On 31 March 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) held the IEA-COP26 Net Zero Summit to continue dialogue between countries on how best to co-operate to meet the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The Summit was a key moment ahead of the main COP26 event in November. Here are five takeaways from the event.

The event was hosted by IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol and COP26 President Alok Sharma, and brought together government representatives from over forty countries from across the world including Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, the UK, and the US. Participants from various government institutions, civil organisations and businesses also joined the discussions which were held as part of the event.

1. The unveiling of IEA’s new ‘Seven Key Principles’ was a key moment

These Principles were presented by the IEA to guide countries in implementing their commitments to net zero. The IEA acknowledges that “countries at all stages of development will need to determine their own unique path to implementing net zero according to the diversity of national circumstances and wide range of technologies.” However, the IEA hopes the shared high-level ambitions will provide a unifying force for countries to act in concord. The Principles are laid out as follows.

  1. Sustainable recoveries can provide a once-in-a-generation down payment toward net zero
  2. Clear, ambitious and implementable net-zero-aligned roadmaps to 2030 and beyond are critical
  3. Transitions will go faster when learning is shared
  4. Net zero sectors and innovation are essential to achieve global net zero
  5. Mobilising, tracking and benchmarking public and private investment can be the fuel to achieve net zero
  6. People-centred transitions are morally required and politically necessary
  7. Net zero energy systems also need to be sustainable, secure, affordable and resilient

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol commented on the Principles: “Our Net Zero Summit made clear that the vast majority of the world agrees on the gravity of the climate crisis and the urgency of immediate actions to put global emissions on track towards net zero. The Summit’s Key Principles show what needs to happen.”

2. Delivering rapid emissions reduction in the next ten years is critical in the fight against climate change

There was agreement from many countries that the next decade represents a critical time for decisive action. Alok Sharma observed that “…it is time for the world to move from a decade of climate change deliberation to a decade of delivery”. This sentiment was echoed by other officials including Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission. A creator of the European Green Deal, he argued, “if we don’t act in the next couple of years, our children will be at war with each other over water and food. So we need to act with a huge sense of urgency“. Representatives also commented on the importance of making clean power the most attractive option, as well as making the movement away from coal a sustainable transition for countries at all stages of development.

3. Countries are failing to meet targets set in Paris

Even if all countries had met the NDCs (individual targets) they set in 2015, world temperature would still rise by 3.7 degrees. However, this is not the case as countries are failing to meet their past targets. Global temperatures are currently on track to rise by four degrees. John Kerry commented, “We’ve seen commitments before where everybody falls short. I mean, frankly, we’re all falling short. The entire world right now is falling short. This is not a finger-pointing exercise of one nation alone.” It is important to be aware of the very real failings of countries to achieve these previous goals. It also raises questions about the abilities of nations to achieve current goals.

4. The United States was welcomed ‘back to the table’

The USA received an enthusiastic welcome from other summit participants, after being absent from such summits during the past President’s term in office. Birol commented, “we are all heartened by the Biden Administration’s bold actions, including the clean energy infrastructure bill“, which was published later the same day. The US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry tweeted that he was “glad to join the @IEA meeting on net zero collaboration”. Kerry started the ministerial panel discussion with a reminder of the urgency of the situation; “this is not politics or ideology, this is a reality that the scientists have for years been telling us: Mother Earth is screaming at us through feedback loops saying ‘get this done’. We have to do a lot more.” He continued to be a strong advocate for immediate and bold joint action. It is enthusing to see an individual such as he return the US to global climate discussions.

5. Delegates emphasised the importance of bold short-term goals to reach longer term targets

Ambitious longer-term emissions goals should be applauded. However, they do require a strong rooting in achievable shorter-term targets. The Indian Minister for Power, New and Renewable Energy, Raj Kumar Singh, strongly criticised the ambitious targets set by countries such as the US and UK as there was limited backup to reach the goals. He rather scathingly referred to such net zero targets as “pie in the sky”: “2050 sounds good, 2060 sounds good, but it’s pie in the sky. What we want to know is: What are you going to do in the next five years? When are you going to bring your emissions down to the world average?”. However, we should remember that India’s own record on sustainable energy sources and coal fired power stations is far from perfect. The country still plans for many more coal power stations and has not yet set its own net zero target ahead of COP26.

Next steps

The IEA will publish “the first comprehensive roadmap for the global energy sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050” on 18 May. The roadmap will set out what governments, companies, investors and citizens need to do to reduce global emissions to a pathway consistent with a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees. The document was requested by the UK COP26 Presidency as a key information source, to help policymakers prioritise urgent actions in the lead up to November. We look forward to interrogating its findings and hope to see countries making use of this important document.

In the meantime, the news remains positive. China and the USA recently released on 17 April 2021 a joint statement addressing the climate crisis. The tone of the announcement was one of ambitious and urgent cooperation: “the United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.” The countries pledged to support a successful COP26 in Glasgow, and remain fully engaged with the goal of “keeping the Paris Agreement aligned temperature limit within reach.” This came days ahead of President Biden hosting a world Leaders Summit on 22 April, when the US and UK unveiled ambitious new climate targets. It is exciting to see the world’s largest emitters work with such cooperation in pledging ambitious future actions, although much work remains to be done ahead of COP 26 in November.