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Climate change: ‘the Paris goals are within reach’

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There are very few things that unite Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron these days — but climate change is one of them. The two leaders of the UK and France, who are spending the weekend deadlocked in painful last-ditch, Brexit negotiations, are also co-hosting a virtual climate summit on Saturday.

Amid the gloom of the coronavirus crisis and the geopolitical sniping it has prompted, the summit is likely to be a surprising success: the leaders of more than 70 countries have made new pledges in recent weeks and months to reduce emissions.

The event will even be attended by President Xi Jinping of China who earlier this year said China, the world’s biggest emitter, would become carbon-neutral by 2060.

It has been exactly five years since the signing of the Paris climate accord, an idealistic pact in which 189 countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2C, hopefully around 1.5C. For most of the past five years, that goal has seemed very far out of reach. Squabbling nations struggled to agree on many of the rules of the agreement; global emissions kept rising; and the world’s second-biggest emitter, the US, withdrew from the pact entirely.

Meanwhile the planet has been getting hotter — the past six years have been the six warmest on record — and wildfires, hurricanes and heatwaves have intensified. As recently as last year, the UN secretary-general warned that the world was on track for at least 3C of warming by the end of the century, far off track from the Paris target.

The natural disasters that marked 2020, from devastating wildfires in California, to heatwaves across Siberia, are likely to come again
The natural disasters that marked 2020, from devastating wildfires in California, to heatwaves across Siberia, are likely to come again © Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty

But now the tone has shifted — and so has the prognosis for the planet. Amid the cheerleading remarks at the summit on Saturday, there has also been a decisive acceleration in national climate pledges, and legally binding carbon targets, that has helped to push down the planet’s warming trajectory, according to scientists.

During the past few months, China, Japan and South Korea have all announced targets of net zero emissions by the middle of the century. The election of Joe Biden, who has said he wants the US to reach zero carbon electricity by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2050, puts the US on a similar course. By the time Mr Biden steps into the White House in January, most of the world’s big economies, including the EU and UK, will have some form of net zero target in place — if the US is counted, some 63 per cent of global emissions are now covered by these goals.

Could this be a turning point? Some scientists think it is. “If all these countries meet their long-term targets of net zero, then the Paris agreement goals are within reach again,” says Niklas Höhne, professor of environmental systems at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Warming of 2.1C is now likely by the end of the century — much lower than seemed likely only a few years ago, according to analysis he has done with colleagues at the NewClimate Institute and at Climate Analytics, both non-profit research groups.

That 2.1C trajectory holds true only if every country that has announced a zero emissions goal — more than 120 nations have done so — achieves it on time, and if the US adopts a similar target. If countries are judged on their actual current policies, rather than future ambitions, the forecast looks less rosy.

That 2.1C forecast is also the lowest ever produced by the non-profit groups, which has been tracking climate pledges and temperature projections since 2009. Back then, they projected that existing pledges — mostly made under the Kyoto protocol — put the world on track for 3.5C of warming.

The IEA predicts that renewables will soon overtake coal as a source of electricity generation
The IEA predicts that renewables will soon overtake coal as a source of electricity generation © David Gray/Bloomberg

“The game-changer was China really moving into net zero, and that created a whole domino effect of others joining in,” says Prof Höhne. “For me that is the biggest impact of the Paris agreement so far.”

Others agree. “I think the 2C target now looks like it might be possible, whereas frankly previously, a lot of us were pretty cynical about it being possible,” says Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London.

The coronavirus pandemic has helped to speed this along, inadvertently. Global emissions have dropped 6.7 per cent this year, the biggest absolute decline recorded outside of wartime. While that may be a temporary blip, with emissions expected to bounce back soon, the economic recovery programmes under way will help channel hundreds of billions of dollars towards green projects.

In other ways the pandemic has been less helpful, including by delaying the UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to next year. Governments have had their hands full with the health emergency, leaving less bandwidth to focus on the climate emergency. And public pressures to act on climate have been reduced in some areas: lockdowns have forced young environmental activists — who took to the streets in the millions in 2019, following the lead of Greta Thunberg — to stay at home. Their online protests are less visible, but every bit as angry.

