Global leaders arriving in Cornwall for the G7 summit have already found themselves in a changed world: masks and social distancing have replaced the usual hugs, handshakes and cheek-pecking, the entourages have slimmed down, and the usual media circus has been muted, with protesters having to content themselves with writing sand messages on the beach.
Boris Johnson has faced ridicule and accusations of hypocrisy for travelling to Carbis Bay by private jet. Some of the other leaders have been more concerned about the extent to which quarantine rules apply to them.
But amid the ever-present reminders that 2021 is a year unlike any other, one of the biggest changes will be entirely invisible: carbon dioxide is now at a higher level in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 4m years, newly released data has shown. The world has entered uncharted territory where global heating is concerned, and greenhouse gas emissions are rising strongly still.
The message could not be clearer: if the world fails to act now, the future will be changed beyond anything the coronavirus pandemic has brought about. Lord Stern, the climate economist, said: “This is a crucial moment in history. Either we recover [from the pandemic] in a strong and sustainable way, or we do not. We are at a real fork in the road. This decade is decisive.”
Scientists have made it clear that greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 if the world is to stay within 1.5C of global heating – the threshold beyond which extreme weather will take hold, small islands and low-lying areas will face inundation, and swathes of the world will face water stress and heatwaves.
Stern pointed to the chequered progress of the past 10 years, in which the cost of renewable energy has plunged and technology such as electric vehicles has increased, but in which progress on cutting emissions overall has been painfully slow. “The last decade was not very good, and this next decade could be just as bad or worse, if we make the wrong choices,” he said.
G7 countries are responding: all of the leaders coming to Cornwall – from the US, the UK, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and the EU – have affirmed their commitment to holding temperature rises to no more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the lower limit set out in the 2015 Paris agreement.
All have long-term targets to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and nearly all have targets to cut carbon in the next decade. The UK has led with a goal of cutting emissions by 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035, based on 1990 levels. The US will halve emissions by 2030, based on 2005 levels, and the EU will make cuts of at least 55% by 2030, on a 1990 baseline.
However, current plans under the Paris agreement from Japan and Canada have been criticised by campaigners as inadequate, and they are under pressure to toughen their targets before Cop26, the crucial UN climate talks to be held in Glasgow this November.
Yet none of this is enough. Global carbon dioxide output is forecast to jump by an almost record amount this year, as the world returns to economic growth using fossil fuels, instead of making the leap needed to renewable and low-carbon energy. G7 countries are falling behind on the “green recovery” from Covid-19 that experts have been urging for more than a year, and reliance on coal has increased in some parts of the world, including the US.
The situation is worse in non-G7 countries. China, the world’s biggest emitter and second biggest economy, is not represented at the G7, as a non-democracy and because of its status as a developing country. China’s reliance on coal has increased further in the recovery from Covid-19, despite the country’s long-term goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said that while rich countries were cutting their emissions, some developing countries would continue to increase theirs unless they could gain far more investment in shifting to a low-carbon economy.