Why is 2021 a ‘super year’ for the climate and environment?

COVID-19 pushed major environmental summits scheduled to be held in 2020 – such as the UN Food Systems Summit, UN Biodiversity Summit (CBD COP15) and the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP26) – into 2021. The presidency of COP26 is shared between the Italian and UK governments, who are also chairing the 2021 G20 and G7 meetings.

This provides an unparalleled opportunity to create synergies between the summits and to leverage the G20 and G7 to increase the chances of successful outcomes at the climate, food, and biodiversity events.  

Meanwhile, many governments are implementing vast stimulus packages with the aim of reviving economies shattered by COVID-19. To date, these packages have prioritized fossil fuels over green and clean technologies, but 2021 offers a chance for a reset.

Taken together these factors have created a ‘super year’ of global activity, offering a precious opportunity to integrate good environmental policy with an enormous global fiscal stimulus.

Discussions will also take place in a more urgent context as climate science has advanced dramatically in the last five years and the price of mitigation technologies has fallen significantly. At the same time, the impacts of climate change such as extreme weather events, droughts, and floods are posing immediate risks to communities worldwide.

2021 is a crucial test of the world’s ability to meet the severe threat posed by climate change and biodiversity loss and to capitalize on the opportunities provided by a transition to net-zero societies.

The ‘super year’ is not only about climate issues

2021 is a critical year for tackling the climate emergency at COP26 but is also critical for the wider sustainability agenda.

The UN Food Systems Summit in September aims to transform the way the world produces and consumes food. CBD COP15 takes place in October in Kunming, China and is expected to assess the delivery of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and adopt the Global Diversity Framework for the post-2020 period. This should lay out what countries need to do, both individually and collectively, to achieve the CBD’s overall vision of ‘living in harmony with nature’ by 2050.

The Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit, hosted in Tokyo in December 2021, is an important opportunity to address malnutrition by strengthening the link between food systems, diet, and health.

Meeting globally agreed carbon reduction targets requires economy-wide changes, while the impacts of climate change affect all countries and ecosystems. It is important summits such as the N4G not only consider the consequences of global warming but also how they are part of the solution while meeting individual objectives. Conversely, climate change measures must reflect wider environmental and social impacts to be sustainable.

How might the pandemic and subsequent postponement affect summits such as COP26?

The delay to COP26 had some positive impacts because several key nations were poorly placed to prepare for the event scheduled in 2020. The UK, as host nation, was distracted by the politics of Brexit, and the US presidential election would have been held only days before the conference.

2021 hopefully provides a more stable and potentially ambitious platform, with President Biden well into his first term, China having set a target for carbon neutrality, and a number of other countries and regions such as the EU, Japan, and South Korea revising carbon reduction plans.

Discussions will also take place following the pandemic’s extraordinary demonstration of systemic and cascading risk. No nation can now deny a globalized world faces interconnected threats which require far-reaching and co-ordinated action.

How does COP26 compare to previous UN Climate Change Conferences?

The UN’s Climate Change Conferences take place annually, but COP26 in Glasgow is considered the most important climate conference since COP21 in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was adopted.  

The Paris Agreement allows nations to devise their own climate change pledges, or ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs), and this ‘bottom-up approach’ was critical to enabling the adoption of the agreement.

However, commitments made at COP21 were not nearly ambitious enough. Even if implemented, they do not meet the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, let alone 1.5 degrees.

The Paris Agreement allows for ambition to be increased over time and governments are due to submit updated – and hopefully more ambitious – pledges ahead of COP26.

COP26 must generate Paris’ enabling atmosphere and desire but with significantly more ambitious carbon reduction commitments from world leaders. It also needs to increase financial support to the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries.

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It is important to emphasize that for many of the world’s poorest – and often most climate-vulnerable – countries, fiscal stimulus remains an out-of-reach luxury. Supporting the efforts of these nations to simultaneously address the economic, health, climate change, and biodiversity destruction crises they are faced with is essential.

What example can the UK set as conference host?

The UK is widely regarded as good on climate policy – the 2008 Climate Change Act was the first of its kind in trying to bind future governments to climate change targets, and the UK is phasing out coal faster than other countries and also has the most ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or emissions targets – a 68 per cent cut by 2030.

However, it is generally agreed there remains a significant gap between the UK’s ambition and action with real challenges in sectors such as housing and transport where necessary change is still being avoided. It must address these sectors to be credible.

The UK must also use its position as a climate policy leader to encourage other developed and developing economies to follow suit and set the most ambitious possible 2030 targets.

What is needed for success in 2021’s ‘super year’?

What is needed above all is unity. The biggest threat to success at all the conferences is that trade and other geopolitical tensions, such as those between the United States, China and the EU, destabilize talks. Vaccine disputes have shown disagreements can still emerge even when the common need is well-established.

But threats posed by climate change and biodiversity loss are too universal – and too severe – to be derailed by territorial arguments and domestic politics. Nations must use the talks as a vehicle to de-escalate tensions rather than inflame them. Building trust between developed and developing countries is also key to success, and finance plays an important role here.  

The magic money tree is there. Let’s use it.

There is also a need to create confidence. Chatham House associate fellow Kirsty Hamilton has spoken of the need for ‘long, loud and legal’ climate policies which send a clear signal to businesses around the world from all governments – but particularly major emitters such as the US, India, and China – that real change is coming by 2030. People must be sure agreements are not unstable or for show.

The world must seize the moment of a more aligned politics in Western democracies combined with imminent fiscal stimulus to deliver an ambitious ‘green recovery’. The post-pandemic era is a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to invest in the capital and labour-intensive solutions required to adapt economies for a zero-carbon future.

And uncomfortable truths must be faced – powerful interests lose from a future where the world eats less meat, burns less petrol, and makes less conventional steel and concrete, but everyone knows the consequences of inaction.

No country can sidestep or profit from the effects of runaway climate change. This ‘super year’ is a unique opportunity to commit to positive action and it would be a unique failure if we fail to seize the moment.