Footnote to leaders speeches from day one

The BRIC Bloc
In my blog yesterday, I noted that some of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters had yet to commit to a credible trajectory for net zero emissions by mid-century, as envisaged under the Paris agreement. Notable among those are Brazil, Russia, India, and China, often referred to as the BRIC Bloc. Yesterday’s COP26 engagements afforded BRIC members an opportunity to outline their climate ambitions, but what did they say?

Brazil’s emissions have been rising rapidly, largely due to deforestation of the Amazon, so it was a welcome development that the country aims to stamp out illegal logging over the next seven years. Better late than never, with more than one-sixth of the rainforest having been flattened to harvest wood or create grazing land. The UK Presidency of COP26 is this morning hosting a seminar dedicated to forests and land use, and the Conference today is expected to see a large cohort of countries signing up to a pledge to eliminate deforestation by 2030.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro’s recent pledge of net zero emissions by 2050 is also to be welcomed, although it remains to be seen whether the associated interim target of a 50% reduction by 2030 will be backed up by meaningful policy actions. As I mentioned in yesterday’s Ibec Voices podcast, there remains potential for conflict between international trade agreements and environmental protection, a challenge raised during COP26 proceedings by French President Emmanuel Macron. Closer to home it has also been raised by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in the context of sectoral targets in Ireland’s impending Climate Action Plan.

President Vladimir Putin opted not to attend the COP. His country’s target for 2030, a reduction of 30%, entirely lacks ambition, given the contraction in the Russian economy during the decades after the specified baseline year, 1990. Its indicative long-term target of net zero by 2060 therefore lacks credibility.

Yesterday’s announcement by Narendra Modi, , that India would commit to net zero by 2070 was broadly welcomed despite its obvious incompatibility with the Paris Agreement’s 2050 timeline. The country’s economy is heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels, including coal. Emissions from agriculture (especially rice growing) are also significant. Its 2030 interim target is expressed as a 45% reduction in emissions intensity, supported by ambitious levels of investment in renewables. Modi cautioned, though, that progress towards climate neutrality in India and other developing nations would be contingent on access to much greater levels of climate finance than has so far been forthcoming.

President Xi Jinping also declined the invitation to attend COP26 in person. Not being permitted to deliver a video address, he instead offered a brief written statement which, while acknowledging the need for a solid multilateral climate action, made no new promises on the national ambition. The Chinese government has set a target of 2060 for climate neutrality and its COP delegation seems unlikely to be persuaded to bring this forward to 2050 despite continuing pressure from other Parties at the Conference.

China’s reluctance to set an interim reduction target (beyond merely flattening the upward curve by 2030) may well reflect a downgrading of climate policy as a domestic priority. Even more than India, its huge manufacturing industry is heavily dependent on imports of coal and oil, commodities whose prices have soared in recent months. This concern over energy supply security was implicitly acknowledged by Australian premier Scott Morrison, whose otherwise upbeat speech emphasized the role of science and technology in bringing down the cost of cleaner energy sources such as hydrogen and solar. Meanwhile, the Australian government shows no inclination to cut back on coal production, whether for export to Asian markets or for its own electricity generation needs.


What does this mean for Irish business?
This early stage of the Conference is primarily setting the scene for closed-door discussions by the EU and other Parties over the next two weeks. The opening statements do not necessarily correspond with their fall-back positions. But by enhancing peer pressure at the outset, they can help to foster a spirit of cooperation rather than entrenchment. The outcome of these negotiations will determine how far the ambition gap between Europe and its trading partners can be closed between now and 2030, whether for clean energy, or for sustainable land use and agriculture. In turn, this will inform the degree to which Irish and European industries will need to lobby the European Commission to maintain or enhance protective measures to prevent carbon leakage and investment leakage.