The last year saw a raft of major sustainability stories emerge. From promises made on climate targets at COP 26, to soaring carbon emissions as economies kick-started on the road to recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The EU agrees to a Climate Target for 2030
Back in April 2021, positive signs emerged that nations were making progress towards committing to new climate targets for 2030, in a step to tackle climate change and to meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, signed in 2016. The Paris Climate Agreement aims to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees centigrade, and preferably within a maximum rise of 1.5C, to prevent the worst effects of climate change.
EU negotiators announced an agreement on The European Climate Law which will enshrine the EU’s commitment to reaching climate neutrality by 2050. Parties were also able to make an agreement to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, when compared to 1990 levels. At the time European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated: “Our political commitment to becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 is now also a legal commitment.” Adding “The Climate Law sets the EU on a green path for a generation.”[i]
‘Race to Zero Breakthroughs’ announced ahead of COP26
With the Cop26 event looming in November 2021, the preceding months delivered several Net Zero announcements. Firstly, weeks ahead of the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall in June, it was announced that world leaders had reached a joint commitment to ensure their power sectors reach net-zero by the 2030’s. Leaders from the UK, the US, Japan, Canada, Germany, France and Italy met virtually at the end of May, where they signed a communique which commits G7 members to ending financial support to the coal sector within the next decade[ii]. This is significant particularly given Japan’s reliance upon, and support for coal:
“Coal accounted for 31% of Japan’s electricity generation in the 2019-20 financial year and it is believed to be the world’s second-largest coal supporter, behind only China.”[iii]
Also ahead of COP, October 2021 saw the UK release its' Net-Zero Strategy[iv]. This strategy beefed-up the UK’s previously announced ‘10 point plan for a green industrial revolution’, laying the foundations for a green economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19. The government stated that the Newer Net-Zero Strategy “builds on that approach [the 10-point plan] to keep us on track for UK carbon budgets, our 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution, and net zero by 2050. It includes:
· decarbonisation pathways to net zero by 2050, including illustrative scenarios
· policies and proposals to reduce emissions for each sector
· cross-cutting action to support the transition”[v]
The big story in 2021 was of course COP26, where a range of promising commitments were made
COP26 saw several key commitments made, the most significant of which were delivered right at the end of the event. The conference concluded with agreement on a new climate deal - The 'Glasgow Climate Pact' signed by over 200 nations. The agreement called on all countries to set new climate targets by the end of 2022, as well as for the phasing-down of unabated coal use.
Other key announcements included:
- Prior to the conference, India had declined to set targets for reaching Net Zero. However, it was announced early into COP26 that the nation would target Net Zero by 2070[vi]. Significantly, India also announced a target to source 50% of its energy from renewable resources by 2030, as well as reducing the carbon intensity of the nation’s economy (the amount of goods produced per unit of energy) by 45% by 2030.
- More than 100 countries signed up to cutting emissions of methane by 3% from 2020 levels, with this targeted to happen by 2030. Termed “The Global Methane Pledge” signatories represented countries which account for nearly half of global methane emissions and 70 per cent of global GDP[vii]. Importantly, one of the 5 biggest contributors to Methane emissions, Brazil, did sign the agreement, leaving Australia, China, Russia and India who did not sign.
- Over 100 national leaders signed to a pledge to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade. Such measures are vital, given that (as reported by the World Resources Institute) forests absorb almost 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Yet the world lost 258,000 square km of forest in 2020 alone (20 million hectares). Further, the pledge aims to restore at least 200 million hectares of forest and other ecosystems by 2030; to put this into context this equates to an area slightly larger than Mexico (196 million hectares).
However, 2021 ended on a negative, as recovery from the pandemic drove a surge in emissions
Following the relaxation of many coronavirus restrictions, alongside the roll-out of vaccine programmes, many countries saw life begin to return to something more akin to normality; at least for extended parts of 2021. The opening up of global societies also helped to boost consumer confidence, leading to greater footfall and an increase in economic activity. The impact has also been felt with fossil fuels; where 2020 saw a decline in demand, 2021’s economic rebound had seen significant uptick in consumption. In a report released in April 2021, the IEA (International Energy Agency) predicted that global energy-related CO2 emissions would rebound and grow by 4.8%, this would be the result of increased demand for coal, oil and gas which would spike in demand as economies bounced back. At the time they stated: “The increase of over 1 500 Mt CO2 would be the largest single increase since the carbon-intensive economic recovery from the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, it leaves global emissions in 2021 around 400 Mt CO2, or 1.2%, below the 2019 peak.”[viii]
The increase in emissions for 2021 is forecast to be the second biggest in history, second only to the rebound from the financial crisis
Source: Guardian- referencing IEA[ix]
Summary: Outlook for sustainability in 2022 remains unclear, as the pandemic continues
Whilst 2021 saw several positive steps taken towards climate targets, as well as the delivery of pledges around Net Zero, the pandemic has had a continued impact on not only carbon emissions themselves, but other contributing factors such as consumer behaviour, business practices, and government policy. As we move into 2022, the new variant ‘Omicron’ has plunged the world back into a mire of uncertainty. Whilst initial data points to the strain being milder, we are again seeing variations in how governments and leaders intend to tackle the impact moving forwards. Covid-19 is likely to remain a major factor in sustainability for the next year. Whilst uncertainty and disruption from the pandemic continues, much of the emissions data we see is further distorted due numerous reasons, including a reduction in productivity, switch to cheaper fossil fuels, change in consumer behaviour, etc. As such 2022 could pose the following challenges/outcomes relating to the pandemic:
- Global transport continues to suffer- With countries continuing to close borders and consumers less inclined to travel (either by air, land, or sea) emissions will remain lower than prior to the pandemic. However, it is likely that once restrictions again relax and confidence returns, transport will see a boost, leading to a subsequent spike in carbon emissions (particularly from air travel).
- In a drive to kick-start productivity, nations slip back into a reliance on fossil fuels as a cheaper means of energy production. We have already seen this with India and China, and it will become more likely given the stop, start effect, the Omicron variant appears to be having within some countries as once again we see lockdown measures enforced.
- The cost of the pandemic will leave emerging and developing nations reluctant to commit to more stringent climate targets in 2022. It may also have a longer-term impact which leads to a reversal or softening of commitments by other countries, as the financial implications of the pandemic hit home.
- Increased prices and geopolitical issues relating to the supply of fuels, and in particular gas, will continue. Consumers in many markets will face increased costs as supply-chains see continued disruption and throttling.
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