The United States convened 40 world leaders at the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate to accelerate the global response to the climate crisis and keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) within reach. Held on Earth Day, five years after the formal signing of the Paris Agreement, the gathering turned out to be a valuable opportunity to harvest climate commitments from some major emitters. It also planted the seeds for further action from additional countries in the months ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.
Here’s a summary of the highs and lows:
Which Countries Strengthened Their Emissions-reduction Targets?
The United States came out strong with a bold commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030 — that is almost twice as deep as the cuts promised by President Obama for 2025. Research by WRI and others shows multiple pathways to achieve this ambitious goal. This target combined with the American Jobs Plan will help drive innovation, boost business, and form the cornerstone of a stronger economy that will support job creation across the country. New analysis from WRI finds that jobs in clean energy already outnumber jobs in fossil fuels in four out of five rural counties.
Japan committed to reduce emissions by 46% from 2013 levels by 2030 and to strive to cut them by 50%, as Prime Minister Suga stressed the country aims to do. This target is a significant improvement relative to the woefully inadequate target that Japan put forward last year (cutting emissions by only 26% from 2013 levels). A coalition of 174 Japanese companies rallied behind a 50% reduction target, flagging how ambitious climate action can create more jobs and long-lasting economic growth.
Canada also strengthened its 2030 emissions-reduction target, aiming to cut emissions 40-45% from 2005 levels. That is an important improvement over its previous 30% reduction target, but lags behind stronger commitments from peers like the United Kingdom, the European Union and now the United States and Japan. The country should revisit this goal and aim higher.
China noted it will “strictly limit increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan, and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan,” which begins in 2026. And shortly before the summit, China committed to ratifying and implementing the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, phasing down HFC production and consumption.
South Africa said its emissions would decline starting in 2025, a decade earlier than previously indicated.
Brazil shifted its carbon neutrality goal from 2060 to 2050, but did not give any indication it will revisit the weak 2030 target it unveiled last December. Accounting for the data used to underpin the 2030 target, it is actually less ambitious than what the country submitted in 2015.
Alongside the new emissions-reduction targets from other countries, the European Unionenshrined into law its target to cut emissions 55% below 1990 levels by the end of the decade. The United Kingdom built on its existing 2030 target to cut emissions 68% with a new pledge for a 78% cut by 2035.
Some countries failed to bring anything new to the table, like Australia and Indonesia, while others are not stepping up their efforts at the pace and scale required to confront the climate crisis. And even the most ambitious new pledges fell short on certain benchmarks, including some analyses of equitable 1.5 degree C-aligned pathways.
Vulnerable developing countries, which are feeling the brunt of climate change’s dangerous and costly effects, used the summit to call for major emitters to commit to more ambitious targets in the run-up to Glasgow.
Were There New Pledges on Finance?
With the United States largely absent in climate finance discussions over the last four years, there was a lot of interest in what the country would bring to the table. In a welcome move, President Biden recommitted to overseas climate finance, setting a goal to increase funding to around $5.7 billion a year by 2024, with around a quarter of this allocated for adaptation. Biden’s international climate finance plan also outlines important processes to integrate climate considerations across all government agencies involved in overseas finance and includes a commitment to end international public financing for fossil fuels.
Yet, while United States reengagement in climate finance is positive, many other developed countries continued to increase their funding levels over the past four years, so the United States still has a lot of catching up to do. For example, the plan missed an opportunity to make a new commitment to the Green Climate Fund, and the $1.2 billion Biden has requested so far does not even deliver on the $2 billion pledge made by the Obama-Biden administration, let alone match the level of effort many other developed countries showed in 2019 when they doubled their GCF commitments. The amounts set out in Biden’s climate finance plan will not be enough to meet the urgent support needs of vulnerable countries, particularly for adaptation, nor will it put the United States into a leadership position among developed countries.
