The Leaders Summit on Climate: A Munich Moment or Global Action at Long Last?


China Today Magazine

June 2021


On April 22nd and 23rd, the Biden Administration invited more than 40 world leaders to a virtual climate summit with the hope that other countries would follow the American example of announcing new and expanded commitments to achieving net global carbon neutrality by 2050. While all of the right elements seemed to be aligned, including planning the opening of the virtual conference so that it coincided with Earth Day, the results of the summit were mixed, with major emitters such as China, India and Russia unprepared as yet to announce new pledges amidst lingering questions about whether the U.S. itself can actually meet its own 2030 emissions reductions targets. One outcome was clear, however. History is likely to be a fierce judge of the World Leaders Climate Summit. Either the summit will have been another Munich moment of failure and false hope or it will have been a bridge to meaningful climate action at the next UN global climate conference in November. China has the opportunity to very much influence that verdict.

The Crisis Deepens

One crisis does not come to end because of the arrival of another. The COVID crisis is on a collision course with climate disruption. The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has stated that the world is “at the verge of the abyss” because of climate change and must take aggressive steps to avoid catastrophe. The World Meteorological Organization’s State of the Global Climate 2020, confirms that he is right.

We have discovered that there are tipping points widely in natural systems, including the climate system. These feedback loops are creating themselves faster than science can keep up. Our greatest fear is that we won’t know where they are until we have already crossed them. And that is why what happened in early April of this year should be of great concern to all of us.

On Wednesday, April 7th, 2021, NASA made it widely known that on Saturday, April 3rd, carbon dioxide concentration in the global atmosphere has, for the first time in the entire history of humanity, exceeded 420 parts per million. This despite being the second year of a pandemic that has slowed human activity to such an extent that it reduced carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 4% globally. So, what does this mean and why does this matter?

Elevating Urgency to Emergency

The continuing elevations of CO2 concentrations in the global atmosphere matter because they mean that self-reinforcing feedbacks originating in accelerating carbon emissions from what were previously carbon sinks like the Arctic and the Amazon will continue to increase independently of how much we as society reduce our emissions, which means we need to decarbonize our society even faster than we have been doing and faster over the next decade than we are proposing.

It is for that reason signatories to the Paris Climate Accord have to take immediate responsibility for dramatically reducing their country’s carbon footprint when each submits its National Net Zero plan at the UN’s next Climate Convention scheduled to be held in Glasgow this November.

All national plans, however, have to demonstrate that we have reached the most important tipping point of all - our tipping point – the point at which enough of us see we are at a point of no return with respect to climate disruption and finally take collective action before it threatens to end our prosperity.

What We Learned from the Pandemic

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic is only one example of how the coherent, distributed response of wide-ranging others to the pandemic demonstrates just how much problem-solving capacity exists outside the state. If humanity is to survive and thrive, it cannot go back in time to a world in which only states matter.  

President Xi’s carefully considered participation at the World Leaders Climate Summit clearly reinforced the sense that the United States and China will aim to seek common ground on the critical issue of climate disruption. In September of 2020, President Xi pledged to the United Nations that China would achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, but more clarity is needed about how China intends to get there. The world awaits that clarity.

While President Xi’s participation in the U.S.-led World Leaders Climate Summit is of historical note, so also were his meetings with France’s François Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel. These virtual meetings, not surprisingly, led to the full endorsement of China’s climate action intentions. Perhaps even more important from an historical perspective was President Xi’s remarks as he opened the 2021 Boao Forum on April 21st. Considered to be the Davos of Asia, President Xi used the forum to emphasize China’s global leadership aspirations. Among many historically noteworthy references to the role China will play on the global stage was a reference to a green agenda. President Xi committed his country to strengthening cooperation on green infrastructure, green energy and green finance.

China’s Moment

The next venue for a potential Chinese announcement on their roadmap to carbon neutrality will be the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP 26 to be held in November. COP 26 is a multilateral forum that presents a high-profile opportunity to show global leadership on addressing the climate threat. What can China bring to the COP 26 table?

China can lead the way in helping the UN to build the coalition of political will needed to reorient the international community towards the transformational change our global society needs to make if we are to achieve a low-carbon future. I know this is possible because I participated in the 2016 InterAction Council meeting in Guiyang, China where our Chinese partners unveiled the breathtaking concept of a global Ecological Civilization.

To make an Ecological Civilization a reality China can help Russia and India establish concrete emissions reduction goals and net-zero plans. By way of its example, China can also find ways to help Brazil halt the damage it is causing to the global climate system through destruction of the Amazon Basin.

Perhaps most importantly, however, China can once again show the world it can do what seems impossible – something China appears good at – and outline how it will move as it has pledged from peak carbon to net zero in just 30 years, the span of a single generation.

Towards an Ecological Civilization

With respect to the threat posed by climate disruption, the world cannot afford another Munich. On the threat posed by climate disruption, the world cannot afford another Munich. Ultimately, there is only one measure that matters with respect to the global climate threat and that is how quickly the entire world can get to net-zero emissions and halt the warming of the planet.

This is clearly a transformational moment for China and for the world. This is, perhaps, the very transformational moment for which China claims to have waited patiently for 5000 years; the moment in which it could create and Ecological Civilization that positively changes not only China, but the entire world. It is a moment of potential leadership all who live on this planet should hope that China will seize.

ROBERT SANDFORD is the Global Water Futures Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations Institute for Water, Environment and Health, and is a senior advisor on water issues for the InterAction Council.