Governments are not the only force driving emissions cuts, however. Big leaps in green technology, and new corporate commitments, have also helped generate a tailwind behind the Paris agreement. Several chief executives, including Apple’s Tim Cook, joined the summit at the weekend, underscoring the role that company climate pledges have played to help move things along.

The cost of producing energy from renewables, such as the solar power generated by the Yamakura Dam plant in Ichihara, Japan, is dropping.
The cost of producing energy from renewables, such as the solar power generated by the Yamakura Dam plant in Ichihara, Japan, is dropping. © Carl Court/Getty Images

Adair Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, says there is a self-reinforcing cycle, between technology, companies and governments, with each feeding into each other.

“That actually shows the power of the Paris process. Because at one level you can say, the Paris process isn’t a legally binding agreement. It is a political commitment to be part of some comparative process — you do this, I’ll do that. But actually, it is working, and it is working because of the technology process as well,” he said.

Maintaining ambition

When the Paris agreement was signed five years ago, it was far from obvious the deal would succeed. Designed as a good faith agreement, with no enforcement mechanisms to punish bad actors, the pact allows countries to set their own climate targets, known as NDCs or “nationally determined contributions”, at whatever level they choose. The goal of limiting warming to below 2C was expected to be extremely difficult and expensive to achieve, even by those who supported it.

Attaining the goals of the Paris agreement is “do-able, but only if we treat it like the urgent crisis as it is, the war that it is”, John Kerry, the former US secretary of state and recently appointed special envoy on climate for the incoming administration, said in a 2019 speech.

In the years after the Paris accord came into force, global emissions ticked up to record levels. President Donald Trump announced in 2017 that he was withdrawing from the deal, and similar sentiments have been expressed by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and by the Scott Morrison administration in Australia (though neither Brazil nor Australia formally pulled out). Meanwhile China, the world’s biggest emitter, declined until recently to set a carbon reduction target, saying only that it would peak emissions before 2030.

The co-operative ideals on which the pact was based were in short supply. “It felt like we had lost it for four years,” says Rémy Rioux, who was one of the lead French negotiators for the Paris accord, and is now the head of the French Development Agency. “The way we lived it for the last five years, was some sort of ‘resistance’,” he says, explaining that it had been a “fight” to keep up the ambition of the climate accord in the face of opposition from countries such as the US.

From left: executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres, secretary general of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon, foreign affairs minister and president-designate of COP21 Laurent Fabius, and France’s president Francois Hollande raise hands together after adoption of the global warming pact at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, in December 2015
From left: executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, French foreign minister and president-designate of COP21 Laurent Fabius, and France’s president François Hollande raise hands together after adoption of the global warming pact at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris in December 2015 © Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty

Recently that has all changed though. “Somehow the stars are aligning again. With the green new deal in Europe, with the election in the US, and with the Chinese pledge in September . . . We are probably entering a new phase, where multilateralism will regain momentum,” says Mr Rioux.

It is not only political winds that have shifted dramatically in the past three months: the world has also changed profoundly in the years since the Paris agreement was signed.

Clean energy is much cheaper than it was then, and the pace of the energy transition has taken many by surprise. The combination of technological progress, along with increasing knowledge about the damage caused by climate change, has helped to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.

In the past five years — since the Paris accord was signed — sales of electric vehicles have quadrupled, from 572,000 in 2015, to 2.3m in 2020, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency. Renewables accounted for 90 per cent of new installed power capacity this year, up from 50 per cent in 2015. Global demand for coal, which has been sinking since 2013, has plummeted this year during the coronavirus recession.

The IEA predicts that renewables will soon overtake coal as a source of electricity generation, largely due to the fact that the cost of wind and solar has fallen so much. “In 2025, renewables are set to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, ending coal’s five decades as the top power provider,” said IEA head Fatih Birol.

