Editor’s Note: Alok Sharma is the President of COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, from November 1 to November 12. He previously served as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the United Kingdom. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
America, welcome back to the frontline of the global fight against climate change. On Friday, President Joe Biden delivered on a key climate campaign pledge by re-joining the Paris Agreement – the international climate accord agreed in 2015 by world nations to tackle global warming.
The US was a key player in helping to deliver the Paris Agreement, with former State Secretary and current US climate envoy John Kerry playing an instrumental role in this successful process.
I have been extremely encouraged by the conversations I have had with Kerry and White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy – both formidable allies in the fight against climate change.
The return of the US paves the way for climate action to run like a golden thread through US domestic and international policies – mirroring our approach in the United Kingdom as we prepare to welcome world leaders to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow this November.
Why does this all matter? The UN Climate Conference in Paris, the 21st such international gathering, was a turning point. It established a global consensus on the existential threat posed to our planet by climate change, and a shared international approach to address it.
There has been progress on tackling climate change since 2015. Most recently, in December 2020, the UK, together with the UN and France, and in partnership with Italy and Chile, organized a climate ambition summit to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement. Seventy-five world leaders came together to make further concrete pledges like emissions reduction targets to reach the goal of net zero emissions set in 2015.
As I said at the end of that summit, we did make progress, but we have so far fallen short of what is required.
In Paris, the international community agreed to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, keeping a rise of 1.5 degrees in sight. But increasingly, scientific evidence suggests that we have already reached more than 1 degree of rise on pre-industrial levels, or those roughly prior to 1850. Much more remains to be done.
The world is already experiencing the damaging effects of this steady rise in global temperatures. Last year was on par with 2016 as the hottest year on record, but it was set apart by the disasters fueled by climate change. It saw wildfires blaze across Australia, Europe and the US West Coast, and flooding and locusts destroy crops in East Africa. While just last month, Cyclone Ana hit Fiji, sending thousands fleeing to evacuation centers.
As President of COP26, I have been engaging extensively with governments around the world, at summits and in meetings with individual leaders – most recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India – on the need for ambitious policies and commitments to deliver climate action.
Through my work, I have witnessed the devastating impacts of climate change: melting glaciers, sea level rises, crop degradation, deforestation, and pollution choking some of the world’s greatest cities.
Encouragingly in my conversations with governments and businesses, from tech to construction, there is a realization we just cannot go on as we are. We need to enact policies that deliver green growth – protecting our environment whilst creating jobs and economic prosperity. Whether this means a transition to clean energy with a resolute focus on renewable and clean energy sources, phasing out the sale of new combustion vehicles or reforestation programs and cleaning up environmentally degraded land.
Green growth is absolutely possible. In the UK we managed to grow our economy by 75% while cutting our emissions by 43% over the past 30 years. And, along the way, we reduced the use of coal in our power mix from 40% almost a decade ago to less than 2% now.
Enlightened business leaders will tell you that tackling climate change represents an unprecedented opportunity for investment and economic growth. The mantra of building back better, building back greener is very much on the money.
I am delighted that President Biden has committed to joining the “net zero club” of economies such as the European Union, Japan, South Korea, China and the UK which have committed to reach net zero emissions or similar by a specified date.
But what also matters are the near-term commitments countries make to reduce emissions by 2030 and demonstrate they are on the pathway to net zero. And I am very much looking forward to the US setting out its own 2030 target in the coming months.
Developing nations, particularly those most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, need financial support from developed countries to tackle its causes and effects – especially smaller island states like in the Pacific.
Donor nations, through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, must fulfill their pledges at Paris of making $100 billion a year available in international climate finance from 2020 onwards. And at Glasgow we will need to identify opportunities to go further.
Tackling climate change is a shared endeavor. And the clock is ticking ever closer to the point of no return.
And so, I look forward to working as a matter of urgency with President Biden’s administration and governments around the world, to deliver decisive climate action on the road to and at Glasgow. We owe that to current and future generations.