Climate change summit: Who's going? Who are the biggest polluters? What will it achieve?

Could the climate summit be a sign the world is finally taking the crisis seriously? ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke has more

US President Joe Biden is hosting the most powerful people in the world in a virtual summit - all in a bid to begin turning the tide on climate change.

The two-day summit begins on Thursday and comes seven months before the UN Cop26 talks in Glasgow in November.

Boris Johnson will be among the attendees, having set an ambitious, new target for the UK this week to cut emissions in the next 15 years.

Here's what the summit is all about and which countries are guilty of the highest emissions.

What is it?

President Joe Biden is convening a coalition of the willing, the unwilling, the desperate-for-help and the avid-for-money for a global summit, aimed at rallying the world’s worst polluters to move faster against climate change.

The summit will see Mr Biden, who campaigned on promises for a high-employment, climate-saving technological transformation of the US economy, pledge to halve the amount of coal and petroleum pollution the US is pumping out by 2030.

That’s compared to levels in 2005, and nearly double the voluntary target the US set at the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord.

The US rejoined the Paris Climate Accord. Credit: AP

What’s the aim?

The president’s first task is to convince the world that the politically fractured United States isn’t just willing when it comes to Mr Biden’s new ambitious emissions-cutting pledges, but also able.

Success for Mr Biden in the virtual summit will be making his expected promises believable enough to persuade other powers to make big changes of their own.

It is hoped other world powers will follow suit and smaller countries feel more confident in pursuing climate change-averting policies, which can be costly for weaker economies.

The world is looking to well-off countries to make clear how they’ll help poorer countries shut coal plants and retool energy grids, including $2 billion that the US already promised but has never paid.

“The summit is not necessarily about everyone else bringing something new to the table — it’s really about the US bringing their target to the world,” said Joanna Lewis, an expert in China energy and environment at Georgetown University.

Who is going?

The summit will hear from leaders of major economies including China, Japan, Russia, Canada, India, Australia, the UK and the European Union.

The European Parliament confirmed on Wednesday that it will commit to becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, while Mr Johnson said the UK will set a target to cut emissions by 78% on 1990 levels by 2035.

The US is looking to other allies, such as Japan and Canada, to announce their own intensified climate efforts, hoping that will spur China and others to slow building of coal-fired power plants and otherwise chill their smokestacks.

Around 40 world leaders are expected to take part.

Who are the biggest polluters?

China and the United States together account for nearly half of the world’s climate-wrecking emissions.

Climate experts hope President Xi Jinping will watch what the US and China’s neighbours pledge and toughen its own emissions goals in following months.

Xi’s government continues building and financing new coal-fired power plants, and China’s emissions are still rising.

Lauri Myllyvirta, a climate expert at the Helsinki centre, said Xi’s comments at recent domestic political forums make clear he is serious about cutting emissions.

Amid US and China disputes over territorial claims, trade practices and human rights, however, the two countries’ pre-summit climate pronouncements were just a small sign of cooperation in a what is a sea of grievances between the states.

“The international community knows very well who is taking actions, who is playing lip service, who is making contributions and who is seeking one’s own interest,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said before the summit.

President Xi Jinping will be attending the summit. Credit: AP

According to latest data from the International Energy Agency, the top five countries for carbon-dioxide emissions are (figures based on 2018 and may vary year by year):

  • China (9,500 metric tonnes)

  • United States (4,900 metric tonnes)

  • India (2,300 metric tonnes)

  • Russia (1,600 metric tonnes)

  • Japan (1,100 metric tonnes)

The United Kingdom, by comparison, emitted around 352 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2018 – though still features among the 20 biggest polluters for the gas.

China has shown by far the biggest increase in emissions, with its output almost tripling since 2000.

Will it make a difference?

This is an urgent but hardly perfect time for the US to try to spur action for several reasons, and the summit will play out as a climate telethon-style livestream because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The world’s top two climate offenders, China and the United States, are feuding over non-climate issues. President Xi waited until Wednesday – one day before the summit – to confirm he would even take part.

India, the world’s third biggest emitter of fossil fuel fumes, is pressing the United States and other wealthier nations to come through on billions of dollars they’ve promised to help poorer nations build alternatives to coal plants and energy-sucking power grids.

“Where is this money? There is no money in sight,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said ahead of the summit this month, after US climate envoy John Kerry visited.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation by some assessments is the world’s fourth-worst climate polluter, also accepted the US invitation but is fuming over Biden calling him a “killer,” as part of high tensions over Putin’s aggressiveness abroad and US sanctions.

Vladimir Putin is said to be furious at Joe Biden calling him a 'killer'. Credit: AP

And at home, political divisions exposed by Donald Trump’s presidency have left the United States weaker than it was at the 2015 Paris global accord.

Unable to guarantee that a different president in 2024 won’t undo Mr Biden’s climate work, the Biden administration has argued that market forces - with a boost to get started - will soon make cleaner fuels and energy efficiency too cheap and consumer-friendly to trash.

Nonetheless, having the United States, with its influence and status, back in the climate game is important, said Mr Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki.

Panama, for example, hopes the summit can add “momentum” to action against climate change.

In Panama, freshwater shortages that officials blame on climate change are already complicating shipping through the Panama Canal, one of the world’s main trade routes and the country’s main money earner.

Even Panama’s best climate safeguards, like hotlines and surveillance drones to catch rainforest logging, aren’t enough to save the country on their own, the country’s Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes said.

But hoping the world will forget about the last four years could be wishful thinking.

He said: “There is too much of an impulse in the US to just wish away Trump’s legacy and the fact that every election is now basically a coin toss between complete climate denial and whatever actions the Democrats can bring to the table.”