And putting a price on carbon pollution, once seen as a pipe dream, is becoming more common. Prices hit a record high last week for carbon pollution permits in the EU.

In the past five years, sales of electric vehicles have quadrupled, from 572,000 in 2015, to 2.3m in 2020, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency
In the past five years, sales of electric vehicles have quadrupled, from 572,000 in 2015, to 2.3m in 2020, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

In addition to progress on clean energy, advancements in climate science in the last several years have also lent urgency to climate policies. The latest modelling suggests the earth has already warmed by about 1.2C compared with the pre-industrial era, and has a one-in-five chance of temporarily passing the 1.5C mark by 2024, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

One thing scientists have been able to observe is that carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere up to a century after it is released, which means the warming impact of past emissions continues for a long time.

“The climate system has a lot of inbuilt lags, so to some extent we have already determined what the temperature will be in 2030 and 2040,” says Prof Rapley. “There is a lot of reason to believe that, whatever you do in the next few years, the temperature is going to go past 1.5C in the next few decades.”

Pledges and policies

That is cause for concern, and one of the reasons why the next few years will be critical for determining the planet’s temperature trajectory. Despite all the recent announcements, there is still a yawning gap between countries’ 2050 targets, and the policies that they have put in place to cover the next several years.

The countries that signed the Paris accord have all committed, in theory, to submit new climate targets to the UN by the end of this year. Many of those targets were announced at the weekend’s climate summit — including the EU’s, which was agreed on Friday. But coronavirus has delayed many other announcements, and the UN has said it will keep the door open for further pledges that trickle in next year.

As those pledges arrive, the proof will be in their implementation. Prof Höhne says that if countries are measured on their current policies alone, ignoring their long-term goals, the temperature projection for the end of the century rises to around 2.9C.

Protesters outside the White House in Washington, DC, after President Donald Trump announced the US would withdraw from the Paris climate change accord in 2017
Protesters outside the White House in Washington after President Donald Trump announced the US would withdraw from the Paris climate accord in 2017 © Susan Walsh/AP

Even the UK, which as host of the COP26 climate talks has set itself an ambitious target for 2030, has not yet spelt out the policies that will enable it to achieve such rapid emissions cuts. And in the US, President-elect Biden may struggle to get his $2tn climate plan approved by Congress.

“Some very exciting public announcements have been made, but we are not there yet,” says Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Programme. She points to a recent UNEP report, which outlines how — despite the lower emissions due to the disruptions from coronavirus — climate pledges are still not quite on track, particularly over the next decade. “If we land at 3C or 4C, Covid is just a little overture to what we will see [in terms of the impact on the world],” she says.

Meanwhile the planet will keep getting warmer, even as climate action speeds up. The natural disasters that marked 2020, from devastating wildfires in California, to heatwaves across Siberia, are likely to come again. And for all the fine words at the weekend’s summit, the youthful climate protesters have no intention of letting up the pressure on political leaders.

“The action needed is still nowhere in sight,” said Ms Thunberg in a video posted on Twitter ahead of the summit. In her view, the five years since the Paris agreement have been five years of empty words. The 17-year-old climate activist added: “Distant hypothetical targets are being set, and big speeches are being given. Yet, when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial.”





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EU and US set to end Airbus-Boeing trade dispute after 17 years

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The EU and US are poised to resolve a 17-year dispute over aircraft subsidies, lifting the threat of billions of dollars in punitive tariffs on their economies in a boost to transatlantic relations. 

Diplomats and officials confirmed on Monday night that two days of intensive negotiations in Brussels had left the EU and the Biden administration with a draft deal on subsidy rules for Airbus and Boeing. The breakthrough is set to be finalised on Tuesday at US president Joe Biden’s first EU-US summit meeting in Brussels.

“I am very positive that we will find an agreement on the Airbus-Boeing issue today, in our conversation with our American friends,” Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said on Tuesday morning. “I am very positive and convinced that we will deliver together today.”

People close to the talks said the governments of Airbus’s three home countries in the EU — Germany, France, and Spain — were being consulted on the draft deal ahead of it being confirmed on Tuesday. 

