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Leaders’ summit : Nations need to walk the talk on climate change

Implementation of these ambitions would require enhanced institutional capabilities through policy amends, behavioural change and technology support

The virtual ‘Leaders’ Summit on Climate’ hosted by the President of the United States on Earth Day (April 22, 2021) was attended by 40 world leaders and was a precursor to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (CoP26) to be held later this year.

The US came out strong by pledging to cut the emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030 compared to its 2005 levels. Big reductions in the target also came from countries like Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom who announced 40-45 per cent emission reduction targets by 2030.

China committed to phasing down its coal consumption and also indicated joining the Kigali Amendment to phase down hydrofluorocarbon production and consumption. India reiterated its renewable energy target of 450GW by 2030.

President Biden highlighted the goal of mobilising $100 billion per year through public and private financing for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. He also recommitted to increase funding to around $5.7 billion a year by 2024.

New commitments were made for transforming energy systems that highlighted the potential of solar energy, wind power and energy storage technologies. An applaudable decision by South Korea to halt financing for new overseas coal plants sent a strong signal to other nations against fossil fuel usage.

What could have been done

The targets not only need to be supported by equitable deadlines but also by scientific backing. Even the most ambitious new pledges on cutting down emissions would leave a gap in meeting the target of containing global warming at 1.5 degree Celsius over pre-Industrialisation. This will require major emitting countries to revise their targets to a more ambitious one.

The 1.5°C-consistent pathway will require nations to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent a year between 2020 and 2030. However, the governments continue to pump huge amounts of money into fossil fuels and grant subsidies to oil and gas corporations.

Countries like China and Japan, which are funding coal plant construction internationally, need to divert their resources towards investing in cleaner energy sources. This calls for change in the policies by nations that are credible and durable.

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and sovereign debt crises have reduced the capacity of developing nations. This calls for fresh climate finance commitments. The US is one of the biggest historical emitters, has a huge responsibility to make stringent policies and contribute more towards the climate fund.

On mobilising private finance, nations must encourage companies supporting the cause of climate change and proactively engage with financial institutions to support the transition to net-zero.

In view of the upcoming COP26, the summit gives perspective to the nations for future actions and reiterates the need to act collectively. Taken together, the new targets and plans give momentum to the efforts towards the climate crisis. However, countries still need to walk the talk on their commitments.

How to achieve

Implementation of these ambitions would require enhanced institutional capabilities through policy amends, behavioural change and technology support. A variety of 1.5°C-consistent technological options and policy targets have been identified by experts. These technology and policy options are the starting implementation pathways that countries can follow.

The energy system transition can be brought by substituting fossil fuels with cleaner energy systems like solar and wind technologies, which are already studied and being implemented.

Other rapid changes needed in urban environments include decarbonisation of transport, including the expansion of electric vehicles, and greater use of energy-efficient appliances. Electrification, hydrogen, bio-based feedstocks and substitution, and, in several cases, carbon dioxide capture, utilisation and storage techniques in energy-intensive industries can help in deep emissions reductions.

Technological and social innovations, for example, setting up smart grids, energy storage technologies and general-purpose techniques, such as information and communication technology, can be deployed to help reduce emissions.

Further, changing agricultural practices such as mixed crop-livestock production systems, improved irrigation systems and community-based solutions can be an effective climate adaption measure. 

Behavioral changes like low food-wasting habits and dietary choices towards foods with lower emissions, could reduce emissions and increase adaptation options.

Some mitigation pathways also rely on sequestering excess carbon dioxide from the environment through natural sinks (afforestation, reforestation, and agroforestry) or carbon capture and storage technologies and techniques.

However, natural sinks have their limitations. Also, carbon dioxide removal techniques deployed at scale are unproven and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Enabling policies

Meeting the 1.5°C target requires internationally cooperative policy environments that transform both supply and demand. There exists a range of policy instruments that include the reduction of socially inefficient fossil fuel subsidy regimes and innovative price and non-price national and international policy instruments.

Depending on the structure of a country’s economy and sources of emissions, the trajectory of emission can be projected with the help of many available models. Among the number of technology options available to check the emissions, countries can decide their priority areas.

Technology assessments can be done to evaluate the potential for specific improvements in the chosen techniques for greenhouse gas reductions. The relative cost-effectiveness of different technological options can be checked to optimise solutions.

Policy instruments for performance standards set minimum standards requirements for technologies and can push more efficient and cleaner technologies. They can also complement explicit carbon pricing in specific areas and crossing market barriers.

Under the category of economic signals, policies can either subsidise products and outcomes or tax inputs or emission reductions and promote less polluting behavior. They are particularly effective for industries that highly price-sensitive and where there are significant substitutes available.

Research and development (R&D) policies are critical to unlocking new technologies and driving down the costs of existing low-carbon technologies. R&D policies lower the costs of performance standards and economic signals, while making new technologies available.

Factors like political feasibility, fuel import & export, financing, public health and social equity are some of the factors that countries, especially developing ones, will have to be a factor in while drafting policies.

Views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect that of Down To Earth.