2021: A ‘super year’ for climate and environment action

COVID-19 has created a unique convergence of environment and economic summits in 2021. But the world must unite to seize the moment for success to be achieved.

Explainer Updated 13 October 2022 Published 22 March 2021 4 minute READ

Antony Froggatt

Former Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director, Environment and Society Centre

Updated 21 September 2021:

2021 is a crucial test of the world’s ability to meet the severe threat posed by climate change and biodiversity loss and to capitalize on the opportunities provided by a transition to net-zero societies. Here we explore why, and update on progress made at major ‘super year’ events.

Why is 2021 a ‘super year’ for the climate and environment?

COVID-19 pushed major environmental summits scheduled to be held in 2020 – such as the UN Food Systems Summit, UN Biodiversity Summit (CBD COP15) and the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP26) – into 2021. The presidency of COP26 is shared between the Italian and UK governments, who are also chairing the 2021 G20 and G7 meetings.

This created an unparalleled opportunity for synergies between the summits and for leverage of the G20 and G7, theoretically increasing the chances of successful outcomes at the climate, food, and biodiversity events.  

Taken together these factors have created a ‘super year’ of global activity, offering a precious opportunity to integrate good environmental policy with an enormous global fiscal stimulus.

The sense of urgency and feasibility in discussions about environmental action has also increased: climate science has advanced dramatically in the last five years and the price of mitigation technologies has fallen significantly.

At the same time, the risks posed by climate change, such as extreme weather events, droughts, and floods are starting to be realised, impacting communities worldwide with increased frequency.

Floods in China, Western Europe, and New York, forest fires and extreme heat in the United States – these events bring the realities of the climate emergency close to home for those best placed to address it.

Climate change is also increasingly impacting national security:, restricting access to food and raw materials, diverting government finance to adaptation and resilience and changing the patterns of migration, fuelling instability and conflict.

The ‘super year’ is not only about climate issues

2021 is a critical year for tackling the climate emergency at COP26 but is also critical for the wider sustainability agenda.

The UN Food Systems Summit in September aims to transform the way the world produces and consumes food. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) summit, COP15, is now split into two; part 1 takes place in October 2021 in Kunming, China and then in the spring of 2022.

The event is expected to assess the delivery of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and adopt the Global Diversity Framework for the post-2020 period. This should lay out what countries need to do, both individually and collectively, to achieve the CBD’s overall vision of ‘living in harmony with nature’ by 2050.

How might the pandemic and subsequent postponement affect summits such as COP26?

The delay to COP26 has had some positive impacts because several key nations were poorly placed to prepare for the event scheduled in 2020. The UK, as host nation, was distracted by the politics of Brexit, and the US presidential election would have been held only days before the conference.

2021 hopefully provides a more stable and potentially ambitious platform, with President Biden well into his first term, China having set a target for carbon neutrality, and a number of other countries and regions such as the EU, Japan, South Korea and US revising carbon reduction plans.

Discussions will also take place following the pandemic’s extraordinary demonstration of systemic and cascading risk. No nation can now deny a globalized world faces interconnected threats which require far-reaching and co-ordinated action.

How does COP26 compare to previous UN Climate Change Conferences?

The UN’s Climate Change Conferences take place annually, but COP26 in Glasgow is considered the most important climate conference since COP21 in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was adopted.  

The Paris Agreement allows nations to devise their own climate change pledges, or ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs), and this ‘bottom-up approach’ was critical to enabling the adoption of the agreement.

However, commitments made at COP21 were not nearly ambitious enough. Even if implemented, they do not meet the goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, let alone 1.5 degrees.

The Paris Agreement allows for ambition to be increased over time and governments are due to submit updated – and hopefully more ambitious – pledges ahead of COP26.

COP26 must generate Paris’ enabling atmosphere and desire but with significantly more ambitious carbon reduction commitments from world leaders. It also needs to increase financial support to the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries.

It is important to emphasize that for many of the world’s poorest – and often most climate-vulnerable – countries, fiscal stimulus remains an out-of-reach luxury. Supporting the efforts of these nations to simultaneously address the economic, health, climate change, and biodiversity destruction crises they are faced with is essential.

What example can the UK set as conference host?

The UK is widely regarded as good on climate policy – the 2008 Climate Change Act was the first of its kind in trying to bind future governments to climate change targets. The UK is also phasing out coal faster than other countries and has the most ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or emissions targets – a 68 per cent cut by 2030.

However, it is generally agreed there remains a significant gap between the UK’s ambition and action, with real challenges in sectors such as housing and transport where necessary change is still being avoided. It must address these sectors to be credible.

The UK must also use its position as a climate policy leader to encourage other developed and developing economies to follow suit and set the most ambitious possible 2030 targets.

What is needed for success in 2021’s ‘super year’?

What is needed above all is unity. The biggest threat to success at all the conferences is that trade and other geopolitical tensions, such as those between the United States, China and the EU, destabilize talks. Vaccine disputes have shown disagreements can still emerge even when the common need is well-established.

Finance is all important

Threats posed by climate change and biodiversity loss are too universal – and too severe – for us to allow them to be derailed by territorial arguments and domestic politics.

