What to Expect from Climate Conversations in 2020

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Though the year is winding down, conversations about how to address a changing climate are underway. Here’s what you need to know about climate policy as we kick off the new decade.

2019 was a year to talk about climate change. Youth-led climate protests broke records. The U.S. began to  withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Scientists warned the world would need to set stricter emissions targets. But while 2019 was the year the public turned up the volume on climate, experts say there’s still more action that needs to be taken. If emissions continue to increase, they warn, we may not achieve the targets outlined in the Paris agreement

Around the world, leaders and citizens are engaged in discussions about how to implement climate change policy. Earlier this month, leaders from government, the private sector and nonprofits met in Madrid for the 25th annual U.N. Climate Change Conference, also known as COP25. They discussed the next steps in combating climate change, including how to implement goals set under the 2015 Paris agreement.

Though climate change is a global issue, three emitters—China, the U.S. and the E.U.—contribute the majority of the world’s greenhouse gases. And each had a major spotlight at some point in 2019, including at the Madrid conference, where the countries most affected by climate change urged them to set stricter targets. While this list isn’t exhaustive, here is a quick breakdown of some fast facts you need to know about the world’s top three emitters—including what you should look for as we move into 2020. 

CHINA

How much is China contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions?

China is the world’s top emitter, contributing nearly 27 percent of total greenhouse gases, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). In comparison, the bottom 100 countries (as in, the countries that contribute the smallest amount of emissions) together account for only 3.5 percent of global emissions. The majority of China’s emissions come from energy production, which includes electricity, heating and transportation. Other contributors include industry (think manufacturing) and agriculture.

What emission-reduction targets did China agree to as part of the Paris agreement?

Nearly 200 countries committed to setting individual climate targets with the goal of limiting this century’s global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in the Paris agreement. As part of the accord, China resolved to hit several emission-reduction targets by 2030. These included lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 60 to 65 percent from the country’s 2005 level; sourcing 20 percent of the country’s energy from non-fossil fuel alternatives; and increasing its forest stock volume by about 4.5 billion cubic meters. Healthy forests help remove carbon from the atmosphere, storing it in the form of CO2 as food

Looking back at 2019:

While China has prioritized creating renewable energy projects, the country has continued to build coal power plants, said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Institute for WRI. From January 2018 to June 2019, China increased its coal burning capacity by 42.9 gigawatts, according to a study released by Global Energy Monitor (GEM), an environmental group that advocates for the end of coal use. To put that in perspective, one gigawatt is equivalent to 100 million LED bulbs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But the growth of a coal fleet doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in energy output. China’s coal plants aren’t in use all year, said Ted Nace, executive director for GEM. 

Meanwhile, China has made some strides in renewable energy. As of January, the country was the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles, according to a report by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation

Looking forward to 2020:

Nearing the end of 2017, China reported having cut its CO2 emissions by 46 percent from 2005 levels, demonstrating its ability to meet the Paris targets. But the goals the country set in the Paris accord aren’t sufficient for keeping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, according to Climate Action Tracker

U.S.

How much is the U.S. contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions?

The second-largest emitter after China, the United States contributes about 14 percent of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to WRI. Like China, the emissions largely come from energy production and consumption, followed by agriculture (think tree cutting and crop and livestock production) and industry, which includes burning fuel for power during manufacturing processes and during chemical reactions. 

What emission-reduction targets did the U.S. agree to as part of the Paris agreement?

The U.S. aimed to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 level by 2025. Once its withdrawal from the agreement is final, the U.S. will no longer be committed to its nationally determined contributions. 

Looking back at 2019:

The House and Senate, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), introduced the Green New Deal resolution in February. Bundling climate solutions with social and economic policies, they proposed a path forward for reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, guaranteeing access to clean water and reducing risks of climate impacts. 

Policymakers also created the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the Senate, adding to the existing caucus in the House of Representatives. The caucuses are meant to encourage dialogue around climate solutions, including legislation, according to Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an advocacy group focused on climate legislation. In addition, lawmakers introduced bicameral, bipartisan measures to address climate change, including policy on carbon capture and renewable energy

Looking forward to 2020:

The House Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis plan to release a comprehensive climate policy in early 2020, demonstrating how Democrats hope to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Republicans also are expected to introduce legislation on climate solutions. 

E.U.

How much is the E.U. contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions?

The E.U. contributes nearly 10 percent of the world’s emissions, with the majority coming from the energy sector, according to WRI. Agriculture, industry and waste (including methane emissions released from landfills) are also major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. 

What emission-reduction targets did the E.U. agree to as part of the Paris agreement?

The 28 member countries committed to reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent of their 1990 emissions by 2030. 

The E.U. is on track to meet its 20 percent reduction target for 2020, according to an E.U. Parliamentary news release. The E.U. reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent between 1990 and 2018, while its economy grew 61 percent over the same period. It has put legislation in place to achieve its 2030 target, according to the release. 

Looking back at 2019:

The European Commission, E.U.’s executive branch, introduced its own Green Deal in December. The package solidifies the commission’s commitment to addressing climate and environment-related challenges. Its goal: to achieve zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. The Green Deal includes more than 50 actions, one of which is to create a “climate law” that commits E.U.’s member nations to the 2050 net-zero target.

The European Parliament in November also approved a resolution declaring a climate and environmental emergency in Europe and throughout the world. 

Looking forward to 2020:

To pass the Green Deal in 2020, the European Commission needs approval from member states and the E.U. Parliament. This process could take a year or longer.

In addition, the European Union introduced the E.U. Emissions Trading System to help industries cut their carbon emissions by requiring a cap for all large carbon emission sources. However, the policy doesn’t yet include polluters from aviation and shipping. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has pledged to change this. It remains to be seen whether it could happen in 2020.  

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