Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Climate Change: Back on the International Scene?

Three questions to Lola Vallejo

Climate Change: Back on the International Scene?
 Lola Vallejo
IDDRI’s Climate Programme Director

In terms of combating climate change and its effects, much appears to be changing on the international scene. The big emitters are back in the ecological transition race: the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and China has announced its wish to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Climate change is expected to be much discussed at the international level: Joe Biden has convened a Climate leaders' summit in April and COP26 will take place in November in Glasgow. What does this really mean? Is the US to play a significant role in encouraging countries in reducing global emissions and protect the environment? Are there other leaders emerging on the international scene? Will countries choose cooperation over competition in this area? Clémence Alméras, Policy Officer at Institut Montaigne, has asked Lola Vallejo, IDDRI’s climate programme director, to give us her insights on this particular matter.

On January 20th 2021, on his very first day in office, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change. Furthermore, the climate issue was at the core of the discussions he - or people from his administration - had with his counterparts (notably Narendra Modi and Emmanuel Macron). After years of uncertainty, would the climate agenda be back on the international scene? 

Joe Biden’s first day of his presidency was marked by a flurry of executive orders on climate action, which carried an important message: the US is back. The US is the second global emitter behind China, and the first in terms of historic cumulative emissions, so this decision carries a lot of weight internationally, and offers some reflections regarding the last few years.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement mere hours after being sworn in signifies a determination to tackle the climate crisis, but to do so within a multilateral framework, and a renewed American commitment to internationally negotiated outcomes. While detrimental, the US’ absence paradoxically served as a life-size test of the resilience of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, albeit a risky one. Despite the temptation, which seemed to exist in Bolsonaro’s Brazil for instance, no other country followed the US in leaving. This resilience is a testament to, among others, the importance of those called "non-state actors" in negotiations, to step in to hold the fort in lieu of country leaders when needed. American businesses, states, municipalities sent signals to the international community via the aptly named "We are still in" coalition, or the Global Climate Action Summit in 2018 under the helm of California’s Governor Jerry Brown. The international climate scene adapted in other ways: countries also showed their flexibility to create new forums, with China, Canada and the EU setting up the MoCA (Ministerial of Climate Action) since 2017.

The US is now expected to earn its place as a climate leader.

The US is now expected to earn its place as a climate leader. The White House already decided to pull its weight behind supporting enhanced ambition by organising a Climate leaders' summit on April 22nd (Earth Day) to convince other countries to step up with enhanced commitments.

The Biden administration is rumoured to announce shortly before the summit its own more ambitious climate pledge, and to make up the funding shortfall accrued under Trump for climate finance, particularly regarding its contribution to the Green Climate Fund. Other countries made strides while the US outed themselves of the race against climate change; while the "G2" it formed with China was absolutely central to broker the foundation of the Paris Agreement, China unilaterally announced its ambition to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 in September, months before the US elections. Europe had done so nearly a year before. To be a credible leader internationally, the US will now also need to prove it is serious about net zero domestically; other high-profile decisions announced by the White House on Day 1 include stopping the Keystone XL pipeline from coming in from Canada, as well as various fossil drilling projects in formerly protected areas, and are significant in that respect. 

Beyond being a champion at home, US leadership position would be all the more useful if the US government manages to position itself also as a deal broker, facilitating agreements, and open to conversation with all countries and not just the major economies, in Africa, in the least developed and the vulnerable countries. John Kerry - who has been appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Climate - has given signs of such a positioning, as the Climate Leaders Summit will also gather beyond the Major Economies Forum (MEF).

Beyond the US’ return, the materiality of the climate issues’ on the international stage will need to be assessed against the content of the stimulus packages adopted in response to Covid-19 impact on economies worldwide. The international momentum to keep climate at the top of the international agenda is at times fragile; as recently as last week, OECD countries elected at the helm of the institution Mathias Cormann, despite serious concerns regarding his record on climate change.

To this day, more than a hundred countries have pledged to reach carbon neutrality within the next 40 years, including the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, China. If these efforts are often solitary and even competitive by nature (green technology development race for instance), much is expected from COP26 which will take place in Glasgow this November. Is it realistic to think of it as a more ambitious COP than the previous ones?

