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More national emissions pledges arrive pre-COP26, but is it enough?

25 October 2021 Kevin Adler

With COP26 less than a week away, the pledges by nations to reduce their carbon emissions continue to arrive, including some trend-setting announcements. But analysis of global climate commitments by organizations such as the International Energy Agency and UN Environmental Program (UNEP) indicate that they still are far short of what's needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the Paris Agreement mandates.

More than 70 countries in total have come forward over the past two years with updated and more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. These include every G7 nation, all of which have NDCs aligned with net-zero emissions by 2050. In all, 194 nations have submitted a first NDC, and 13 have submitted a second, according to the UN's NDC Registry.

These came even as memos were leaked to the media on 21 October showing that major energy producing nations such as Australia and Saudi Arabia lobbied to change the language in a key UN science panel report on global warming to reduce the association between fossil fuels and climate change and to promote carbon capture as the equivalent to eliminating fossil fuel use.

"There'll be a big greenwashing effort in Glasgow [by some nations] that needs to be called out and recognized," said a Greenpeace representative about the divergence between public and private statements on the part of some countries. Greenpeace leaked the document to the media.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) raised the stakes further with a report on 25 October that found that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 413.2 parts per million (ppm) in 2020, the highest ever recorded. CO2 concentrations are 149% of the pre-industrial level.

The rate of increase last year was 2.5 ppm, or slightly above the average rate from 2011-2020 of 2.4 ppm per year.

Methane is at 262% and nitrous oxide at 123% of the levels in 1750, according to the WMO, and both increased from 2019 to 2020 by more than the 10-year average.

"The economic slowdown from COVID-19 did not have any discernible impact on the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases and their growth rates, although there was a temporary decline in new emissions," it said.

New pledges arrive

Still, the net-zero pledges are coming in, and more are expected during COP26. According to the NDC Registry, 28 pledges have been updated in October, including a net-zero announcement by Saudi Arabia on 23 October.

Saudi Arabia's announced 2060 net-zero target follows the 6 October announcement of a 2050 net-zero goal from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was the first from a Gulf state.

"We are committed to seize the opportunity to cement our leadership on climate change within our region as we pivot our economy and nation to net zero," said UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Although the UAE plan lacks specifics that would be in an NDC under the Paris Agreement, it is considered nonetheless "historic," tweeted COP26 President Alok Sharma. "I look to others in the region to also announce ambitious climate actions."

Saudi Arabia's goal was announced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the inaugural Saudi Green Initiative forum in Riyadh. On the same day, both Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, and SABIC, the state-owned petrochemicals company, announced net-zero targets for 2050 for their Scope 1 and 2 emissions.

According to the Saudi press agency, the nation emitted nearly 500 million metric tons (mt) of CO2-equivalent in 2019.

Apparently, Qatar won't soon be joining the list. In a speech at an energy conference in mid-October, Energy Minister Saad Al-Kaabi was quoted as saying: "For me to just come out and say net-zero 2050 would be very sexy. But it's not the right thing."

The world's second-largest LNG exporter behind Australia (another country without a net-zero pledge), Qatar is placing its bet on natural gas as a transition fuel. Its contribution to emissions reductions will come through reducing the carbon intensity associated with producing, processing, and shipping LNG, Al-Kaabi said.

Every credible forecast of future global energy indicates gas will be 25%, 30%, or more of the world's resource mix in 2050, he reminded the conference audience. And the surge in gas prices this summer when power demand growth exceeded expectations shows what happens if that is ignored. "If you go too quickly without a plan, then ultimately you don't have enough," he said.

Yet, Malaysia, the world's fourth-largest LNG producer, recently joined the 2050 net-zero bandwagon with an announcement on 28 September. Along with that, the country said in its updated NDC it will stop building coal-fired power plants—a pledge that echoes China's recent promise to not fund new coal-fired power. Malaysia's NDC that was updated in July aims for a 45% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030 across its economy compared with 2005.

Turkey joined the nations with a net-zero pledge in October, setting its target year as 2053. It would achieve this goal by ramping up renewable energy generation to 31% of its electricity sourcing by 2025 and building from there, state officials said, with incentives such as carbon taxes to move the sector forward.

However, the country's promises were challenged on 18 October in a report by Ekosfer Association, which is associated with Climate Action Network Europe. Ekosfer said Turkey's energy ministry forecast that its net carbon emissions will more than double from 422 million mt currently to about 930 million mt/year in 2030, and the country has not explained how it will then quickly reduce them to reach its stated goal.

As noted in Ekosfer's comments about Turkey, pledges are one thing, and legislation and investment are another.

Turning promises into policies and action

While the EU and the US wrestle with the challenges of turning their upgraded NDC pledges into legislation and funding, South Korea's National Assembly passed laws in September that are designed to reach its NDC goal. The "Climate Crisis Response Act" mandates a 35% cut in GHG emissions by 2030 compared with the country's 2018 level. This was supplemented on 20 October by a new report seeking to reach a 40% reduction by 2030.

"This is the most ambitious reduction goal possible, given our situation … Our goal is very fast paced and challenging," said President Moon Jae-in. "Industry and labor may have major concerns about whether they will ever be able to cope."

Business groups and environmental groups expressed concerns, as the latter said it's inadequate to meet global needs. The Korea Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM), affiliated with Friends of the Earth, described the plan as containing "insufficient targets and uncertain means to avert the climate crisis."

How the politics of climate pledges and funding will play out at COP26 is hard to predict, but the experiences of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and COP26 President Alok Sharma in the last few weeks send signals that the divide between developed and developing nations is deep.

The UK, host of the climate event in Glasgow, Scotland, unveiled details about how it will get to net-zero by 2050 in a document on 19 October. It includes rapid adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) and the use of heat pumps and electrification in homes. The program includes more than $3.9 billion for home and commercial building conversions, and nearly $1 billion to subsidize purchases of EVs and expend the EV charging infrastructure.

Leveraging his role as leader of the host nation, Johnson publicly urged both Saudi Arabia and India to make net-zero pledges at or before COP26.

Sharma made a similar point in a speech in Paris on 12 October, referencing what he called the "donor nations" of the G20, from which more than $80 billion per year has been pledged to other nations to support GHGs reductions and climate adaptation, approaching a goal of $100 billion set several years ago.

He noted the importance of that funding, as well as the NDCs and net-zero commitments of many nations. "But the targets must translate into change across our economies and our societies," he said.

(Saudi Arabia, which is not party to the $100-billion commitment, proposed a Middle East Green Initiative on 25 Octonber that it said would provide about $10.4 billion in environmental and carbon-reduction projects across the region, with Riyadh contributing at least 15%.)

The statements of Johnson and Sharma, however, were interpreted by other nations as saying that they must make the same level of sacrifice as wealthy nations that have contributed the vast majority of carbon emissions to date.

A group of 24 nations issued a ministerial statement on 18 October that scolded Sharma and Johnson on that account. They referenced "a history of broken promises" dating to the 1992 Kyoto Protocol and included promises made at Doha in 2012 by developed countries to submit binding emissions targets by 2014, as well as the tardiness in reaching the $100 billion climate finance pledge.

"These failures to deliver on the commitments agreed to by developed countries undermines trust and confidence in the multilateral system," the Like Minded Developing Countries ministerial, which included China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam, wrote.

Posted 25 October 2021 by Kevin Adler, Chief Editor

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