The deal will take the form of a five-year accord to suspend punitive tariffs linked to the disagreement, coupled with the creation of a working group and ministerial dialogue on subsidy limits, according to people close to the talks.

The intention is that this will ensure the disagreement never re-emerges, including for new aircraft models.

The breakthrough will lift a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the airline sector, while removing the threat that EU and US consumer goods could again be hit with punitive tariffs because of the dispute. 

Those duties — on a wide range of products, from French wine to US spirits and sugarcane molasses — were suspended after the EU and US agreed in March to lift them for four months and to start negotiations on a solution. 


$7.5bn


Extra tariffs imposed by the US on European goods in October 2019

The Airbus-Boeing dispute is one of the longest running battles in the history of the World Trade Organization — a disagreement both sides have acknowledged they could increasingly ill-afford as they seek to forge closer co-operation in dealing with China’s model of state capitalism. 

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis held talks with US trade representative Katherine Tai and commerce secretary Gina Raimondo in the days leading up the summit as the sides strove to get an agreement over the line. 

Tai’s office declined to comment.

Companies on both sides of the Atlantic have long called for a solution. The matter took on greater urgency after the US targeted European exports worth $7.5bn with extra tariffs in October 2019, while the EU imposed additional duties on $4bn of US exports last year. Both sets of measures were in line with WTO rulings in favour of each side.

But both the US and EU have been found over the years to have failed to properly implement WTO panel rulings on illegal subsidies for their aircraft manufacturing champions.

EU and US trade officials emphasised the complexity of the dispute, with each side taking issue with the other’s claim to have complied with WTO decisions. The nature of subsidies on each side of the Atlantic is also very different, with EU officials pointing to sizeable US defence contracts as one example. 

The end of the Airbus-Boeing dispute would remove one important irritant in trade relations, but others remain. 

Brussels last month held back from increasing tariffs on US goods as a goodwill gesture in a disagreement over Trump-era tariffs on European steel and aluminium. 

The two economies are also yet to fully bury their differences over digital taxes, with the issue now tied up with broader international talks. 

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Nato warns China’s military ambitions threaten international order

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Nato leaders have warned that China poses “systemic challenges” to the rules-based international order, in a sign of growing western unease over Beijing’s military ambitions.

Members of the transatlantic alliance convening in Brussels on Monday cited activities such as disinformation, Chinese military co-operation with Russia and the rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal as part of the threat, according to a Nato communiqué.

The strength of the statement shows how far relations between the west and Beijing have deteriorated in the 18 months since Nato countries last met. Then they had issued a cautious statement about the “opportunities and challenges” presented by China.

The tougher language at US president Joe Biden’s first Nato summit comes as members of the 72-year-old cold war-era military pact vowed to widen co-operation in new theatres of conflict from cyber space to outer space. The Nato communiqué followed a tougher line from the weekend’s G7 meeting, when the club of rich democracies criticised China over human rights, trade and a lack of transparency over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, insisted Beijing was “not an adversary” but said the alliance needed to “engage with China to defend our security interests”.

“There is a strong convergence of views among allies,” he said, adding that Nato was primarily concerned about Beijing’s activities in the group’s Euro-Atlantic sphere of operation. “China’s growing influence and international policies present challenges to alliance security.”

China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour” posed “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security”, said the summit communiqué, approved by the leaders of the 30 Nato member states.

“We call on China to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.”

The communiqué pointed to China’s “coercive policies”, its accumulation of nuclear warheads and sophisticated delivery systems, and its participation in Russian military exercises in Atlantic region waters. Another trend troubling Nato allies is the involvement of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure in Europe, such as ports and via telecommunications company Huawei.

Nato said it would aim for “constructive dialogue” with Beijing “where possible”, including on climate change, in a sign of more nuanced views held by some of the alliance’s members.

The Nato broadside reflects an attempt by the Biden administration to use his first European trip to mobilise allies to push back against China.

