Pandemic delays leave many nations facing climate action catch-up in 2021

Fewer than half of the countries that promised updated plans to curb emissions and adapt to climate shifts delivered in 2020.

Volunteers bringing clean water to flood-stricken communities in northern Bangladesh.
Volunteers bringing clean water to flood-stricken communities in northern Bangladesh. Severe floods struck Bangladesh during the last week of June 2020, affecting 5.4 million people. Image: Climate Centre, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Less than half of countries that committed to strengthening their climate action targets in 2020 did so by the end of last year, as the pandemic slowed climate diplomacy and efforts to update national plans, a developing-nation group said on Friday.

A tracker run by the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) showed 73 nations submitted revised climate plans to the United Nations, meeting a 2020 deadline under the Paris Agreement to tackle global warming.

That was about 45 per cent of the 160 nations that had earlier said they intended to submit plans - called nationally determined contributions - last year.

Of those that filed updated plans, 69 made more ambitious climate commitments, either to step up efforts to cut planet-heating emissions, adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas, or both.

They included Britain, European Union nations, many Latin American governments and some small island states, as well as a handful of African and Southeast Asian countries.

The 48-member CVF said Brazil, North Korea, Japan and New Zealand had submitted updated climate action plans, but these lacked a higher level of ambition.

Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi academic who chairs the CVF’s expert advisory group, said the low number of 2020 submissions showed the 2015 Paris accord - which stipulates national plans should be strengthened every five years - had “failed its first and most important test”.

He urged governments to show “real climate ambition that communities will benefit from” in 2021 as their economies start to recover from the Covid-19 crisis.

The 57 countries that in 2020 submitted stronger targets to cut their climate-changing emissions accounted for just 13 per cent of global emissions, the CVF said.

The 66 countries that committed to do more to adapt to a warmer planet, meanwhile, are home to 1.67 billion people, just over a fifth of the global population of 7.8 billion, it said.

“I think we have seen the process get started, but then there is a huge amount to be done this year,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.

Before the global upheaval caused by the coronavirus crisis, 190 countries that submitted climate action plans under the Paris accord were due to revise those contributions in 2020, to ensure they added up to meeting the goals of the agreement.

Those include keeping global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and ideally to 1.5C above pre-industrial times.

But the world has already heated up by just over 1C and is on track for at least 3C of warming this century, the United Nations has said - a clear sign more ambition is needed.

Lockdowns due to the pandemic forced the British hosts of the 2020 annual UN climate summit, known as COP26, to postpone it. The talks are now set to take place in November 2021.

The delay, combined with uncertainty over US climate action, after President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the Paris deal, has caused some countries, including China and other big emitters, to hold back on finalising their own plans.

Britain and countries in the European Union, however, did in December commit to stronger emissions reductions targets for 2030, Waskow noted.

Britain said it would cut its emissions by at least 68 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, while EU states agreed to reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030, substantially toughening an existing 40 per cent target.

“They have raised the bar and shown what it is that major economies - and especially developed countries … need to do,” Waskow told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

US President-elect Joe Biden takes office later this month and has vowed to swiftly rejoin the Paris accord and convene leaders of major emitting countries during his first 100 days in office, to push for more ambitious climate pledges.

Poorest step up 

Anna Schulz, head of the global climate law, policy and governance programme at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, noted eight out of the world’s 46 poorest countries submitted stronger climate plans by 2020.

A further 11 are expected to do so soon, despite technical and financial barriers worsened by the pandemic, she said.

The plans completed so far, by Cambodia, Ethiopia, Senegal, Rwanda, Nepal and other countries, contain “really exciting increases” in planned emissions cuts, either overall or by including new economic sectors and activities, she added.

“This is, of course, despite the fact that they are the most vulnerable to climate change and the least responsible” for it, she said, noting the least-developed countries want to lead by example and do their part to meet the 1.5C warming goal.

They are also raising their game on adaptation, she noted, with Nepal, for example, helping local governments come up with tailored plans for their regions.

Zambia outlined measures to protect its six watersheds, make better use of its water and promote climate-smart farming to boost food security.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, cited its “Delta Plan 2100”, which aims to tackle flood and drought risks in hotspots along its major rivers and coastlines.

Adaptation action includes everything from building higher embankments against floods to moving coastal communities to safer locations, capturing rainwater to irrigate land and switching to more drought-tolerant crops.

Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Netherlands-based Global Center on Adaptation, said the fact that more countries had so far improved targets to build climate resilience than set goals for deeper emissions cuts showed “governments are more serious about adaptation than ever before”.

“The climate emergency has clearly arrived,” he said.

His organisation is convening a virtual global summit on adaptation on Jan. 25-26, to galvanise high-level political will - and funding - to expand efforts to help people adjust to worsening floods, droughts and storms, and rising sea levels.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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