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Are the G-7 pledges to combat climate change enough? An expert weighs in

As carbon emissions build up in the atmosphere more than ever before in human history, western leaders at the Group of Seven summit pledged to reduce their use of coal, lower their overall emissions, and help nations most impacted by climate change. But are their pledges enough? William Brangham examines the issue with Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The G7 meeting that just concluded focused on many different challenges, including the growing threat from climate change. Western leaders pledged to reduce their use of coal, lower their overall emissions, and help nations most impacted by climate change.

    William Brangham examines how much difference those steps will make.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right Judy.

    Amid these promises, the flashing red warning signs of the impacts of climate change are coming fast and furiously. The American West is baking, suffering through a historically long mega-drought that threatens water supplies for millions and could trigger a punishing wildfire season.

    In Antarctica, the protective barrier in front of one of the continent's biggest glaciers is disintegrating at a quicker pace than before, which could eventually cause enormous sea level rise. And our carbon emissions, the main driver of climate change, are building up in the atmosphere more than ever before in human history.

    Given all of this, are Western leaders' promises to address this crisis enough?

    For a reality check on that, I'm joined now by Rachel Kyte. She's the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She worked at the World Bank on sustainable development and previously served as special representative to the U.N. secretary-general on sustainable energy.

    Dean Kyte, very good very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So the G7 leaders made a series of pledges. They are going to cut their carbon emissions by 2030. They're going to get to net zero by 2050. Do you think they're going to meet those pledges, and are those pledges enough?

  • Rachel Kyte:

    Well, the short answer is that they have to if we're going to sort of sustain the kind of prosperity that we all hope for as we know it.

    The 2050 commitment is really about putting our economy in balance with the chemistry of the planet. Working back, the leading rich countries of the world, the G7, have to cut their he mixes really aggressively over the next decade. So those commitments mean decarbonizing our energy systems, decarbonizing our transport systems, building up new energy systems, renewable energy, green hydrogen, et cetera.

    There's no reason why we can't do that. We have a lot of energy technology that can be deployed now. There's plenty of finance in the system, but we're quite wasteful with it. And we have a lot of incumbency and inertia in our system.

    And, really, what I think the world was looking to for the G7 was a really bold commitment that they will lead by example from the front and that they will generate extraordinary amounts of resources to help other countries who didn't cause the problem come along as well.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to touch on that in just a moment.

    But let me ask you about this other issue, which is, opponents of action will often say, well, what about China? China has now knocked us off the throne as the world's leading emitter. And China's similarly has also made some serious pledges to cut their emissions, but they also burn mountains of coal to fuel their economy.

    Do you think that they will join in these pledges? And will they meet them?

  • Rachel Kyte:

    So, China has already pledged to be at net zero, but by 2060. And India, the other big emitter, is — we expect that they would make a commitment to reach net zero around 2050 sometime this year.

    So we have to think of this as a race, a race to zero net emissions, but a race where everybody has to go over the finish line. There's no winner of this race unless we all win. So the diplomatic activity that's happening between the United States and China, between the European Union and China is about getting China to commit to stop financing coal overseas and to move away from coal quicker itself domestically.

    That's made a lot easier when the West will say ,we're completely out of coal ourselves.

    So, I think the race is engaged. Everybody's in the race. But everybody has to find their own way to win it.

  • William Brangham:

    Part of this race, as you describe it, is to keep the planet from warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius additionally.

    Can you explain why that target was set and what it means if we go past that?

  • Rachel Kyte:

    In Paris in 2015, the world agreed that we needed to stop warming at well below two degrees.

    Subsequently, there was a scientific report, an international scientific study that showed that, actually, 1.5 degrees was going to be where we needed to be if we were going to prevent catastrophic climate impacts. So, the science would indicate we have to be more aggressive than we thought we had to be in Paris, and we have to do it quickly.

    And that's where really the push is coming from, because, as countries commit, as companies commit, the question is, is this verified by the science? Is your commitment in line with the science? And I think any country or any company that comes out with a big piece of rhetoric about how they wish to reach net zero has to be able to explain how they're doing that, in line with the science.

  • William Brangham:

    Because that is, as you're pointing out, the pitfall. We have spoken loftily about our ambitions, and yet we have fallen far short.

    What gives you the confidence that this will be different?

  • Rachel Kyte:

    Well, because I think we have the largest part of the world's gross domestic product involved, right?

    We have China, the European Union and United States all committing to this target at mid-century. We have other major emitters and large middle-income countries like Indonesia and South Africa saying, we're in this race too, but we need help.

    We have lower — low-income countries and developing countries around the world, desperately feeling the impacts of climate change, as well as trying to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. So we want to grow clean too. It's not that countries want to have cities where they can't breathe or with agricultural systems that can't produce the food because of the changing weather patterns, but they need help to do it.

    And so I think that what the pandemic has taught us is, we're all in one boat. And you don't survive in the boat if one end stays above water and end goes below. So, everybody has to move forward. And that means that rich countries have to do everything that they need to do themselves for their own processes, our own domestic economies, but we have to help everybody else come along as quickly as possible too.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, just in the few seconds we have left, the Biden administration has spoken quite aggressively of setting big emissions reductions targets.

    But some environmental groups are worried. They look at the Biden administration's support for certain oil and gas projects and talk of taking major parts of the climate policy out of the infrastructure bill that is currently churning through Congress right now.

    How do you rate the Biden administration's approach thus far?

  • Rachel Kyte:

    It's been in office for, what, six months, and had an extraordinary catchup to do, and then, to establish leadership and credibility, has to deliver a domestic agenda, and then has to really galvanize the world into an extraordinary effort to help all other countries as well.

    So it has to do both/and. The rest of the world is watching very closely. The rest of the world understands how the U.S. Senate works better than they ever wanted to, and understands midterm elections better than they ever needed to before. So I think that there are — you can see the Biden administration's fingerprints over the G7 communique.

    There are a lot of important building blocks in there. But I think that, for all of our sakes, we need rich countries to really lead from the front. This isn't a question where anybody needs to be shy. We have one planet, and we have got to find a way to live on it all together.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Rachel Kyte at Tufts University, thank you very much for being here.

  • Rachel Kyte:

    Thank you.

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