Leaders’ Summit on Climate – An Important Step on the Road to COP26

Last week United States President Joe Biden, sought ‘to show that America is back’ and re-cement its position as a world leader in tackling climate change, following the United States’ temporary departure from the Paris Agreement in November last year. The newly elected President leveraged the convening power of the world’s largest economy to bring together 40 world leaders, alongside civil society actors, to recommit to global action on climate change in the run up to the COP26 summit in November.

The list of attendees was notable for its diversity; alongside the United States’ traditional major allies such as the UK and the EU, strategic rivals including China, Russia and Saudi Arabia also took up Biden’s invitation, as did a number of the developing countries most affected by climate change, including Gabon, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Despite this diversity of voices, a clear consensus emerged over the need for global action on climate change, with world leaders using the opportunity to reassert their national leadership on climate change.

This stimulated an environment which encouraged a number of states to commit to new and more ambitious targets to tackle carbon emissions. These included:

– The United States committed to cutting emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

– Japan committed to cutting emissions by 46% from 2013 levels by 2030, having previously committed to a 26% reduction over the same time period.

– Canada strengthened its existing target of reducing emissions by 30% by 2030 from 2005 levels, to a commitment to a 40-45% reduction over the same period.

– Ahead of the summit, the UK announced plans to embed ambitions to cut emissions 78% by 2035 relative to 1990 levels, into law.

– Brazil committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and to ending illegal deforestation in the country by 2030.

– Argentina increased its carbon emission reduction targets by 2% relative to its 2020 Nationally Determined Contribution and committed to tackling illegal deforestation.

– South Africa stated that its carbon emissions will begin to decline from 2025, a decade earlier than previously estimated.

– In advance of the summit, the European Union agreed to cut carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

A number of states did not go as far as to strengthen their climate emission reduction targets, but did commit to taking greater action to tackle climate change. These included:

– The Republic of Korea committed to terminating state-backed financing of overseas coal plants.

– China announced that it would join the Kigali Agreement and reduce coal consumption between 2026 and 2030.

– India announced the launch of the U.S-India 2030 Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership to encourage clean energy innovation and financing.

– Russia affirmed its commitment to international cooperation on reducing carbon emissions.

Summit Successes

If nothing else, the summit illustrated how important it is to have the United States at the table on global issues. Within a few months of assuming office, President Biden has been able to create a stage for countries all over the world to commit to bolder action on climate change, commitments which, if realised, will have a significant impact on the pace of climate change. The importance of this was recognised by a number of world leaders, and particularly explicitly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared that “there can be no doubt about the world needing (the United States’) contribution”. Importantly, this stage also bridged, to some degree, existing geopolitical divides with the United States and its strategic rivals, including both Russia and China, committing to working together to tackle climate change, despite wider geopolitical disagreements.

The strong emphasis given by leaders on the possibilities of using climate change action to support economic recovery post Covid-19 will be particularly reassuring in the run up to COP26. ‘Build back better’ has been a central tenet of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 recovery plan, and at the summit he proposed that states could “cake-have-eat”, harnessing carbon reduction as an opportunity to support the economy. This was a statement echoed by other world leaders, particularly United States’ President Joe Biden, who consistently pitched tackling the climate crisis as a tool for job creation and stimulating the United States’ economy. This unity of messaging across countries will be invaluable in building public support for action to tackle climate change.

Limitations of the Summit

However, just as notable as the commitments made are the absences of commitments. While a diverse range of world leaders attended the summit and aligned in their broad rhetoric, the depth of their commitments varied significantly. Most notably, while India announced the ‘India-U.S. Climate and Clean Energy Agenda Partnership for 2030’ and reaffirmed some of its existing commitments, neither China nor India, the world’s largest and third largest polluters respectively, used the opportunity to set out new ambitious climate targets. The most significant commitment made by China was to reduce coal consumption as part of its 2026-2030 climate plan, but China’s overall emissions targets remain unchanged and less ambitious than other nations, aiming to hit peak carbon emissions by 2030 and to reach net-zero by 2060.

Furthermore, although welcomed by American President Joe Biden, the commitments made by Russia at the summit were also relatively weak, describing in vague terms a support for international cooperation, but making no additional commitments to reduce oil and gas consumption and failing to confirm that Russia will submit a new national plan on cutting carbon, as mandated by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. This is particularly concerning given Russia’s carbon emissions are on the rise, and that the building of Nordstream 2 and Russia’s drilling attempts in the Artic are expected to worsen Russia’s climate emissions in the coming years. Similarly, while Saudi Arabia committed to meeting half of its energy needs through renewable energy by 2030, it did not make any commitments to reducing oil exports which would have a significant impact on global emissions. Australia also failed to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 or make any new commitments to reduce emissions in the next decade.

Even where nations did make ambitious commitments to tackle climate change, there is no guarantee they will be fulfilled. In fact, within 24 hours of the summit, where Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro committed to doubling funding for deforestation enforcement, in a bid to end illegal deforestation by 2030, President Bolsonaro undermined this commitment by approving a 24% cut to the 2021 environment budget relative to its 2020 budget. He also vetoed over £30 million environmental budget provisions, including expenditure on environmental enforcement, which was a central pillar of his speech at the summit. Even the United States, whose targets are set with the best of intentions, is not on track to achieve its previous commitments, let alone its new targets. Achieving America’s climate ambitions will require immediate and drastic action, including halving its natural gas use in the next decade and immediately beginning to phase out usage of its coal power plants.

Furthermore, underneath this positive and cooperative rhetoric, lay some notable fault lines, with China, Russia and Brazil all alluding to the scale of Western nations’ historic climate emissions, or the disadvantaged position they are placed in relative to developed nations who were able to benefit from industrialisation without consideration of climate change. It is clear this remains a source of underlying tension and that even if these nations appreciate the importance of tackling climate change, they also feel a sense of frustration which may undermine cooperation. Moving forwards, developed nations will need to be sensitive to this antagonism and be willing to lead from the front in the global efforts to tackle climate change.

Looking forwards to COP26

Overall, the Leaders’ Summit on Climate paints a positive picture heading into COP26. It highlighted the broad consensus that has built around taking global action on climate change, and how with the United States’ spearheading this action, many other nations are inclined to be ambitious as well. Furthermore, the consensus around the narrative of the economic benefits of climate action have particular potential to be powerful and align closely with the vision and messaging the UK is expected to lead with during COP26. There are, of course, gaps and cracks in this consensus, particularly among emerging economies who feel disadvantaged by climate action, and gaps between vision and reality of states’ ambitions for climate action. Yet, there’s no doubt that watching the United States spearheading and building consensus around climate change action can only be a good thing for the UK and the world.


Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group