The virtual Climate Ambition Summit held on December 12, 2020 marked the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement. The gathering was an important moment for countries to see where we stand in the fight against climate change and for world leaders to share how they’re ramping up climate action.

In the lead up to the summit, a number of studies showed that despite important signs of progress since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, the world is not yet on track to limit global warming enough to prevent its most dangerous impacts. New WRI research found the world needs to ramp up the adoption of renewables 6 times faster, phase out coal power 5 times faster, transition to electric vehicles 22 times faster, urgently halt worsening deforestation, accelerate adaptation action and support to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). The quicker we take action, the sooner we will benefit; bold climate action could yield a direct economic gain of at least $26 trillion by 2030 compared with business-as-usual.

The Climate Ambition Summit brought together more than 70 heads of state as well as many other leaders from business, the finance community and civil society.

While the summit spurred momentum for some countries — including the reaffirmation of net-zero targets by major emitters such as China and ambitious climate plans from Colombia, the EU, the United Kingdom and others — as a whole, one of the more useful deliverables was that the summit exposed gaps in climate leadership. With Argentina’s new commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, over half the G20 countries now have net-zero targets, but far too few major economies came forward with new commitments to slash emissions by 2030 or mobilize the financial support critical for developing countries to transition to low-carbon, climate-resilient economies.

Below, we break down the highs and lows of the Climate Ambition Summit — and reveal what the world needs to accomplish ahead of the next round of UN climate negotiations (COP26) in Glasgow next November:

1. New Net-zero Targets

Climate scientists agree that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C will require the world’s countries to collectively eliminate net GHG emissions by mid-century.

Before the Climate Ambition Summit, 25 countries and the EU had formally adopted net-zero goals (i.e., in policy or law), while nearly 100 others had stated their intent to achieve net-zero emissions. Most, including South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom, set 2050 as the deadline for this goal; some countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Maldives and Barbados have earlier deadlines. China, meanwhile, aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, a significant goal for the world’s largest emitter that could lower global warming projections by about 0.2-0.3 degrees C. These countries are setting themselves up to unlock significant benefits. For example, new WRI analysis found that more ambitious climate action in China can generate nearly $1 trillion (6.5 trillion yuan) in net economic and social benefits and prevent 1.89 million premature deaths.

At the Climate Ambition Summit, more than 10 additional countries announced plans to reach net-zero emissions, and many more reiterated their existing carbon neutrality pledges. New announcements came from major economies including Argentina (2050); small island developing states including Barbados (2030), the Maldives (2030), Jamaica (2050) and Mauritius (2070); and least developed countries such as Nepal (2050), Laos (2050) and Malawi (2050). At the summit, Denmark's recent commitment to end all new oil and gas exploration and production in the North Sea by 2050 was also highlighted.

These net-zero commitments are commendable, but without ambitious 2030 emissions-reduction targets, they lack credibility. In advance of COP26, countries should reinforce these political commitments with legislation as well as near-term emissions-reduction targets. Even more immediately, economic recovery plans following the COVID-19 crisis are an opportunity to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon and resilient economy, while also delivering the jobs and growth boost that countries so desperately need. Yet, while most leaders at the summit highlighted the important linkages between economic recovery and climate action, the evidence of greening stimulus packages is still very mixed.

2. Stronger National Climate Commitments

When countries put forward initial climate plans under the Paris Agreement in 2015 — known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs — they were not ambitious enough to avoid crossing over dangerous temperature thresholds. That’s why the Agreement also called for countries to update or enhance their climate commitments every five years, including in 2020. These national commitments will not only help us win the fight against the climate crisis, but also create jobs, boost economic growth, reduce health risks and build resilience to dangerous and costly climate impacts.

By the end of the summit, the United Kingdom and Costa Rica joined 20 other countries that had already formally submitted enhanced NDCs to the UN, and many others announced stronger emissions-reduction targets they will adopt for 2030. Some of the highlights:

  • Europe and the United Kingdom showed leadership among developed countries. The EU announced a new commitment to cut emissions at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, a significant increase from its current target of 40%. The United Kingdom pledged to cut emissions at least 68% by 2030 below 1990 levels as part of its national climate plan. Both are ambitious plans that should inspire other major emitters.
  • Small island developing states and least developed countries (LDCs) pointed the way for their bigger neighbors. Cambodia and Niger announced more ambitious 2030 targets, and Zimbabwe noted its long-term strategy would result in deep reductions. These follow earlier pledges from Rwanda, Zambia and others. The chair of the LDCs group noted that by early next year, about 20 LDCs will have submitted new national climate commitments.
  • Latin American nations stepped up. In addition to committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, Argentina said it will set a 2030 GHG target that is almost 26% lower than its previous NDC. Colombia reaffirmed its recent commitment to reduce emissions 51% by 2030 compared to business as usual, a big increase over its previous goal of 20%. Costa Rica announced a new 2030 emissions cap in line with its 2050 net-zero target, Peru strengthened its 2030 target, Chile noted its earlier submission of an enhanced NDC and Uruguay said it would revise and increase its target.
  • Pakistan set new energy and transport targets. Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that 60% of the country’s energy would come from renewables and 30% of its vehicles would be electric. Pakistan also made a commitment not to pursue new coal power plants, though the exact details were unclear. The announcement also noted that the country will advance energy-intensive coal-to-liquid and coal-to-gas technologies.

