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Why 2020 offers a 'window of opportunity'

Despite growing pessimism about the outlook for global warming, this year has big potential to progress climate debate and action decisively on a worldwide scale.

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The reason why it is so important to act in the 2020 "window" that now exists, amid the bushfire crisis in Australia, is the very high risk that, under current emissions trajectories and current national Paris pledges, global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

THIS week sees climate change at the fore of international debate, yet again, from Tuesday's US Democratic presidential debate, to the presentation of the European Union's (EU) new sustainable investment plan in Brussels. Despite growing pessimism about the outlook for global warming, 2020 has big potential with a major window of opportunity to progress climate debate and action decisively, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas.

In the fifth anniversary year of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, the culmination of this window of opportunity comes in November with the US presidential election, UN climate summit and G-20 leaders meeting.

Tackling global warming will be central here, with the Saudi G-20 presidency focused on safeguarding the planet by fostering collective efforts to protect the global commons, and the G-20 leaders meeting starting immediately after the annual UN climate summit finishes in Glasgow with significant pressure to make major progress on implementing and moving beyond Paris commitments.

Already, the two-week UN summit in Glasgow has been described as the most important gathering on climate since 2015, for which preparations are already underway, with some 200 world leaders expected to attend the final weekend. The event, held just after the US presidential election, is being billed as a crossroads in the battle against global warming and comes in the year when governments are due to review their promises to cut carbon emissions to align with recent scientific forecasts, and will be a major test of the diplomatic mettle of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government post-Brexit.

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It is in this context that the G-20 could also become a major environmental forum this year, and given current escalated concern over climate change, the G-20 summitry could become the most significant since the UK-hosted 2009 meeting in London during the storm of the international financial crisis.

Since then, when then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that "the G-20 foreshadows the planetary governance of the 21st century", the body is widely perceived to have seized the mantle from the G-7 as the premier forum for international economic cooperation and global economic governance.

Yet, the fact is that the forum has failed so far to realise the full scale of the ambition some like Mr Sarkozy thrust upon it. A major win here on the climate front, potentially in combination with the UN summit in Glasgow, is therefore a potentially prized opportunity for Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.

This is especially so as some recent G-20 summits have been perhaps most memorable for the divisions within the G-20 powers. Especially vis a vis the United States and other key countries, over issues including climate change.

To be sure, there has not been complete disagreement in these areas with all parties, for instance, acknowledging the importance of limiting global temperature rises.

However, given US President Donald Trump's rejection of the Paris accord, significant differences have been aired over the means to secure this ambition and in Hamburg, for instance, in 2017 he was ultimately isolated 19-1 on this specific issue.

MASSIVE AWAKENING OF INTEREST

With Mr Trump in power till at least January 2021, and potentially for another four years depending on November's election, one of the key tasks of the G-20 and UN climate summit will be seeking to bring the US president into any bold new action on climate change. While this will be enormously difficult, 2019 saw a massive awakening of interest in global warming issues driven by activist groups and individuals such as Greta Thunberg.

While Saudi Arabia has sometimes been criticised for its action on climate change, data recently released by the International Energy Agency in December has shown that it lowered its emissions by 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (or 2.7 per cent) in 2018, giving it the fourth-fastest fall in emissions in the G-20 group of countries behind Mexico, Germany and France. This is significant as it is Saudi Arabia's first large policy-induced reduction in carbon emissions, and it will seek to leverage this during its G-20 diplomacy this year.

The reason why it is so important to act in the 2020 "window" that now exists, amid the bushfire crisis in Australia, is the very high risk that, under current emissions trajectories and current national Paris pledges, global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This 1.5 degree Celsius mark was made to avoid the worst impacts of so-called "runaway" climate change.

The roadmap for moving forward is clear. Firstly, implementation of the Paris deal will be most effective through national laws where politically feasible. The country "commitments" put forward in 2015 will be most credible - and durable - if they are backed up by legislation where this is possible.

In the US part of the reason Mr Trump can unravel Paris ratification so relatively straightforwardly is that it was, politically, impossible to get the treaty approved in the US Congress. Former US president Barack Obama therefore embedded the agreement through executive order before Mr Trump set his own counterpart executive actions reversing his predecessor's order.

Legislation is more difficult to roll back. And this is especially when supported - as in many countries - by well-informed, cross-party lawmakers who can put in place a credible set of policies and measures to ensure effective implementation.

While the pledges made for Paris are not yet enough, the treaty has crucially put in place the domestic legal frameworks which are crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions.

Specifically, countries are required under the agreement to openly and clearly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national plans submitted to the UN, and must also update these every five years to highlight measures being pursued to implement the goals, including in Glasgow.

In the future, the ambition must be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. And there are clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.

Going forward, 2020 can therefore help co-create, and implement, what could be a foundation of global sustainable development for billions across the world. This starts with speedy, comprehensive implementation of Paris, but probably needs to progress even beyond this as we move into the 2020s.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.