The UN’s climate chief says deadlines set by some of the world’s top polluters to end greenhouse gas emissions have boosted hopes of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals
The accord, signed in the French capital five years ago, aims to keep global warming well below 2C (3.6F) — ideally at no more than 1.5C (2.7F).
Experts say the world is far off track and that – with average temperatures already up by about 1C (2F) – drastic action is needed in the next 30 years.
However, the recent announcement by China, the world’s top polluter, that it will phase out emissions by 2060 – as well as pledges by Japan and South Korea to do the same by 2050 – have drawn cautious optimism from climate campaigners.
Their hopes were further boosted by Joe Biden’s election win earlier this month and his pledge to undo President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Patricia Espinosa, climate change executive secretary at the UN, said: “These announcements are really extraordinary.
“Just a few months ago, I don’t think anybody would have really predicted that we would see these kinds of announcements at this time. And especially in the middle of the pandemic.”
Ms Espinosa said countries’ willingness to commit to tougher emissions limits shows that curbing global warming remains a political priority — and that the target set in Paris is a possibility.
“Science has told us that we still have a chance to achieve it,” she told the Associated Press.
“Looking at these announcements, I think that we should be also having even more hope.”
However, Ms Espinosa cautioned against complacency. She added: “I don’t want to sound like it’s a done deal. We are still far from there.”
The pandemic brought a sudden halt to the UN’s carousel of climate meetings, disrupting complex negotiations on a wide range of environmental issues and forcing the postponement of the annual climate summit.
“It has been challenging,” Ms Espinosa said by video from her agency’s headquarters in Bonn, Germany. “It does not substitute the in-person contacts but it works.”
In some ways, however, the coronavirus crisis has proved to be an opportunity to change old habits, she added.
Recalling her globe-trotting days as Mexico’s top diplomat from 2006 to 2012, which sometimes included two long-distance flights a day, Ms Espinosa said: “Everybody is clear that we will not go back to the normal that we had before the pandemic.
“You cannot continue to travel like you used to travel.”
The 62-year-old praised young people in particular for being willing to adapt, forgoing habits such as owning cars and indulging in meat-heavy diets that scientists say need to change.
“This deep transformation is very much going to be driven by the youth,” Ms Espinosa said.
But she stressed the importance of political leadership in weaning economies off fossil fuels – especially in countries where large numbers of jobs are tied to the extraction of oil, natural gas and coal.
She added that governments will also have to look beyond national interests when it comes to investing in low-carbon solutions.
That will mean denying Covid-19 economic recovery funds to polluting industries while giving 100 billion dollars (£75 billion) a year to help poor countries tackle climate change – as world leaders pledged in Paris.
Ms Espinosa said: “It is absolutely indispensable that we align those recovery packages to the goals of the Paris agreement.
“We should not go back to the past. We cannot continue to invest in a grey future.”
Her comments were echoed on Thursday by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who called on the European Union to ramp up its emissions target for 2030 from a 40% cut to at least 55%.
In a speech to the European Council of Foreign Relations, Mr Guterres said: “I urge you to continue to lead with concrete and ambitious near-term commitments.”
The bloc, which has also tentatively committed to reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050, is in talks to earmark parts of a vast stimulus package for ‘green recovery’ projects.
Mr Guterres added: “The proposed 1.85 trillion euro (£1.64 trillion) investment package is an opportunity to invest in measures and technologies needed to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.”