Meanwhile, other countries will need to do more in 2021:

  • China announced incremental improvements. President Xi announced that the country will lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 65% from 2005 levels by 2030, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25% by 2030, increase forest stock by 6 billion cubic meters above 2005 levels, and bring the total installed capacity of wind and solar power to more than 1,200 GW by 2030. While these targets are a step in the right direction, President Xi did not mention the year by which China will peak its emissions (beyond the “before 2030” goal announced in September), nor did he set a 2030 target for non-CO2 emissions. Recent WRI analysis found that China can peak its emissions as early as 2026, reduce its carbon intensity by 73% and take concrete steps to curb its non-CO2 emissions. It’s important that the world’s biggest emitter commit to more ambitious action ahead of COP26 in 2021.
  • Brazil set a weak 2030 emissions-reduction target. Ahead of the summit, Brazil weakened its 2030 target by revising its base-year inventory. It also unveiled an indicative objective to reach climate neutrality by 2060, but suggested that reaching it may be contingent on developed countries transferring $10 billion a year to Brazil for its decarbonization efforts. While Brazil will certainly need some international financing to scale climate action, a robust plan is needed first for how to invest such funding and ensure accountability for measurable results.
  • The jury is still out for many major economies. Canada said it will strive for 32-40% emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2030, but the country fell short of committing to align its NDC with net-zero. South Korea and Japan had recently come forward with net-zero commitments by 2050, and both said at the summit they would submit enhanced NDCs but provided no specifics. Meanwhile, India affirmed its target of 450 GW of renewable capacity by 2030, but stopped short of announcing plans for a new NDC.
  • Australia, Indonesia and Mexico made no new commitments and did not speak at the Summit.
  • The world awaits the inauguration of President-elect Biden in the United States to see what national climate commitment the nation plans to bring to the table next year.

The UN estimates that 50 NDCs will be officially submitted by the end of 2020, thanks in part to the boost of momentum around the summit. However, that will only be about one-fourth of the countries that adopted the Paris Agreement five years ago.

Before COP26 next year, the rest of the world’s countries should come forward with more ambitious national climate plans. Major emitters in particular must put forward deeper emissions reductions for 2030 to get the world on track for averting dangerous climate impacts.

3. Accelerating Adaptation

Within developing countries, climate change could push more than 100 million people below the poverty line by 2030, a trend exacerbated by COVID-19. Investing in climate adaptation can reduce these impacts and minimize losses and damages. Research by the Global Commission on Adaptation, for example, found that the benefit-cost ratios of climate adaptation investments range from 2:1 to 10:1.

Many developing countries raised the importance of adaptation at the summit. Heads-of-state from Kenya, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, Grenada, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Myanmar, among others, made domestic commitments related to adaptation, including incorporating adaptation in their enhanced NDCs, finalizing their National Adaptation Plans, including adaptation in new climate change legislation, and putting domestic resources behind climate resilience strategies. Some countries like Nauru, Saint-Lucia and Antigua & Barbuda highlighted the importance of also tackling loss and damage. Most vulnerable countries, including Gabon, Bhutan, Antigua & Barbuda (representing the African Group, LDCs and Small Island States, respectively), Bangladesh (chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum) and Kazakhstan, called for support in addressing key barriers — namely lack of finance. Several heads of state also highlighted the powerful role nature-based solutions can play for both mitigating climate change and adapting to its impacts.

Previously, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on donors and development banks to increase the share of adaptation finance to at least 50% of their climate finance support before COP26. Guterres reiterated his plea at the summit, but while a few developed countries made new financial pledges (highlighted below), most did not.

To create a more resilient, equitable future by COP26, larger countries must make climate adaptation central to their development strategies, increase public adaptation finance for developing countries to at least 50% of climate finance and simplify access to that finance, and provide debt relief, all while ramping up efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Countries should also enhance rather than cut official development assistance as they look to support vulnerable countries in building forward from the pandemic.

