30 April 2021

US Summit Provides Cause for Optimism In a Vital Year For Climate Diplomacy

Last week, US President Joe Biden convened a virtual summit of 40 global leaders to coincide with Earth Day. The two-day event underlined the new administration’s emphasis on climate action, a marked shift from the denialist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidency, who repeatedly questioned the science around climate change and withdrew from the 2015 Paris accords. With the United States now back in the Paris Agreement, the summit indicated a return to American leadership in tackling climate change and a renewed sense of optimism as countries begin to plot pathways to limiting global warming to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels

Prior to the beginning of the summit, the US announced its revised plans to cut its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, based on 2005 levels. The announcement was followed by a series of promises from countries about increasing their commitments to cut emissions. The UK pledged to slash emissions by 70% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels, whilst Japan vowed a 46% reduction relative to 2013 levels and Canada announced a new target of cutting emissions by 40-45% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. 

However, there is still cause for concern. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned, increased demand for coal-produced energy sparked by the global economic recovery from COVID-19 will see carbon emissions rise by almost 5% in 2021. Furthermore, China and India, the world’s respective first and third largest national greenhouse gas emitters, made no new pledges, although Chinese premier Xi Jinping did commit to phasing down China’s coal consumption from 2025. 

Despite this, the broad consensus in favour of climate action that was evident at the summit marked an integral step on the road to COP26, the UN’s annual climate change conference due to take place in Glasgow this November. The conference is particularly significant as it will be the first time since the signing of the Paris treaty that the countries will review their emissions reductions commitments and set new and tougher obligations, otherwise known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). 

In the build-up to COP26, climate action is expected to be the focus of a succession of summits. In June, the UK will host the G7 summit in Cornwall, and experts have implored Prime Minister Boris Johnson to push developed countries to provide greater financial assistance to developing countries struggling to adapt to the adverse climate change and cut their emissions levels. The G7 will be closely followed by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) hosted by Rwanda, where a commitment to mutual cooperation on climate action amongst Commonwealth members is likely to be high on the agenda. 

Given the summit will be hosted in Rwanda, the focus of climate discussion should be on the already visible social, environmental and political effects of climate change impact on the African continent. In Nigeria, average temperatures have risen by around 1.6˚C since the start of the industrial period, whilst the country has been affected by bouts of extreme heat,  unpredictable rainfall patterns and droughts and dust storms in its northern region. In Kenya, some scientists have argued that recent outbreaks of locust swarms are connected to the increasing number of cyclones across the Horn of Africa, as heavy rainfall has vegetated dry areas where locusts breed, and cyclonic winds have helped the swarms travel to East Africa. Water level rises and increasingly erratic periods of rainfall have also caused devastating floods and landslides across East Africa in 2020, and are projected to become more frequent under climate change. 

Furthermore, some commentators have argued that the drying up of the Lake Chad basin, which has shrunk by 90% in the 60 last years, is contributing to social unrest and furthering the influence of militant groups. The lake borders Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon and its freshwater body has fuelled the food supplies and livelihoods of over 30 million people. Recent studies have argued that as conditions harshen and economic opportunities dry up, extremist groups are more likely to step into the vacuum and amplify local grievances. 

Similar causal links have been drawn across the Sahel, in countries including Mali and Sudan, where prolonged periods of drought, desertification and reduced agricultural yields have led to political and social unrest. However, innovative measures, such as the Great Green Wall project, are being taken to resolve the issue. The initiative aims to combat increasing water scarcity and aridity in the Sahel by planting trees, vegetation and grassland across an 8,000km stretch of land from Senegal to Djibouti and it recently received more than $14bn of funding from the African Development Bank, France and the World Bank. It is hoped that the project will encourage rural development, provide food security and economic opportunities, and contribute to peacebuilding in the region. 

Given the multitude of increasingly apparent climate change effects impacting countries in Africa and beyond, there is a clear need for an accelerated effort towards decarbonising economies and the provision of climate aid to help reduce emissions and further adaptation in developing countries. Despite the recent damage to US credibility on climate, President Biden’s summit is a welcome source of optimism during a year culminating in the critical COP26 conference. As momentum builds towards the November summit, the futures of many of the world’s economies and societies will hinge on whether world leaders can agree to a decisive escalation of climate action. 

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