While 2020 – the first year of the ‘decade of climate action’ - was marked with disruptions and delays, most notably the postponement of COP26 to November 2021, important progress was still made – proving that more countries and non-state actors are waking up to the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis. As we enter a new year, we reflect on what the international community has achieved despite the challenges, which areas are still lagging, and focus on what actions are needed to urgently speed up progress.

In December, the five-year anniversary celebration of the Paris Agreement took place in the form of the virtual Climate Ambition Summit co-hosted by the UK, France and the UN, in partnership with Italy and Chile, bringing together leaders from government, business and civil society ready to make ambitious climate commitments.

Overall, the summit heard announcements from 75 leaders, including 45 nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and 24 net-zero emissions plans.

While it was developing countries leading the way, some announcements by major economies stood out, too: The UK’s 68% emissions reduction target by 2030 is the most ambitious pledge yet, while its announcement to end all export finance for fossil fuels was welcomed by environmental campaigners. Other highlights included Denmark’s announcement to end all new oil and gas exploration and production in the North Sea, and Pakistan’s pledge to procure 60% of the country’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2030.

Argentina’s net-zero announcement means that more than half of the G20 countries have now pledged to reach net zero by 2050. However, long-term ambition needs to be backed up by action in the short-term. Yet only around 70 countries – including the EU27 – submitted their plans to reduce emissions by 2030 before the December deadline set by the UNFCCC. Most notably absent were meaningful pledges from big polluters: Australia, Russia, and Mexico all re-submitted existing plans, while Brazil even weakened its already insufficient target. China promised a new NDC at the summit but, so far, remains among the 100+ countries that have not submitted any plans, together with other major economies such as Canada, India, and Indonesia.

As leading businesses and investors show that ambitious climate action is feasible, governments must now step up and put mechanisms in place to mainstream and accelerate action across the economy and unlock further ambition loops – where bold policies and private sector leadership reinforce each other.

As a first step, all countries need to submit updated NDCs as early as possible in 2021, sending strong signals to companies and investors about their countries’ direction of travel, encouraging them to ramp up their climate action. Countries that have submitted NDCs, but failed to significantly increase their ambition, need to urgently re-assess their plans.

Alongside ambitious emissions reductions, countries also need to make sure that Nature-based Solutions are incorporated into NDCs. Mainstreaming nature is not only a cost effective measure to enhance NDC ambition, but also key to protecting biodiversity, improving climate and disaster resilience, and enhancing livelihoods.

Ambitious plans need to be followed by equally ambitious policies to deliver them. Mandating environmental disclosure for companies and financial institutions, in line with the recommendations provided by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), needs to be a critical next step for all governments.

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