The magic money tree is there. Let’s use it.

Nations must use the talks as a vehicle to de-escalate tensions rather than inflame them. Building trust between developed and developing countries is also key to success, and finance plays an important role here.

There is also a need to create confidence. Chatham House associate fellow Kirsty Hamilton has spoken of the need for ‘long, loud and legal’ climate policies which send a clear signal to businesses around the world from all governments – but particularly major emitters such as the US, India, and China – that real change is coming by 2030. People must be sure agreements are not unstable or for show.

Content contd.

The world must seize the moment. The post-pandemic era is a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to invest in the capital and labour-intensive solutions required to adapt economies for a zero-carbon future.

And uncomfortable truths must be faced – powerful interests lose from a future where the world eats less meat, burns less petrol, and makes less conventional steel and concrete, but everyone knows the consequences of inaction.

No country can sidestep or profit from the effects of runaway climate change. This ‘super year’ is a unique opportunity to commit to positive action and it would be a unique failure if we fail to seize the moment.

Explore our timeline of economic and environment events in 2021

G7 leaders attend a working session on the international economy, trade, and international security in Biarritz, south-west France. Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/AFP via Getty Images.

G7 leaders attend a working session on the international economy, trade, and international security in Biarritz, south-west France. Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/AFP via Getty Images.

— G7 leaders at the 2019 summit in Biarritz, south-west France. Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/AFP via Getty Images.

Spring 2021

A Chinese security officer wears a protective mask at the end of the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

A Chinese security officer wears a protective mask at the end of the closing session of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

5-11

March

China’s National People’s Congress

China’s top legislature met to approve the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025), the country’s centralised and integrated economic guidelines.    

Outcome: In September 2020 the Chinese government announced a carbon neutral target date of 2060. Many hoped the Congress would follow with a clear target for a peak carbon date, perhaps in 2030, but this was not delivered at the Congress. The plan seemed largely the same as it would have been without the 2060 target being set.

The 14th Five Year Plan outline proposes to increase the share of non-fossil energy in total energy consumption to around 20% by 2025, up from 15.8% in 2020. The plan also put forward a 18% reduction target for “CO2 intensity” and 13.5% reduction target for “energy intensity” from 2021 to 2025. 

Additionally, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) launched the formulation of the “action plan for peak emission by 2030” which requires provincial governments to formulate a “provincial peak emission action plan” by April 2021. MEE is expected to propose new national GHG targets between late 2021 and early 2022.

31

March

Climate Change and Development Ministerial

The conference brought together ministers representing donor countries and countries most vulnerable to climate change to establish how barriers to climate action and development might be removed.

Outcome:  The UK Government pledged to work with Fiji and other interested countries to initiate a new Task Force on access to finance. The aim will be to agree to pilot a new approach in some pioneer countries by COP26. 

The UK Government also announced its intention to host consultations, in cooperation with Chile, with parties and other stakeholders with a view to advancing operationalisation of the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage ahead of COP26.

22

April

Leaders’ Climate Summit

The United States hosted this summit on Earth Day, and was widely expected to announce its own NDC. Policymakers were watching closely for the signal it would send about the intentions of one of the world’s largest emitters.

Outcome: Over thirty heads of state spoke at the event. A number of countries, including the US, Brazil, Japan, Canada, South Korea and the UK, either announced they were revising their NDCs and/or put forward further mitigation plans. In particular the US announced a 2030 target for the 1st time, of 50-52% below 2005 levels.

6-7

May

12th Petersberg Climate Dialogue

The Petersberg Climate Dialogue brings together ministers from a range of countries to discuss climate action.

September 2021

UN General Assembly

UN General Assembly

3-11

September

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress

The Congress gathers IUCN’s 1300+ government, indigenous peoples’ and civil society member organisations. The conference has seven themes: landscapes; freshwater; oceans; climate change; economic and financial systems; knowledge, innovation and technology; and rights and governance.

14

September

15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP15)

14-30

September

Opening of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA)

20-26

September

New York Climate Week

28-30

September

Youth4Climate Summit

Italy is hosting a climate summit for youth as part of its co-presidency of COP26.

30-2

September/ October

Preparatory meeting ahead of the 26th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Pre-COP)

November and December 2021

Thousands of people attend a rally for sustainable climate law in Paris, France on March 28,2021.

Thousands of people attend a rally for sustainable climate law in Paris, France on March 28,2021.

1-12

November

26th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP26)

The COP26 presidency has set four goals for the conference: ‘a step change in commitments to emissions reductions’; ‘strengthening adaptation to climate change impacts’; ‘getting finance flowing for climate action’; and ‘enhancing international collaboration, including for the COP26 campaigns on energy, clean road transport and nature’. The presidency is encouraging all countries to submit ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and net-zero strategies ahead of the summit.

TBC

December

Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit

The N4G Summit is hosted by Japan. Governments, businesses and other relevant stakeholders are encouraged to make commitments covering one or more of the three focus areas the Government of Japan has identified as critical to achieving the global targets on ending malnutrition: food, health, and resilience.