Beijing hit back at criticism by the G7 club of rich democracies this weekend, accusing the group of “sinister intentions” and “artificially creating confrontation and friction”.

The Nato leaders also pressed ahead with efforts to modernise a grouping originally set up as bulwark to the Soviet Union. Nato is now pulling back from an era of “expeditionary” international missions, with its forces preparing to leave Afghanistan along with US troops after almost two decades.

The Nato heads of state and government approved a cyber defence strategy and extended existing powers to invoke the alliance’s “Article 5” principle of collective defence, in cases of co-ordinated cyber attacks.

“[This] will upgrade the defence, political and intelligence dimensions of cyber across the alliance,” Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said before the meeting.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson had also called for more investment in cyber defences in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, when hostile states were accused of carrying out cyber attacks on allies’ health systems.

Nato leaders also pushed through measures to strengthen their collective response to attacks on satellites, and to build capabilities in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. Members of the alliance have become increasingly preoccupied with potential military uses of AI and with the growing activities of China and Russia in outer space.

As well as confronting external threats, Nato faces some chronic internal divisions, notably between Turkey and some member states such as France in the eastern Mediterranean.

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London



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Biden says he is open to exchange of cybercriminals with Putin

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US president Joe Biden said he was open to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s proposal to hand over cybercriminals to the US if Washington did the same for Moscow, just days before the two leaders meet for a summit in Geneva.

Biden and Putin will sit down in Switzerland on Wednesday for their first face-to-face meeting since the former was sworn in as US president. Both leaders said at the weekend that relations between their two countries were at a low point, but Biden’s latest comments suggested there could be room for co-operation.

Speaking at the conclusion of a meeting of G7 leaders in the UK on Sunday, Biden told reporters he was receptive to Putin’s suggestion of reciprocal extradition of cybercriminals responsible for disruptive ransomware attacks.

Earlier on Sunday, Russian state TV aired an interview with Putin in which the Russian president said that Moscow and Washington must “assume equal commitments”.

“Russia will naturally do that but only if the other side — in this case the United States — agrees to the same and will also extradite corresponding criminals to the Russian Federation.”

Asked about Putin’s comments, Biden said: “Yes, I am open to, if there are crimes committed against Russia, that in fact are people committing those crimes are being harboured in the United States, I am committed to holding them accountable.”

“I was told as I was flying here, that [Putin] said that,” Biden added. “I think that is potentially a good sign of progress.”

An increasing number of audacious ransomware attacks has paralysed companies in recent weeks. These have included the disruption of the Colonial Pipeline, which provides petroleum supplies for much of the US east coast, as well as operations at JBS, the Brazilian meat processing company. The White House has said it believes both attacks originated in Russia.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, later clarified that Biden had not signed up to a “prisoner swap”.

“What he was saying was that if Vladimir Putin wants to come and say I am prepared to make sure that cyber criminals are held accountable, Joe Biden is perfectly willing to show up and say cyber criminals can be held accountable in America, because they already are. That is what we do,” Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One en route to the Nato summit in Brussels, the second leg of Biden’s first foreign tour as president.

“This is not about exchanges or swaps or anything like that.”

Putin told NBC News in an interview that aired on Friday that relations between the US and Russia were at their “lowest point in recent years”. Biden on Sunday said that he agreed with the characterisation, but also pointed out areas where he believed the two countries could work together.

The White House confirmed on Saturday that Biden would hold a solo press conference following the summit with Putin, rather than share a stage as his predecessor Donald Trump did with the Russian president in Helsinki in 2018.

Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Belgium on Sunday for a Nato summit
Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One in Belgium on Sunday for a Nato summit © Benoit Doppagne/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“This is not a contest about who can do better in front of a press conference or try to embarrass each other,” Biden said. “It is about making myself very clear what the conditions are to get a better relationship.”

He added: “Russia has engaged in activities which we believe are contrary to international norms. But they have also bitten off some real problems they are going to have trouble chewing on. For example, the rebuilding of Syria, of Libya.”

“I am hopeful that we can find an accommodation that can save the lives of people in, for example, Libya.”



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