Providing funding to developing countries, particularly the most vulnerable, is a central pillar of the Paris Agreement, helping unlock more ambitious emissions-reduction commitments and supporting countries to manage climate impacts. But developed countries have still not delivered on the goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year in climate finance for developing countries starting in 2020 through 2025. And the health pandemic and sovereign debt crises are exacerbating vulnerabilities and reducing the capacity of many countries to invest in climate action and sustainable development. At the summit, there were clear calls from leaders from the Alliance of Small Island States, Least Developed Countries and the Climate Vulnerable Forum for reform to the financial system and increased solidarity from richer countries to support their urgent needs. This is essential to strengthen countries’ ability to adapt to climate impacts and address loss and damage.
While the United States underwhelmed, other developed countries — including Canada, France, Germany and Italy — failed to come with any new climate finance commitments. They must do so in the next few months to build confidence that the $100 billion commitment made in 2009 will finally be met.
A bright spot at the summit was South Korea’s pledge to halt financing for new overseas coal plants. The announcement sends a strong signal that the era of dirty fossil fuels is coming to a close. Focus will now be on Japan and China, the remaining governments funding coal plant construction internationally, to follow South Korea's example and reorient their own overseas funding to clean sources of energy.
Both the United States and the United Kingdom(host of COP26) have signaled they see private finance as a major part of the puzzle. On that front, the new Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero brings together net-zero alliances of asset managers, asset owners and a new one for banks, comprising firms collectively responsible for more than $70 trillion in assets to support the transition to net-zero by 2050 at the latest. Increased coherence, learning and coordination among these initiatives could be very beneficial. To deliver urgent shifts in investment, financial institutions must commit to robust science-based targets for 2030, immediately end financing for companies developing new or expanded thermal coal infrastructure and assets, avoid over-reliance on offsets, improve engagement with clients and investees, and ensure that the transition to net-zero is just and equitable.
What About Conserving Forests?
Tropical forests can provide over 20% of the climate mitigation needed before 2030, but currently only receive about 3% of climate funding. Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with leading global corporations (Amazon, Airbnb, Bayer, BCG, GSK, McKinsey, Nestlé, Salesforce and Unilever) announced a new partnership to address this gap by significantly ramping up finance to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in tropical and subtropical countries. The Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) Coalition is set to mobilize at least $1 billion this year.
The Coalition aims to address the two major concerns related to the integrity of market-based finance for forest emission reductions by setting a high bar for participation. First, finance will be limited to high-quality forest-based emissions reductions verified against the independent ART TREES standard. And second, the LEAF Coalition stipulated that private sector participants will publicly commit to quantified and independently verified science-based decarbonization targets, ensuring that forest finance will be additional to (rather than a substitute for) companies’ efforts to reduce their own emissions
It will be crucial for the LEAF Coalition to fulfil its commitment to involve all key stakeholders, including indigenous and local communities. The importance of these roles was echoed throughout the week: U.S. Vice President Harris insisted we “consider their insight and experience in our efforts moving forward. They are critical leaders in this fight. Governments of forest-rich nations also spoke of actions required for forest conservation. DRC President Tshisekedi, chair of the African Union, underscored the need for reforms to protect the Congo Basin rainforests, and Minister Lee White of Gabon highlighted the need for investment to develop sustainable economic alternatives to rainforest destruction.
So, Where Do We Go from Here?
Taken together, the new national commitments and other announcements made at the summit gave a much-need jolt of momentum in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow — thanks in no small part to a re-engaged United States. At the same time, collectively we are still way off track to confronting the climate challenge. In the final months ahead of COP26, more major emitters should come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions-reduction targets of their own, including China, South Korea, Indonesia, India, Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia. And those countries with weak targets should revise them upward.
In addition, vulnerable countries need to see a renewed commitment by G7 countries to deliver the funding necessary for them to adopt cleaner technologies and protect themselves from increasingly severe climate impacts. The United States may have inspired the world with its bold emissions-reduction target, but increased finance — by the United States and other developed countries — will be key for the nation to reclaim its status as a climate leader and, in turn, unlock greater climate action across the world.