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Wind farm in California, United States. The United States and other countries have an opportunity to put forward more ambitious climate policies at the Leaders Summit on Climate. Photo by Z22/Wikimedia Commons

President Biden committed during his campaign to hold a world leaders’ summit on climate change during his first 100 days in office. Now that promise is being carried out with the Leaders Summit on Climate, to be held on April 22-23, 2021.

At this gathering, the Biden administration intends to galvanize efforts by the world’s major economies “to reduce emissions during this critical decade to keep a limit to warming of 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees F) within reach.” Themes will also include elevating the economic benefits of climate action, including job creation, as well as the importance of mobilizing public and private finance, addressing the need for adaptation and resilience to climate impacts, incorporating nature-based solutions, deploying and spurring transformational technologies, and showcasing subnational and business leaders on climate action.

Forty world leaders have been invited to take part, including 17 major economies responsible for approximately 80% of global emissions and global GDP, as well as some countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change or at the leading edge of ambitious action.

The summit will serve as a critical global milestone on the road to the COP26 UN climate summit in November 2021, ahead of which countries are expected to put forward stronger national climate commitments under the Paris Agreement. It will also be a prime opportunity for the United States to reestablish itself as a leader in global climate diplomacy.

Here are four key things that need to happen for the Leaders Summit on Climate to be a success:

1. The US should commit to cut its GHG emissions in half by 2030 and significantly increase climate finance.

President Biden committed to announce a new emissions-reduction target for 2030 at or before the summit. This target will be part of the U.S. national climate commitment under the Paris Agreement, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC). To tackle the climate challenge and help spur a strong and equitable economy, the Biden administration should commit to cut emissions 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. This is also a key opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that it will lead on cutting highly potent methane emissions.

Analysis from a range of organizations shows that a 50% target can be achieved cost effectively with existing technologies and would provide a major boost in jobs and innovation across a range of sectors, including renewable energy, sustainable transport and electric vehicles, industry and agriculture. For example, rapid electrification of the economy, which is essential for reducing emissions, could support up to 25 million good-paying jobs over the next 15 years and save the average household up to $2,000 annually on energy costs and better health outcomes. Emissions reductions would also help the United States avoid the economic costs of climate damages.

In December 2020, Congress passed major energy legislation that offers a solid foundation to build upon, with provisions to phase down the use of the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) super-pollutants that are used in refrigeration and air conditioning, as well as expand investments in wind, solar, the electricity grid, energy storage, weatherization of low-income housing, and energy efficiency upgrades of schools and federal buildings.                                                                                                                   

In addition, more than 1,000 scientists called for President Biden to cut emissions in half by 2050, and a group of major businesses with more than $1.4 trillion in combined annual revenue rallied behind an ambitious U.S. NDC.

Under President Trump, the U.S. federal government sat on the sidelines (or worse) for four long years. A sufficiently bold U.S. 2030 emissions-reduction target coupled with increased financial support for developing countries are essential ingredients to unlock bolder action from other nations. (See more on climate finance below.)

2. Major economies should unveil 2030 emissions targets that align with net-zero emissions trajectories.

Countries especially well positioned to announce stronger climate targets at the summit are those that have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions around mid-century, but have yet to put forward a 2030 NDC aligned with their long-term emissions goal. This includes Japan, South Korea, Canada and China.

Japan and South Korea announced 2030 emissions-reduction targets last year that did not align with their 2050 net-zero goals. However, both countries have since said they will submit more ambitious NDCs ahead of COP26. Meanwhile, Canada has not yet put forward its plan, but indicated it will announce an enhanced 2030 emissions target by the summit.

China has also not yet submitted its national climate commitment under the Paris Agreement. At or before the Leaders Climate Summit, China should make clear its intention to deliver a 2030 target that aligns with its pledge to reach carbon neutrality before 2060. China’s recently adopted 14th Five Year Plan, which sets out the country’s economic strategy, did not signal that it will ramp up efforts enough to reach net-zero emissions. Strengthening its NDC this year, along with sectoral and provincial plans, are opportunities for the country to reassure the world that it is serious about addressing the climate crisis.  In addition to reining in CO2 emissions, China should set a target to limit non-CO2 emissions, including potent greenhouse gases methane and hydrofluorocarbons. This is especially important for China: If its non-CO2 emissions were a country, they would be the seventh-largest emitter of total GHGs in the world. WRI research shows there are many cost-effective opportunities for China to curb these potent GHGs across its economy, from cooling systems and rice cultivation to wastewater management.