Carbon neutrality commitments are an important political signal that countries have taken in the scale of the climate challenge ahead of them: the IPCC says the world should reach carbon (CO2) neutrality by 2050 and net negative emissions thereafter to stave off the worst impacts from climate change and limit warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. But these commitments require detailed policy roadmaps at the sectoral level, a range of incentives and dedicated governance to be ultimately implemented. A great test of the seriousness of these commitments is to keep an eye out on countries’ climate pledges to 2030, expected by COP26. The Paris Agreement mandated countries to submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) gradually increasing in ambition every five years. A provisional tally made by the UNFCCC secretariat shows that we are currently far off from meeting that mandate, and far off what science recommends. The updated or enhanced pledges of 75 countries (including the EU) together representing 30% of global emissions amount to a less than 1% cut in global CO2 emissions on 2010 levels by 2030, when the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C calls for a 45% decrease. The EU has played ball by submitting in December a more ambitious commitment to reduce emissions by at least 55% on 1990 levels (up from 40% in 2015). Under international pressure, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand already committed to resubmit new and improved commitments to 2030, after pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. But other G20 countries such as Australia or Mexico submitted similar, or even less ambitious commitments than in 2015. The NDCs to be submitted by the US and China, which together represent 35% of global emissions, will be critical for the considered "success" of COP26. 

Beyond the sum of the headline targets, what ultimately matters is the quality of the domestic discussions regarding transition pathways. The French discussion in this regard is interesting: the Citizen’s Convention on Climate and the subsequent Climate Bill parliamentary debate highlight some tough political choices ahead of us in the near term; but the overall objective (reducing GHG emissions by 40%) is already out-of-date since the EU ratcheted up its ambition last December. 

How to maintain a collective momentum this year, spurred by the US’ return in the Paris Agreement? The British government, holding the COP26 presidency in partnership with Italy, has a critical role to play to encourage countries to submit new and enhanced climate pledges by November. Incidentally, both countries can use their respective presidency of the G7 and G20 forums in 2021 as leverage to try and enforce, for instance, the end of fossil fuel subsidies pledged in 2009, and ensure Covid-19 recovery packages support clean development. The UK is also convening this week (17-18 March) a global summit on climate and development centred on the provision of climate finance and debt relief. Expressing solidarity with developing countries to support climate ambition is vital for any successful COP, but all the more so as the world reels of a pandemic in 2021. 

For the race to zero to become not only a competition but also a cooperative effort will require solving critical trade issues, beginning with the EU proposal of a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). The US can play a key role to put this conversation on the right footing, and act as deal brokers to facilitate EU conversations with other major economies. The last declarations by John Kerry cannot be considered an opening in that direction.

For the race to zero to become not only a competition but also a cooperative effort will require solving critical trade issues.

According to you, does the EU still have a leading role to play in this issue when the two biggest emitters, China and the US, are rushing to embrace the ecological transition. Is this new paradigm not turning relations between states and therefore world geopolitics upside down?

While the Trump administration wanted to leave the Paris Agreement, and before China committed to carbon neutrality at the highest level last September, the European Union managed to press ahead with climate action, committing to climate neutrality by 2050 in December 2019 and enhancing its 2030 commitment to emission reductions a year later. The test of this leadership exerted by the EU relies on its capacity to successfully implement the very ambitious political project of the Green Deal, and to effectively combine its various objectives: zero pollution, climate neutrality, biodiversity preservation, energy security, but also better jobs. The debates and policy choices considered by the EU can then echo internationally, as both the US and EU consider a carbon border adjustment mechanism, or creating space for international cooperation, for instance around the development of sustainable finance. How the EU decides to use ‘negative emissions’ to reach carbon neutrality, while maintaining food security and aiming to preserve biodiversity in the agriculture, forestry and land use sector (AFOLU), will be a particular challenge.

If implemented, the European Green Deal would trigger ambitious internal reforms, which would impact third countries. The energy transition would have profound geopolitical implications for instance on oil-and-gas exporting countries such as Algeria and Russia who mainly export to the EU, while increasing the EU’s reliance on certain critical materials. More generally, the race to carbon neutrality, if seriously taken, would entail a structural transformation in all economies and thus profound changes in the trade flows. Climate diplomacy of the EU is inseparable of a diplomacy of the Green Deal, that needs to not focus only on risks but also on new opportunities, for instance for the relations between the EU and the African Union. By setting standards for products sold within the EU on energy efficiency, zero-deforestation and circular economy, the Green Deal will impact trade patterns, and there is a real risk that measures are interpreted as a veiled trade war under the guise of climate action. Development cooperation and trade policies can be harnessed to make the external aspects of the Green Deal better accepted, and an asset for multilateral action on common environmental threats.

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English