Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

2030 just became the new 2050

Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate will shift the global focus from 2050, to 2030

On the eve of Joe Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate, it’s clear that the benchmarks of climate action are about to shift from 2050 to 2030. For journalists around the world, this represents a geopolitical shift they can’t afford to miss. 

For the last 5 years, environmental reporters the world over have been obsessed with 2050.   In the years of Trump and Bolsonaro, it has become that far off horizon of hope, as we drift off into hopelessness. 

But it has also been practical. 

In a world of emerging economies, 2050 became a lens we could apply not only to Europe’s development plans, but those of Asia, Africa and Latin America. It became a question you could apply equally to Fiji, Chile and Indonesia. In effect, it has acted as a collective ideological marker on the mountaintop of sustainable development, one in which even BP and Shell could aspire to. 

For many countries, it’s a club they are still resistant to join. But for far too many others, it’s become a free pass for the gigatons of emissions they plan to pump out until then. 

As we celebrate 51 years since the first Earth Day, this year’s Leaders Summit will be a turning point in the debate. 

Already this week, 2030 has been ringing through the headlines. On Tuesday, the UK doubled down on its 68% reduction commitment by 2030 by adding a 78% reduction by 2035. The EU has just committed to 2030 goal of at least 55%. But the biggest news this week so far has been that Biden officials have flagged that the US will commit to a 50% reduction by 2030

This is all before the Climate Leaders Summit even begins. 

On top of this, expect Canada, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Argentina and possibly China to announce enhanced 2030 targets. Japan, Germany and Korea could also come out with updated timelines to phase out coal.

If nothing else, this wave of 2030 commitments will re-draw the goalposts for international climate action. While 2050 targets will remain an important distant milestone, especially for economies like India, Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey, they will no longer draw the international praise and press like they have up until now. 

For the next 4 years, they will be seen as the geopolitical equivalent of a Pitbull song. We’ll all hear it and think, “oh, yeah…hmm”.

In a recent column for the New Yorker, Bill Mckibben reflected how it took about 6 years between Copenhagen and Paris for the world to shift from using 2 degrees down to 1.5 as the existential marker of appropriate global warming.

2030 has been around a lot longer, but the 5 years since Paris have been some of our lowest, and short term global action has seemed ephemeral. That was until China reinvigorated climate politics in September last year, and then, suddenly Biden’s election campaign looked likely. 

Tomorrow, 2030 is about to have its moment. 

The challenge for climate reporters will be how easily they can make the shift as well. 

While ‘net zero’ targets come with their own complications, they are relatively easy to explain in a simple sentence.  However, the next fouryears of 2030 targets will be riddled with different baselines, dates, inclusions, exclusions and endless debates about what a ‘fair share’ even means. With every new announcement, the headlines will be spun, but the details will seem like they require an actuarial science degree to unpack.

The temptation will be to stick with ‘net zero’ as an easier go-to indicator of progress. 

But 2030 is also an opportunity. It’s a chance to ask critical questions about how countries manipulate their baselines and map out ‘business as usual’. It’s an opportunity to dive into scope 3 emissions being exported all around the world. And finally, it’s a chance to dive into critical questions of equity as countries transform their economies over the next 10 years. 

In the end, the challenge, but also the incredible opportunity for journalists around the world will be to confront politicians and CEOs alike, not on what they plan to do in 30 years time, but what they are planning to do now.