Other countries — such as India, Indonesia and South Africa — should use this global platform to raise their ambition as well. While they may not be ready to deliver their national plans at the summit, it is essential that all countries signal their commitment to bolder climate action ahead of COP26 and contribute to global efforts to avoid dangerous and costly climate impacts. In the case of countries like Brazil and Mexico, the summit is an important opportunity to highlight the role of subnational governments in carrying forward strong climate action.

3. Nations need to ramp up climate finance for developing countries and stop funding coal.

The Biden administration said it will produce a climate finance plan on how the United States will strategically use different financial institutions to assist developing countries in undertaking ambitious climate action. The plan, expected to be released around the time of the summit, will help lay the ground for the leaders’ gathering. Supporting developing countries in installing clean energy, protecting forests and building resilience to increasingly damaging climate impacts is essential.

The climate finance plan should indicate how the United States will scale its climate finance to catch up with the efforts of other major donors, who contribute more on a per-capita and share-of-gross-national-income basis. The plan must also include a recommitment to the Green Climate Fund, including setting out how the country will deliver the $2 billion in unpaid funding pledged in 2014 and making a new pledge  to match other nations that recently doubled their contributions.

Increased climate finance ambition from the United States can put pressure on other developed countries to come with new climate finance commitments, too. For example, Canada and Italy are the lowest providers of climate finance in the G7 and should do more to catch up to their peers. France and Japan should also increase their grant-based climate finance which, at less than 5% of their bilateral funding, is far too little to meet those needs that aren’t well-suited to loan financing. And all developed countries should increase their adaptation finance to reach a balance with mitigation funding called for in the Paris Agreement.

The Biden administration’s finance plan will also need to address how the country will use its own institutions, such as the Development Finance Corporation, and push international ones like the World Bank to increase finance for climate action and shift funding away from activities that are not aligned with the Paris Agreement — especially fossil fuels.

The summit is also a key moment for other countries to make clear how they will stop financing harmful activities — particularly ending financing for coal. China, South Korea and Japan are the three biggest remaining public funders of coal plant construction worldwide, currently financing 84 gigawatts (GW) in construction in countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and South Africa. They each have indicated intentions to move away from overseas coal financing, and with recipient countries increasingly reorienting their energy development plans away from coal, it is time for a full end to public coal finance.

4. Nations should commit to greening their COVID-19 economic recovery plans.

More than a year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have spent $16 trillion to respond to the crisis. While a few countries, mostly in Europe, have seized the opportunity to address the economic crisis and climate change together, the majority of COVID-19 stimulus measures are propping up the business-as-usual economy. In the past year, governments announced more stimulus support for fossil fuels than for clean energy. This is a terrible misstep: Research shows a dollar spent on clean energy infrastructure or ecosystem conservation creates more jobs and has an economic return that is two to seven times higher than if it were spent on unsustainable sectors. After a drop in global carbon dioxide emissions for most of last year because of lockdowns, by December 2021, emissions had already crept up to levels higher than they were in December 2019.

The Leaders Summit on Climate offers a chance for the world to reset and commit to a more climate-friendly, resilient and just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. As host, the United States has a responsibility to set the tone. Recent developments show it is doing so. With the recent proposal of the American Jobs Plan, the Biden administration is aiming to create millions of jobs and invest more than $1 trillion in climate action, clean energy and environmental justice.

Other major economies should share how they, too, will take advantage of the jobs and economic gains from clean energy, nature-based solutions and other low-carbon projects, while stopping the bail-out of carbon-intensive businesses.  If governments commit to green recovery, these packages can form the foundation for stronger NDCs and ambitious action in the coming decade, building the necessary clean energy infrastructure to decarbonize the economy and set the stage for resilient economies of the future.

Seizing the Opportunity at the Leaders Summit on Climate

The Leaders Summit on Climate comes on the heels of a UN report outlining how countries’ emissions-reduction commitments are collectively falling far short of what’s needed to prevent the most dangerous impacts of climate change. But that doesn’t paint the full picture, as emitters representing 75% of global emissions either haven’t submitted their plans yet (including the United States, China and India) or pledged to resubmit stronger plans this year (including Japan, Canada and South Korea). This gathering offers an opportunity for the world’s largest economies to either announce ambitious new climate targets or at least signal that they will adopt stronger plans ahead of the COP26 negotiations.

The world will be watching.