summit at such a late stage in proceedings, according to Evans.

"I wouldn't be changing the person in charge of COP26, because there is so much work to do and so little time to do it," he says. "What the government needs to be doing is good diplomatic legwork. You don't need a big name — like Tony Blair or someone — to come in and do it. You need someone who is at the highest level in government who can represent it around the world with the authority of the PM."

Having updated its NDC and promised to ban overseas fossil fuel financing and set up a national investment bank, government climate policy is starting to look in reasonably good shape ahead of COP26. But there are ongoing concerns about how male-dominated the U.K.'s COP26 diplomatic team is, while certain domestic policy decisions — such as letting plans for a new coal mine progress in Cumbria or cutting overseas development aid — risk undermining the U.K.'s global leadership ambitions, warns Evans.

COVID-19 remains the biggest outstanding question when it comes to climate diplomacy efforts in 2021, and in the absence of a crystal ball it will have to stay unanswered for now.

"Any decision that undermines your own foreign policy message is definitely not going to go down well," he says. "The COP26 presidency really shines the spotlight on your domestic performance and can't really be many places to hide it."

The COVID-19 crisis also continues to destabilize the U.K. economy and government apparatus, too, of course. But with a vaccine being rolled out and Johnson keenly aware of the "Global Britain" brand benefits of taking bold climate action now it has left the EU, the U.K. will stand COP26 in good stead should it arrive in Glasgow with a formidable net-zero strategy in its pocket.

5. Will a physical COP26 summit even go ahead in Glasgow?

It already has been postponed for a year, and with a climate emergency upon us the world cannot afford to repeatedly delay COP26. But the summit could not take place tomorrow, such is the state of the COVID-19 situation worldwide at present, and there isn't a huge amount of time to get a vaccine rolled out sufficiently to allow thousands of diplomats to thrash out outstanding aspects of the Paris Agreement in person in November. In the intervening period, too, crucial diplomacy groundwork will have to largely be carried out virtually, which is less than ideal in brokering trust between parties.

The U.K. may be on track to deliver widespread vaccinations by the autumn, but COP26 is a global event and will see diplomats, journalists, business leaders and campaigners descend on Glasgow from all around the world, including countries where vaccination rollouts will still be in their infancy. And that, of course, assumes the vaccinations prove effective and further mutations of the virus do not require new vaccinations. If the summit is to avoid the risk of a hugely disruptive viral outbreak the government will need to orchestrate a wide-ranging and effective testing and security regime that allows diplomats to gather with confidence.

COVID-19 therefore remains the biggest outstanding question when it comes to climate diplomacy efforts in 2021, and in the absence of a crystal ball it will have to stay unanswered for now.

Whatever happens, Black is adamant the Summit has to take place in-person, although he remains hopeful it can still happen later this year. "I don't think we're completely out of the woods yet [on a COVID-enforced delay]," he says. "I would say I'm cautiously optimistic, but not 100 percent comfortable."

It is a sentiment that would readily apply to the outlook for climate action in 2021 as a whole. After a torrid year in 2020, positive commitments from key players such as the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, the EU and the U.K. have helped maintain momentum on climate ambition into 2021. Now the pressure is on all countries and businesses to go further, faster and deliver fully on the goals of the Paris Agreement.

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