At the end of a summer afflicted by devastating floods, wildfires, and heatwaves, the 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) takes place just a few weeks before COP26, one of the most important climate change conferences ever.
Delivering an ambitious COP26 outcome requires governments to raise the ambition of their 2030 emission reduction targets – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – and developed countries to honour their 2009 pledge to mobilize $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries.
Making substantial progress on both these issues ahead of COP26 is critical, and the UNGA represents one of the last major high-level stages to make important announcements before Glasgow.
Meetings organized on the sidelines of UNGA can help accelerate action. On 17 September, US president Joe Biden is reconvening the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, and on 20 September UN secretary general Antonio Guterres and UK prime minister Boris Johnson are co-hosting a climate-focused closed-door meeting with world leaders.
The stakes could not be higher
A new Chatham House research paper shows that in the absence of substantial cuts in emissions this decade, severe climate change impacts will be locked in from 2040, many of which will be so dire that they go beyond what the world is able to adapt to.
By the 2030s, 400 million people per year are likely to be unable to work outside due to extreme heat, and the number of individuals exposed to life-threatening temperatures is likely to exceed ten million annually.
By 2040, it is probable around 3.9 billion people will suffer from a major heatwave every year and almost one-third of global cropland will be exposed to severe drought on an annual basis.
But efforts to address the climate crisis are dangerously off-track. If policy ambition, investment, and the deployment of low-carbon technologies continue along current trajectories, the global average temperature is likely to rise by 2.7°C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial levels.
There is a risk, however, that the increase could be 3.5°C and, should policies and action backslide, a catastrophic scenario of a 7°C warming cannot be ruled out.
COP26 is a key opportunity to put the world on a safer pathway. Ahead of the conference, governments are expected to communicate new or updated NDCs. To date 85 countries and the EU27 have done so while a few governments have proposed revised targets but not yet submitted them officially. Some of the NDC updates have been relatively ambitious, but collectively they only narrow the gap to 1.5°C by 15 per cent at best.
Around 70 countries have not yet submitted new or updated NDCs and several – including G20 economies Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Russia – have done so without increasing their ambition.
The UNGA – a leaders-level platform on ‘neutral’ ground and with global representation – is an attractive stage for making important announcements. It was at the UNGA in 2020 that President Xi Jinping conveyed China would aim to become carbon neutral by 2060.
With the clock ticking to COP26, it is crucial governments use the UNGA to announce stronger NDCs as well as concrete measures – such as phasing down production and use of coal, oil, and gas – essential to meeting climate targets. Special focus is on the G20 members and especially the world’s largest emitter – China.
Ramping up climate finance is another critical issue. More than a decade ago, developed countries committed to mobilizing an annual $100 billion in climate finance by 2020. Honouring this pledge will not solve the climate crisis in developing countries but is essential for building trust and raising ambition. UNGA is a key moment to increase financial commitments and provide confidence that the goal will be met.
Leadership from the US is essential. While most developed countries are failing to provide their ‘fair share’ of climate finance, the US is among those considered to be particularly off-track. Other key actors to watch at UNGA are Germany and Canada, who are leading the process of developing a delivery plan for the annual $100 billion.
Importantly, as underscored in the most recent IPCC report, it is still possible to limit the rise in the global average temperature to 1.5°C – but the window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Governments must urgently rise to the occasion and use the UNGA to communicate strong NDC enhancements and increased financial commitments, setting the stage for an ambitious COP26.
As John Kerry said at an event co-hosted by Chatham House this summer, ‘This test is now as acute and as existential as any previous one’.