LONDON: A potential change in US leadership, combined with China's ambitious new emissions-cutting plan and a European "green recovery", could get the world two-thirds of the way to meeting its climate goals if pledges are met, scientists said on Wednesday (Sep 23).
Democrat Joe Biden, who hopes to beat climate-change sceptic US President Donald Trump in November's election, has promised to set a US goal for net-zero emissions by 2050, while China made a surprise vow this week to become "carbon-neutral" before 2060.
The European Union, meanwhile, has agreed to spend at least 30 per cent of its hefty coronavirus recovery stimulus on climate action as it advances towards its own net-zero goal, according to new analysis from research coalition Climate Action Tracker.
The three carbon-cutting targets, combined with pledges by smaller nations, would take the world 63 per cent of the way towards the emissions reductions needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, said Niklas Hohne of Germany's NewClimate Institute.
"That's a huge number and totally different to what we saw before," Hohne, a climate scientist and contributor to the tracker, told a New York Climate Week online panel.
If the US policy shift comes through, on top of the EU and China commitments, "there's real hope it can work", he added.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nearly 200 countries agreed to hold global average temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, with an aim of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Keeping planetary heating below that level could help avoid some of the worst predicted impacts of climate change, from wilder weather and sea level rise to growing migration and shortages of food and water, scientists say.
But initial pledges under the Paris pact had put the world on a path for about 3 degrees Celsius of warming.
Researchers said the brighter prospects for emissions cuts came despite disappointing progress on making COVID-19 recovery spending green, which is seen as key to driving climate action.
An analysis of 106 economic recovery policies in China, the European Union, India, the United States and South Korea found that only the EU and Korean packages included spending with clear climate benefits.
Much of China's stimulus was an unclear mix of green and "red" measures that could undermine climate action, it said, while India's policies were mostly neutral or potentially damaging – such as a plan to open 40 new coal mines.
The United States had the largest share of clear support for fossil fuels, the analysis showed.
"The overall picture is not looking good," said Deborah Ramalope, head of climate policy analysis at Germany-based Climate Analytics, which helps run the Climate Action Tracker.
A separate index released on Wednesday, exploring the effect of stimulus spending on climate action and biodiversity protection, found that only four G20 country recovery plans would have a net positive benefit on nature and the climate.
Overall, G20 governments plan to spend more than US$12 trillion on economic stimulus, with about 9 per cent going to measures that hurt the environment and 5 per cent to measures that help it, said researchers from the Finance for Biodiversity initiative and UK-based Vivid Economics.
Problematic stimulus measures range from no-strings-attached bailouts for dirty energy firms and weaker fuel-efficiency standards to cancelled renewable energy auctions, Climate Action Tracker researchers said.
Globally, about 1 per cent of gross domestic product is invested in green technologies and infrastructure, said Hohne – but to keep to the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming limit, that figure needs to rise by about 1.2 per cent of GDP each year.
A greener focus for the trillions that will be spent to restart coronavirus-stalled economies could help drive that, he said, adding it seemed "in the order of magnitude of what's possible".
Bill Hare, a scientist with Climate Analytics, said he was confident China would move ahead with its new promise to become carbon-neutral, noting Beijing's announcements "usually are made with the intent of achieving them".
READ: Big promises, but can China be carbon neutral by 2060?
China's much-criticised support for expanding coal-fired power plants abroad also "might be turning around", he said, as renewable energy investment increases under its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
Hohne said geopolitical shifts were making him more optimistic about achieving global climate goals.
"It all needs to be implemented – but for today, I'm very hopeful," he said.