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8 things to know about Saturday’s UN climate summit – POLITICO

On the fifth birthday of the Paris Agreement on Saturday, a U.N. climate summit will test how far political leaders are willing to go in pursuit of its goals.

The French and British governments and U.N. chief António Guterres invited them to send in a 45-second speech for the virtual meeting only if they brought “ambitious new commitments” — 76 countries and the EU made the cut.

Virtual is the operative word. Anyone used to the three-ring circus of global climate talks is in for a shock. Saturday’s affair will be essentially back-to-back video clips of those deemed worthy of taking part, each leader rapidly laying out their climate promises.

It’s also the only major climate meet-up this year, after the coronavirus pandemic postponed the COP26 summit to next November. Here’s what to expect.

1. Climate politics is very different from 2015

The summit was hastily convened in September after a surprise announcement by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that the biggest polluter on the planet would reach net carbon neutrality in less than 40 years. 

In that speech, Xi revived a political process that barely survived the ascendancy of Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement.

While countries mostly stuck to a set of voluntary promises they made in 2015 — a level of ambition that would lead to global warming of 2.7 degrees — a lot has changed over the last five years.

Siberia, Australia, the American West, Portugal and the Amazon burned. Youth-led climate protests swayed politicians. Green policies are now mainstream — starting with the EU’s Green Deal.

China’s pledge and the election in the U.S. of Joe Biden — who has promised to return to the Paris Agreement as soon as he takes office and for the U.S. to reach net zero emissions no later than 2050 — is accelerating the new political dynamic. South Korea and Japan have also made pledges of climate neutrality. Even Brazil, which is allowing vast swathes of the Amazon to be logged, is getting in on the act, pledging climate neutrality by 2060, albeit with the caveat of wanting $10 billion a year to hit its target.

2. Is there much appetite for immediate cuts?

Those mid-century targets are all safely beyond the political lifetime of any of today’s leaders. Saturday’s summit will test if those same leaders are prepared to endure shorter-term political pain.

This is where the EU will stake its claim to being a global climate leader.

EU leaders early Friday morning agreed on a new target of slashing net greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030. That caused political stresses in the bloc, with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic demanding assurances from the rest that they’d get financial and regulatory support measures to hit the higher cuts. 

The U.K. is already taking the plunge — keen to demonstrate its post-Brexit leadership potential. The government last week boosted its ambition for 2030 emissions cuts from the 40 percent goal it shared with the EU, to 68 percent.

3. What will China say?

Xi has said China will announce a new Paris Agreement commitment — known as a nationally determined contribution or NDC — before the year ends, so it won’t be a surprise if he uses Saturday’s meeting to make it public.

Climate watchers are looking for a concrete date for China’s emissions to peak. Xi has vaguely mentioned it will be “before 2030.” Western diplomats have also urged China to make a commitment to stop financing new coal power stations at home and abroad. 

“Optimistic speculation here in Beijing is they will deliver a meaningfully enhanced NDC,” texted Li Shuo, a perennially cautious policy analyst from Greenpeace’s China office. “Pessimistic view is no more than what was announced in September. I can’t rule out either scenario and the options in between.”

4. Biden can’t join, but how will he make his administration’s voice heard?

Trump won’t be there — obviously. But John Kerry, Biden’s presidential climate envoy, has been in touch with the U.K.’s Alok Sharma — the business secretary and COP26 president.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — a great friend and confidant of Biden who carried the flag for climate change during the Trump era — will be speaking Saturday as an unofficial voice of the future administration. Expect his words to carry the weight of an incoming presidency keen to make amends.  

Also from the U.S. are the governors of Massachusetts and Michigan. Charlie Baker, who runs Massachusetts, is one of the few Republican leaders in the U.S. to advance climate goals, establishing a 2050 net zero greenhouse gas emissions goal for his state this year.

5. Movement in the G20

The EU, China and U.S. together account for just over half of global CO2 emissions, so even if they do cut emissions to net zero, the Earth will continue to warm. That’s why it will be crucial what big emerging economies such as India or major Asian countries do. The presence of huge coal user Pakistan in the program is intriguing.

The G20 — which accounts for nearly four-fifths of the world’s emissions and GDP — is increasingly seen as the new arena for big climate gains.

Eleven of its members will speak at the summit. If India or Argentina make serious new commitments, the balance of the group shifts and it piles pressure on big coal economies like South Africa or Indonesia and isolates governments opposed to faster emissions cuts — Australia, Mexico, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. 

Italy, the next head of the G20, will be looking for signal of how much progress can be made in 2021.

6. Who did the hosts turn down?

A handful of countries submitted expressions of interest but didn’t make the cut. This was a big step for the U.N. and officials are being discreet about who was rejected, anticipating hurt feelings.

Leaders from big polluters like Australia and Brazil won’t be able to send in their video clips.

Australia expressly ruled out raising its original Paris pledge this year. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was anticipating being granted a speaking spot. He told his parliament last week he intended to use the summit to announce his government will refrain from using an accounting loophole — a workaround no other country plans to exploit — to meet its climate goals.

Fresh from overseeing a surge in deforestation in the Amazon, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro also won’t be there — despite his country’s last-minute climate pledge.

7. Will rich countries hit their $100 billion a year climate finance pledge?

This was the year they were supposed to hit that target, but they won’t make it. The latest OECD numbers for 2018 show $78.9 billion in finance, but that’s likely slipped this year thanks to the coronavirus.

“That goal will not be achieved this year, it is clear,” the U.N.’s leading climate diplomat Selwin Hart said on Thursday. He called for a “massive push” if and when countries emerge from the pandemic next year.

The U.K. hosts of the Saturday summit have themselves decided to pare back their overseas aid budget, while simultaneously asking other rich countries to raise commitments to help poor countries cope with climate change.

Failure on climate finance risks pushing developing countries, especially in Africa, toward tapping their many, and potentially lucrative, hydrocarbon reserves. 

8. Will the promises they make be enough?

What matters is whether the promises countries make actually cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement — which aims to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees, and ideally to keep it as low as 1.5 degrees. 

Data so far suggest it’s not looking great. 

On Wednesday, the United Nations Environment Program released its annual emissions gap report, warning that the world was heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3 degrees this century. 

Ryan Heath contributed reporting.

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