Climate change ambitions at the end of 2020: Good news and bad

Photo: Collected

One of the major outcomes of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change—agreed by all countries at the end of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Paris, France in December 2015—was that every country would prepare and submit their respective plans to take action to tackle climate change every five years, with the expectation that the level of ambition would be enhanced at each five-year cycle. These plans were called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and had a mandatory component with regards to the level of mitigation measures to be adopted, and a voluntary component with regards to adaptation, which may or may not be included.

By adding up the mitigation measures promised in each country’s NDC, the total amount of global mitigation could be calculated and we would know how close we were getting to reach the global temperature goal of 1.5 Degrees Centigrade, which was set out in the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, the initial NDCs, which were submitted in 2015, when added up would result in global temperatures going up to nearly 3 Degrees Centigrade. Therefore, it was expected that the second NDC, due for submission by December 31, 2020, would raise the level of ambition to get global temperatures below 2 Degrees Centigrade and as close to 1.5 Degrees as possible.

The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), which is a group of nearly 50 of the most vulnerable developing countries, currently chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, has been strongly advocating for all countries to submit their revised NDCs by the December 31, 2020 deadline and enhance their respective mitigation measures to reach 1.5 Degrees. The CVF even set up a website to track the submissions made by all the countries before the deadline, and the results are quite mixed.

Let me start with the good news. Many major emitting countries including China, the European Union, Japan and Korea have submitted significant plans to reach net zero emissions by mid-century, which is the minimum target required from every country. There is also the good news that the incoming President-elect Biden of the US has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement as soon as he is sworn in on January 20, 2021. It is expected that the US would then be able to set a target year for achieving net zero emissions.

However, the bad news is that the US was not able to meet the deadline of December 31, 2020 for submission of their revised NDC and many other countries also missed the deadline. There were two main reasons given for this, namely the Covid-19 pandemic and also that the COP26, which was supposed to have been held in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020, was postponed to November 2021 due to the pandemic. While the first reason has some validity, the second reason is not an excuse for missing the submission deadline, as it is not related to the holding of COP26 but rather to the end of the calendar year of 2020.

So less than two-thirds of the countries submitted their respective NDC by the deadline, which was quite disappointing. The remaining countries have promised to submit in 2021 before the COP26 is held in November. It is hoped that they will indeed do so; however, the delay is to be regretted and will have consequences. Most of the CVF countries as well as the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) managed to submit their revised NDC on time, as did Bangladesh, but their emissions are not the critical ones. The biggest emitting countries are the ones whose targets really matter.

The relatively good news is that the revised NDCs are indeed moving the global temperature goal in the right direction—with the current aggregate level, the globe is headed towards just over 2 Degrees Centigrade of global warming. While this is shifting the global temperature target in the right direction, there is still a long way to go in bringing it to below 2 Degrees, and it will be even more difficult to bring it down to 1.5 Degrees.

Hence the CVF countries, under Bangladesh’s leadership, must step up its global advocacy, together with the United Kingdom (which has assumed COP26 Presidency), to push the countries that have yet to submit their respective NDC to do so before COP26 and to make their mitigation targets as ambitious as possible.

It is important for all countries to realise the consequences of failing to submit their NDC on time and displaying the ambition to take global temperature below 1.5 Degrees, which is still possible, albeit difficult. These tasks must be completed by 2021, as the next revision of the NDC will not be due until 2025, which will be far too late.

The other major consequence is that failure to move towards net zero emissions as quickly as possible and keep global warming below 1.5 Degrees will mean very significant amounts of loss and damage from the adverse impacts of climate change.

The year 2020 has taken the world over the threshold of visible and scientifically attributable impacts of climate change around the globe due to human induced climate change.

Hence, COP26 will now also have to deal with the issue of financing loss and damage from climate change in the vulnerable developing countries, which COP25 failed to address in 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Failure to tackle this issue in Glasgow in November will mean that COP26 will also be a failure as far as the vulnerable developing countries are concerned. The CVF countries, under Bangladesh’s leadership, has already decided to make this a “make or break” issue for COP26 and we should engage with the UK as the COP26 President to ensure that there is a satisfactory political settlement of loss and damage at COP26. The time for engaging in this process is now; if we wait until November, it will be too late. The responsibility for taking this issue seriously lies squarely with the COP26 Presidency.

Originally this article was published on January 13, 2021 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).