Boris Johnson has said that tackling climate change will create millions of new jobs around the world.
Speaking at a virtual summit on the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, he said a green recovery from Covid would generate opportunities for high-skilled workers.
Despite high hopes, China made measured carbon-cutting pledges, which some campaigners branded as underwhelming.
The UN’s chief called on all countries to declare a climate emergency.
UK Prime Minister Mr Johnson said: “We know that scientific advances will allow us, collectively as humanity, to save our planet and create millions of high-skilled jobs as we recover from Covid.”
He said the year was coming to an end with “a certain amount of scientific optimism” because “barely 12 months after the start of the pandemic, we’re seeing the vaccine going into the arms of the elderly”.
He added: “Together we can use scientific advances to protect our entire planet – our biosphere – against a challenge far worse, far more destructive even than the coronavirus. And by the promethean power of our invention, we can begin to defend the Earth against the disaster of global warming.”
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General António Guterres criticised rich countries for spending 50% more of their pandemic recovery cash on fossil fuels compared to low-carbon energy.
Mr Guterres said that 38 countries had already declared a climate emergency and he called on leaders worldwide to now do the same.
He said the emergency would only end when carbon neutrality was reached. Carbon neutrality means that emissions have been reduced as much as possible and any remaining ones are balanced by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere,
On the Covid recovery spending, he said that this is money being borrowed from future generations.
“We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden future generations with a mountain of debt on a broken planet,” he said.
The secretary general praised those countries who have come to today’s meeting with new targets and plans.
Over 70 world leaders have been speaking at the meeting organised by the UK, UN and France. It is taking place after the pandemic caused the postponement of the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting, which had been due to take place in Glasgow this year.
A number of big emitters, including Australia, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Mexico, are not taking part, as their climate actions were not deemed ambitious enough.
The UK has announced an end to support for overseas fossil fuel projects, and has today deposited a new climate plan with the UN.
It’s the first time that Britain has had to do this, as it was previously covered by the European Union’s climate commitments.
The UK pointed to its new commitment on overseas fossil fuel projects as well as a new carbon cutting target of 68% by 2030, announced last week by the prime minister.
The EU also presented a new 2030 target of a 55% cut in emissions, agreed after all-night negotiations this week. “That is now Europe’s calling card,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. “It is the go-ahead for scaling up climate action across our economy and society.”
China’s President Xi Jinping reiterated a previous commitment to reach peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
He announced that China would reduce its carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by over 65% compared with 2005 levels. The country will also increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by about 25%. And President Xi pledged to increase forest cover and boost wind and solar capacity.
But Manish Bapna, executive vice president and managing director of the World Resources Institute (WRI) said: “The strengthened renewable energy, carbon intensity, and forest targets are steps in the right direction, but recent WRI analysis shows that China would benefit more economically and socially if it aims higher, including by peaking emissions as early as possible.”
Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, said the country’s renewable energy capacity was on target to reach 175 Gigawatts by 2022, and it would aim to boost this to 450 Gigawatts by 2030. He added that India was on track to exceed the targets in the Paris Agreement.
Although President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris pact, the summit saw statements from the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, and the Democrat governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, who said the US was “all-in” on tackling climate change.
Pope Francis said the Vatican had committed to reaching net zero emissions, similar to carbon neutrality, before 2050. “The time has come to change course. Let us not rob future generations of the hope for a better future,” he said.
Australia had held out the promise of not using old carbon credits to meet future cuts in emissions.
But the UK felt that this didn’t go far enough and the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison won’t be taking part.
Some observers believe this hard line on some countries is justified.
“From a kind of symbolic procedural point of view, it’s good to have everybody on board,” said Prof Heike Schroeder from the University of East Anglia.
“But from a proactive, creating some kind of sense of urgency approach it also makes sense to say we only get to hear from you if you have something new to say.”
The UK wants the focus to be on the countries who are set to make new net zero announcements, or present new plans for 2030.
The five years since the Paris agreement was adopted have been the warmest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and emissions have continued to accrue in the atmosphere.
As many leaders were keen to stress at the summit, many countries and businesses have started the process of decarbonisation in that time.
The progress they’ve made now needs to be acknowledged and encouraged, says former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres.
“For this Saturday, they are focusing on the reduction of emissions, and that is a good thing because that progress that’s been seen in the real economy has to be reflected and incentivised further by those additional commitments.”
One area that’s unlikely to yield any progress at this meeting is the question of finance. Rich countries have promised to mobilise $100bn a year from 2020 under the Paris agreement – but the commitments on cash are just not forthcoming.
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