29 March 2021
In what is a vital year for cooperative climate diplomacy, 2021 could represent a decisive shift in efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Countries are due to submit revised pledges to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and will negotiate at the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26), in Glasgow, in an attempt to put global mitigation plans back on track to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. There is increased optimism that this cooperative process will lead to national targets that match the ambition of the Paris Agreement. China has announced that it intends to bring forward – to before 2030 – the date by which its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will peak and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The EU and UK have announced plans to increase the scale of their nationally determined contributions. At the same time, US President Joe Biden has outlined an ambitious climate agenda. Biden’s election offers a clear opportunity to put the US back at the heart of international climate institutions and processes. It may also lead to the US rebuilding multilateral relations and showing the way for progressive leadership that, while not directly about climate, reinforces international rules-based governance. This contrasts with the every-country-for-itself approach encouraged by the administration of President Donald Trump. With the COVID-19 pandemic creating uncertainty in many developed countries and vaccine programmes still in their initial phases, the prioritization of climate change action as well as the level of international climate cooperation and competition will be determined by several factors: the impacts of COVID-19 on energy supply, demand and emissions; the nature and extent of measures in economic recovery packages; and the acceleration or slowing of the energy transition. International climate action has shifted towards the introduction of competitive trade mechanisms that protect domestic businesses as they decarbonize and to schemes that incentivize trading partners to align their decarbonization efforts via import tariffs. This has emerged in the context of the increasingly strained relationships between China, the EU and the US, and as the global cooperative approach to tackling climate change has weakened. The three economic superpowers are responsible for around 40 per cent of global GHG emissions and consume nearly 50 per cent of the world’s energy. Therefore, decisions made in Beijing, Washington and Brussels have significant implications for the world’s climate and energy security. Policies to reduce GHG emissions tend to be long-term in nature, and they require consistency and stability. The EU has achieved this, showing consistent support for climate initiatives despite changes in leadership. This has resulted in more ambitious mitigation targets and global leadership in the deployment of low-carbon technologies. Likewise, through its five-year planning cycle, China has consistently addressed climate change with ever-greater priority. In the US, climate change remains a partisan issue, with Democratic administrations introducing climate policies, only for these to be slowed down or reversed by Republicans. This stop-start approach to climate mitigation and adaptation reduces the impact of domestic policies and diminishes the effectiveness of the US in the international process.
Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director, Energy, Environment and Resources Programme