The Earth Day Summit: what does it mean for COP26 and the UK?

The US is hosting the Earth Day Summit

The climate crisis “relentlessly” intensified in 2020, according to the UN World Meteorological Organisation. With efforts to tackle climate change derailed by Covid-19 and the delay of COP26, we entered 2021 with global discourse on meeting the Paris Agreement’s 2% target in near total disarray.

Then in late January Joe Biden assumed office as the US President. After four years of Trump’s administration tearing apart climate legislation, it looked like the world’s largest consuming market was ready to take the lead in bringing the world together to combat the climate crisis.

But where has his Earth Day Summit come from? What is it? What are its challenges and, perhaps most importantly, what does it mean for COP26 and the UK?

Biden and the climate

Biden has made clear that the climate crisis is a priority for his administration. During his inaugural speech he proclaimed that:

A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.

Joe Biden

And unlike some other global leaders he appears to be backing up his words with some action. He has rolled back many of Trump’s more damaging policies and has implemented several key pledges including a promise to slash US emissions by 50% by 2030. His ‘American Jobs Plan’ in March was full of new funding for green energy, electric vehicles and long overdue government funded research of clean tech. Of course he could, and should, be doing more; but it still marks a radical – and critical – change in American climate policy.

Beyond domestic policy, Biden is looking to repair the US’s global credibility following four years of Trump. As well as re-joining the Paris Agreement he announced the Earth Day Summit to reposition the US as a global leader on climate and to build momentum in this, the most crucial of years for action.

What is the Earth Day Summit?

The Earth Day Summit is 2021’s first major climate conference. The US has invited 40 countries to this virtual event, invitees include the world’s 17 largest polluters – responsible for 80% of global emissions. Biden will try and inspire a drive for change and build momentum towards COP26 in November. The centrepiece of the event this week will be Biden’s announcement of a new nationally determined contribution (NDC).

The administration is also set to announce a US finance plan that will result in billions of dollars of funding to help developing nations tackle climate change, in particular by adopting green energy. There is also a new climate disclosure standard that will force institutions to evaluate the long term risk of climate degradation. This is the world leading action that we need others in the developed world to be taking too.

What are the challenges?

The main challenge is unchanged since the Paris Agreement in 2015. Words on climate, and individual pledges are to be applauded, but a lack of genuine action and policy implementation means we have not yet seen the progress globally that we need to prevent catastrophe.

Many also question whether the US alone can drive such global change. Their international credibility is in tatters after years of inaction and many question whether any global action can be successful without the cooperation of polluting giants like China.

On the latter point there is some hope, Xi Jinping has agreed to attend the Earth Day Summit and the Chinese president appears to be starting to take the crisis seriously, albeit without yet showing anything close to the pace needed to stay below 2%.

Furthermore, increased activism, particularly amongst the youth, have been driving interest and action up from the bottom. The Earth Uprising International talks took place on the 20th (April?) and the young activists ‘opening demands’ are due to be presented at the Earth Day Summit.

There is no denying that Biden, and his climate envoy John Kerry, face an uphill struggle. There is still far too much apathy and far too little action around the world to say we are on the right path. But America’s change in policy, and the Earth Day Summit are key indicators that, as a planet, we might be starting to head in the right direction.

What does it mean for COP26 and the UK?

COP26 is still the climate event of the year. Despite being plagued by controversies including its delay, lack of female leadership and the hosting UK government’s dubious climate credentials, it still marks the biggest opportunity for a global agreement in 2021. The Earth Day Summit is not a COP replacement, Biden’s aim is to build momentum and inspire change; and now the UK needs to rise to meet the challenge and deliver a COP that matches US, and global, ambition. We cannot call ourselves climate leaders if we are not at the forefront of global change.

This is the year for action. The climate is changing, and the impacts are already too costly for people and the planet. Countries need to submit, well ahead of COP26, ambitious plans to cut global emissions by 45% by 2030.

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres

Johnson looks like he may be aiming to use climate action as a way to rekindle the UK’s relationship with the US, however the UK has a long way to go. Recent commitments from other global leaders like the EU show that the UK isn’t the only other government looking to provide climate leadership. No government has yet shown the ambition, policy or funding required to meet the Paris Agreement’s 2% target, but in a time where pledges mean little, leaders must be showing the drive for action and consistent decision making to be taken seriously on a world stage.

The UK Prime Minister must do much better if he wants to engage with this newfound US climate leadership. We must be partners that push each other to greatness rather than Johnson allowing himself to be stubbornly tugged along as other leaders make the necessary choices to save our planet.

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