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On Earth Day, the U.S. announces fresh 2030 emissions targets—and other world leaders follow suit

April 22, 2021, 3:52 PM UTC

A flurry of world leaders announced plans to cut carbon emissions by 2030 on Thursday at a virtual summit led by the Biden administration to coincide with Earth Day. 

Led by ambitious new goals from the U.S. that announced it would cut emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 from its 2005 base level, President Biden called the 2020s the “decisive decade” for the world’s environment. 

“This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” he said. 

The move goes far beyond former President Obama’s goal to reduce carbon emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030. 

The summit marked two major shifts in the world’s climate momentum: first, the return of the U.S. to a position of global leadership, after its absence for four years under the Trump administration. And second, the rise of the 2030 goal for cutting emissions by major economies, a key step in mapping out how many of the world’s largest emitters plan to meet their net-zero-by-2050 targets. 

The Biden administration has made the climate a priority for its first three months, starting on day one with an announcement that the President would follow through on a campaign promise to return the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, which it had officially left only months earlier, on orders from then President Donald Trump. That came alongside a flurry of executive orders that largely undid much of the previous four years’ rollbacks of climate and environmental regulation. Biden has also made emissions cuts a key tenet of his $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan. 

“It is so good to have the U.S. back on our side when it comes to climate change,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, speaking virtually at the conference. 

Meanwhile, the rise of the fresh 2030 target—which included new goals from the U.K., Canada, and Japan—marked a strengthening of the incremental goals before 2050. Climate and energy analysts had repeatedly stressed that the world needed more aggressive, nearer-term targets to trace a road map toward the overall net-zero-by-2050 target. 

“Coloring in the gap between 2021 and 2050 is a big question on people’s mind,” said Simon Flowers, chairman and chief analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an Edinburgh-based energy consultancy owned by Verisk, speaking in late December to Fortune about the rise of the net-zero-by-2050 target. “But I think you will start to see things move.”

Reductions by 2030

The Climate Summit, which included appearances by leaders from Angela Merkel through to Vladimir Putin and Cyril Ramaphosa, was led by the Biden administration to coincide with Earth Day. It also coincides with the lead-up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year, which was delayed from 2020 because of the pandemic. 

While the event featured plenty of heads of states defending their own environmental records—including from some countries, such as Brazil, not known for taking an aggressive stance on climate—it did bring a series of fresh commitments. 

In addition to the U.S., Japan announced it would reduce its emissions 46% by 2030, higher than the previously announced 26% target. Canada said it would reduce its emissions 45% from 2005 levels, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

The U.K. is also now planning to lower its emissions 78% from 1990 levels, one of the most ambitious targets announced by a major economy. Meanwhile, South Korea said it would end all financing with public funds for coal, both at home and abroad.

However, new targets from China were conspicuously absent. The government reiterated its commitment to hitting net zero by 2060, with emissions peaking by 2030, and said that it would phase out its consumption of coal between 2026 and 2030. However, more than 80% of the growth in demand for coal as the pandemic eases is expected to come from Asia, led by China, the International Energy Agency said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, many developing countries called for assistance to mitigate the impact of climate change on their countries, emphasizing the divide between the world’s largest emitters and those countries that must bear the costs of inaction. 

“Africa contributes only a fraction of global emissions. But we are the continent that is playing the largest price,” said Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon. 

Others highlighted the knock-on effects of climate change, including immigration, with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposing a climate-related visa for migrants fleeing climate disaster and wanting to enter the U.S.  

Different starting points

Despite countries announcing new net-zero road maps cutting carbon emissions sooner than originally expected, the reduction targets remain difficult to compare. 

Each country used different baseline emissions figures to present a new 2030 carbon emission reduction target. This resulted in the new targets varying wildly based on the starting year they used as a base point.  

The U.K. and the EU both promised a drop in their emissions compared to 1990 levels, so the U.K. is the clear leader at 78% promised reduction compared with the EU’s 55% drop. 

The U.S. and Canada used 2005 as their base point, with the U.S. dropping its emissions 52% and Canada 45%. 

Meanwhile, Japan would drop its emissions 46% below 2013 levels. 

Reducing emissions will also require sidestepping what is expected to be an enormous, post-pandemic bounce in emissions. On Wednesday, the International Energy Agency reported that emissions are expected to jump by 5% this year, the second-largest historical rise, after only the 2008 financial crisis.