Another international climate summit, another set of new climate targets and commitments. Even though ambitions increased somewhat and closed the gap to the 1.5-degree target by an estimated 12–14%, we are still far from the level of emission reductions and adaptation capacity globally that is needed for a safe climate. The Leaders Summit on Climate was the United States’ grand re-entry into international climate politics. It delivered fewer new 2030 targets from major emitters than hoped for. However, it did provide political capital and inspiration to fuel further progress up until COP26, and a productive rivalry for global climate leadership.
So what happens now? Do we accept the targets that have been set, or do we keep aiming higher? In principle, climate targets should reflect the scientific evidence of what is needed to limit warming to 1.5 or well below 2 degrees. All Parties to the Paris Agreement who have not yet done so must deliver their targets and nationally determined contributions (NDCs), in line with their legal commitment. In practice, however, the marginal benefits of targets as a mechanism to drive the climate transition is probably waning. Firstly, governments’ record of hitting their climate targets is inconsistent, as demonstrated in a recent “reality check” about the UK government by the BBC. Secondly, the climate will not care about targets, it will care about results. The actual reduced emissions matter, regardless of whether the target was at 52% or 55%. The direction is by now clearly set; the challenge ahead is nothing but delivery and execution.
It is completely understandable that the focus of the UN and the entire international climate community in the last six years has been on climate action and ambition, encoded in quantitative and time-bound targets. Starting in Paris in 2015, “climate action” became the buzzword for building a groundswell of support from business, sub-national government and civil society. An important part of the climate action momentum was the positive co-benefits of climate mitigation and adaptation, which led to better air quality, job creation and nature conservation. The logic of this big-tent approach was to get broad support, generate commitments from diverse actors, and show action on the ground to convince others. Undoubtedly, this created peer pressure and positive reinforcement loops. The climate transition became something real, unstoppable and attractive.
Five years after the Paris Agreement was signed, and after repeated efforts to showcase and boost climate action, we had a UN summit on “climate ambition” in December 2020. Seeing the inadequacy of action happening at the scale needed to close the emission gap, the Secretary General in the prior year called for a five-fold increase in ambition in targets. This call has still not been met. As noted, some progress was made at the Leaders Climate Summit, with new 2030 targets pledged by the US, Japan and Canada, but these were far from sufficient. There is still a window of opportunity this year to further close the ambition gap, even though the prospect of full elimination looks disappointingly distant.
While an ambition gap clearly remains, the time has come for a shift in focus. COP26 in Glasgow in November of this year is seen as the climax of a globally orchestrated climate ambition push, and it should seal the era of target-setting. In 2022, what if the UN hosted its first “climate accountability summit”, where showcasing results towards fulfilling the Paris Agreement are on centre stage? By drawing attention away from targets and promises and towards concrete results, future meetings and climate policy discourse at large could reprogramme the reward system. Committing to intentions, targets and promises can no longer be enough. While there may be time lags in seeing emissions reduction results, such as from long-term decarbonization investments in the industry sector, tangible results can be reported in other ways. For example, how much national coal power capacity was retired in the last year? By how much did investments in renewables increase? Similarly, how much more resilient did the population and ecosystems become?
The reporting of results should be done in a transparent way so that citizens can hold their leaders accountable for reaching national targets. Countries should support a healthy competition with their peers, taking opportunities to learn from each other. Results should be measured in relation to differing starting points and capacities, considering climate equity principles as well as different geographic and resource conditions.
A shift in focus from targets to results, and from ambition to accountability, is something naturally to be expected. Under the Paris Agreement, the Enhanced Transparency Framework will regulate national reporting, which will feed into the first Global Stocktake in 2023. The legal framework is thus already in place but it needs to be filled with resources, purpose and attention, including from sources outside the climate negotiations. Civil society and the youth movement are already effective in demanding accountability and will likely innovate as the urgency builds, and concern about “vague” net zero targets grow. Businesses and investors may also innovate in results reporting and accountability mechanisms, based on their specific needs to allocate capital. It is positive that several standard-setting processes are now in place to ensure robust and credible corporate climate targets. Science and the knowledge community can help by developing better methods, metrics and data to measure results, including harder-to-measure aspects like climate resilience, and conducting more evaluation studies of climate policies. Media should scrutinize, and lack of climate action can be challenged in court.
Of course, climate accountability is politically sensitive. National sovereignty means that strict authority to demand results is missing. But there is a space for moral authority from the UN. There is also a space for many actors to imagine new practical ways of exercising climate accountability, in a constructive yet effective way. Time to lean in.