2020 may be ‘last opportunity’ to limit warming to 1.5°C

Comment: Whether countries deliver on their pledge to raise ambition will be more consequential to the future of the Paris deal than even Trump’s withdrawal

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres. (Photo: UN Climate Change/Flickr)


While it’s unfair to describe the Madrid climate change conference in December as a complete failure, there is no sugar-coating the reality that it achieved much, much less than what the people and planet need to avoid catastrophic climate change this century.

It’s especially painful to acknowledge that my country, Australia, shares a lot of the blame for the outcome.

The current government’s insistence on using so-called “Kyoto credits” (carried over from my own period in office when we did take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) towards the implementation of their lacklustre Paris target, only sowed division and disharmony at the talks.

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Such accounting trickery does nothing to fight climate change. It’s legally dubious. And it only opens the back door for other countries to do less at a moment we all need to do more.

And all while our country is suffering under the worst bushfire conditions we have ever seen with more than forty-six million acres burned, more than 2,000 homes destroyed and innocent lives lost.

The outcome in Madrid would have been worse if it weren’t for progressive nations, led by the tiny Marshall Islands, and Spain’s bold environment minister, Teresa Ribera, who worked feverishly behind the scenes to bring away some kind of outcome. History will be kind to them, if not to Cop25.

But now is not the time to simply reflect on what’s been done. We must quickly regroup in the knowledge that this coming year will be the most important year for climate action for a long time.

You see, a decade ago, in the wake of the Copenhagen talks in 2009, the usual suspects were eager to seize on the failure to agree substantial top-down emissions cuts.

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But, in the conference’s dying hours, some of us worked hard to cobble together from the ashes of Copenhagen a compromise (The Copenhagen Accord) that would let countries continue setting their own targets from the bottom up.

This accord was enshrined in international law at Paris in 2015, but came with the essential understanding that countries would come back to the table every five years with new, more ambitious targets.

The reasoning was that countries could periodically lift their ambitions because technological advances would make decarbonisation cheaper and easier over time.

Take, for example, solar power. When we were in Copenhagen, the average cost per watt of solar power in the US was around $8.50; today it is only $2.99. If countries set rigid national targets too far in advance, they risk doing so on quickly outdated projections of what was once technologically feasible, and veer towards low ambition as a result.

And the more political opportunities there are to raise national – and therefore global – ambition, the more likely world leaders are to actually seize them as new alternative energy and energy efficiency technologies become available.

Fast-forward to today. Whether countries now deliver on their core commitment in 2015 to raise their ambition is likely to be more consequential to the future of the Paris Agreement than even Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from it.

Indeed, any such decision will almost certainly be swiftly overturned by a future Democratic president.

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The fact that every current Democratic contender has also vowed to aggressively and quickly ramp up the US’s own efforts to close the ambition gap, both at home and abroad, will help to reassure others contemplating their own next steps.

This includes China, which at present is under no pressure from the US administration’s current inertia to do the same.

Thankfully, the UK as the hosts of this year’s conference in Glasgow, will be in the driver’s seat. The British will have a clear focus, bolstered by their strong election result and the opportunity to put Brexit behind them.

Furthermore, the UK government is assured that support for climate action is not just bipartisan, it is the law of the land.

The UK’s vast diplomatic reach – one of the largest in the world – will also help, as will the personal energy of Boris Johnson who used his victory speech to reaffirm his commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

As one of the heavy lifters of the EU’s collective emissions reduction efforts, London will have no issue announcing a superior national target that will pressure the rest of the world to do likewise.

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Nevertheless, the scale of the task is still of biblical proportions. While more than 100 countries have now pledged to enhance their Paris targets by the end of this year and develop longer-term plans to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century, this still doesn’t include enough of the world’s biggest emitters.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has rightly identified, persuading these big emitters is a top priority for 2020. His decision to convene an event to take stock of the summit of world leaders he hosted last September will help.

But everyone – from political insiders to ordinary citizens – has a role to play in helping him and incoming Cop president Claire Perry O’Neill ensure that every world leader understands the need to act, feels the weight to act, and trusts they have the support to act.

Above all, this means acting to keep global temperature increases below the 1.5°C guardrail that Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed and I first proposed at Copenhagen. And, as the science tells us, this year might be the last opportunity to do that.

Kevin Rudd is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. He is a former Australian Prime Minister (2007-10, 2013) and Foreign Minister (2010-12).

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