World leaders beamed into President Biden’s virtual global summit on climate change Thursday, vowing to collaborate on targets for world-wide decarbonization while also laying out their own countries’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The first day of a two-day summit featured remarks from 27 world leaders from all corners of the globe, from the largest world powers like China and the European Union, to smaller countries most at risk of the natural dangers of a warming planet, like the tiny nation of the Marshall Islands and the landlocked southeast Asian nation of Bhutan.
The virtual roundtable kicked off with a stark warning from United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who reiterated his message that the world is “at the verge of the abyss,” and called for leaders everywhere to take action on climate change.
Guterres called for every country, industry and company to strive for net zero emissions by mid-century, and that major emitters should submit new and more ambitious targets.
He was followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country is the leading contributor to climate change, who said, “We must be committed to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.”
Xi emphasized cooperation between China and the U.S. on addressing climate change, one of the few areas of cooperation between Washington and Beijing in a largely adversarial relationship.
Relations between the U.S. and China is at its lowest in decades, defined by extreme competition on science, technology, research and development, military posturing and allegations by the U.S. against China for its human rights abuses and democratic repression.
But Biden’s special envoy for climate change John Kerry recently visited Shanghai as part of a meeting on tackling climate change, one of the first senior administration officials to visit mainland China.
“China looks forward to working with the international community, including the United States, to jointly advance global environmental governance,” Xi said.
Xi also announced that China will start to phase down its use of coal in 2025 and “strictly limit” the increase of the most carbon intensive fossil fuel for the next few years. He also said the country would “strictly control” coal-fired power plant projects.
Brazil’s controversial President Jair Bolsonaro also addressed the virtual summit, who has drawn international scrutiny for his campaign to open up the Amazon forest to industry and moves to weaken the enforcement of environmental laws.
In 2019, the country’s leadership rejected an offer of $20 million in international aid to fight fires in the forest, characterizing it as interference and something the country didn’t ask for.
But in his remarks to the summit, Bolsonaro highlighted the country’s recent pledge to end deforestation by 2030, and alluded to a desire for international aid to help the country do so.
“There must be fair payment for environmental services provided by our biomes, to the planet at large, as a way to recognize the economic nature of environmental conservation activities,” he said.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering detailed his country’s contributions to environmental conservation but the dangers the country faces to extreme weather conditions.
“We face increasing threats from extreme climate events such as flash floods… wind storms, forest fires and landslides. I cannot understand this irony of contributing a lot to environment preservation yet having to suffer so much.”
There were only a few technical glitches on the wide-ranging virtual meeting. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to be muted for the start of his remarks, and a pre-recorded speech by France’s President Emmanuel Macron was initially absent english-translation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken cut off Macron to introduce Russian President Vladimir Putin, who slouched in his chair and appeared to not immediately hear his introduction, before beginning to read his speech from a paper.
The Russian leader said that initiatives by Russia would set it up to become carbon neutral “as soon as by 2025.”
“I would like to reiterate that Russia is genuinely interested in galvanizing international cooperation… to look further for effective solutions to climate change, as well as to other vital global challenges.”
Reports indicated that large parts of Russia’s plan to meet this goal, announced in February, will be done through the use of carbon offsets by which the country would pay for activities that reduce emissions in order to receive a tradable credit. This method is controversial amid questions about whether offsets actually provide the reduction they say they will.
Other world leaders expressed an appreciation for the return of the U.S. to the global efforts to beat back a warming planet after four years of former President Trump’s attacks on the environment, refusal to acknowledge climate change, and removal of the U.S. from the non-binding Paris Climate Agreement.
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, falling just behind China.
“I’m delighted to see that the United States is back to work together with us in climate politics,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “because there can be no doubt about the world needing your contribution, if we really want to fulfill our ambitious goals.”
Likewise, South Africa’s President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa said “We are also delighted to have the United States back, working with all of us to tackle the global challenge of climate change.”
And the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “It is so good to have the U.S. back on our side in the fight against climate change. Together we can go faster and get further, and together we will win the future.”
The event concluded with remarks by Mexican-Chilean climate activist, 19-year-old Xiye Bastida, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2015 after her home village of San Pedro Tultepec was decimated by extreme flooding after three years of drought.
Bastida is the organizer of the New York City branch of the “Friday’s for Future” climate strike, first organized by Swedish-youth climate activist Greta Thunberg.
“You need to accept that the era of fossil fuels is over,” Bastida addressed the virtual summit.
“We need a just transition to renewables worldwide, so that we can stop emitting carbon, and focus on drawing down carbon. But most importantly, all of these solutions must be implemented with the voices of frontline black, brown and indigenous communities as leaders and decision makers.”
Zack Budryk contributed to this report.
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