4. Increasing Public Climate Finance

Developed countries pledged in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance to help developing countries reduce their emissions and adapt to climate impacts from 2020-2025. Recent assessments by the OECD, Oxfam and others found that progress toward this goal is off-track. The summit was an opportunity for developed countries to provide political signals reaffirming their financial commitments.

A handful of countries made pledges to international climate funds. Austria reiterated its September announcement that it will increase funding to the Green Climate Fund from €30 million (around $33 million) last year to €130 million (around $146 million). The Adaptation Fund, which provides rapid support to vulnerable countries to deal with climate impacts, normally receives new pledges at the annual COP. With COP26 postponed, there were concerns that it may be forgotten, so it was reassuring to see Italy pledge €30 million (around $36 million) to the Adaptation Fund, following in the footsteps of Germany, which pledged €50 million (around $60 million) the day before the summit.

While specific pledges to funds that serve the Paris Agreement are important, countries also needed to provide bigger-picture clarity on how they would scale up overall climate finance after 2020 to reach the $100 billion goal. The United Kingdom and Luxembourg reiterated their commitments to double their climate finance to £11.6 billion (around $15.5 billion) between 2021-2026 and €200 million (around $243 million) over 2021-2025, respectively. Luxembourg is already the largest climate finance contributor per capita and as a percentage of its gross national income; the latest increase further raises the bar.

Only a few other developed countries offered post-2020 finance commitments. Iceland announced it would increase its climate finance by 45%, though no timeline was given. Ireland said it would at least double the percent of official development assistance it spent on climate by 2030. Portugal committed to €20 million (around $24 million) over the next decade. France could only commit to keep its climate finance level, but did pledge to increase the share of funding going to adaptation to 30%. Germany announced just under €500 million (around $607 million) to meet its existing commitment to provide €4 billion (around $4.9 billion) in climate finance by 2020, as well as an intention to convene an international process in 2021 to agree post-2020 climate finance before COP26.

Many speakers from the most vulnerable countries spoke of the spiraling challenges this year of relentless extreme weather events and the COVID-19 pandemic. Some highlighted the increased domestic budget to tackle such impacts, despite other pressing priorities (e.g., Bangladesh’s $7 billion national investment in climate resilience). Yet developed countries failed to show the solidarity this moment calls for. As COP26 President Alok Sharma noted at the closure of the summit, “if we can mobilize trillions overnight, rightly to support our economies, why can we not reach this $100 billion dollar goal?”

Over the next year, developed countries must make clear commitments to meet the $100 billion goal in 2021-2024. The U.K. COP26 Presidency announced that it would publish key priorities for public climate finance, setting out how the presidency will work with the international community to tackle them in the year ahead. The German initiative to convene countries to agree on post-2020 climate finance will be another key process to watch, especially with the reengagement of the United States in the climate finance effort. We’ll also need more pledges to the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund, as well as efforts to improve access to climate funding. Without clear progress in these areas, it is hard to see a successful outcome from COP26.

5. Leadership by Cities, Businesses and Others

While the summit centered around government action, businesses, cities and investors made important announcements as well. More than 2,500 cities, states, businesses, investors and other non-state actors are now committed to achieving net-zero emissions as part of the Race to Zero campaign. The campaign includes the new Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative, an alliance of investors managing more than $9 trillion in assets. The asset management industry manages more than $100 trillion of assets and therefore has a large role in determining whether financial flows support the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The C40 cities network shared that 54 of the world’s leading cities are already on track to help limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C.  Governors of U.S. states Michigan and Massachusetts announced new state-wide goals of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

The summit also saw the launch of Race to Resilience, a global campaign to catalyze NGOs to build the resilience of 4 billion of the world’s most vulnerable people. Such a campaign could help with scaling investment toward implementing these resilience plans.

As country-level commitments continue to grow, new and ongoing efforts by cities, states and companies are crucial to help maintain momentum and bolster national-level goals.

Paving the Path to COP26 in Glasgow

The most ambitious plans of action announced during the Climate Ambition Summit must set the tone and act as a benchmark for climate diplomacy in 2021. As COP26 President Alok Sharma said in his remarks closing the summit, “By COP26, we need every country to have stepped up, with Nationally Determined Contributions and Long-Term Strategies that put us on track to 1.5 degrees, plotting a course to net zero, that is fair for all.” In addition, several issues remain to be negotiated by the end of COP26 to ensure that the Paris Agreement is implemented smoothly and efficiently.

Five years after Paris Agreement was adopted, momentum toward a net-zero transformation is undeniably picking up pace — but we have a lot of ground to cover to win the race against climate change. All countries need to deliver bold 2030 emission reductions targets in the year ahead to set us on a trajectory for a safer and prosperous future.