8 things to know about Saturday’s UN climate summit

On the fifth birthday of the Paris Agreement on Saturday, a U.N. climate summit will test how far political leaders are willing to go in pursuit of its goals.

The French and British governments and U.N. chief António Guterres invited them to send in a 45-second speech for the virtual meeting only if they brought “ambitious new commitments” — 76 countries and the EU made the cut.

Virtual is the operative word. Anyone used to the three-ring circus of global climate talks is in for a shock. Saturday’s affair will be essentially back-to-back video clips of those deemed worthy of taking part, each leader rapidly laying out their climate promises.

It’s also the only major climate meet-up this year, after the coronavirus pandemic postponed the COP26 summit to next November. Here’s what to expect.

1. Climate politics is very different from 2015

The summit was hastily convened in September after a surprise announcement by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that the biggest polluter on the planet would reach net carbon neutrality in less than 40 years. 

In that speech, Xi revived a political process that barely survived the ascendancy of Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement.

While countries mostly stuck to a set of voluntary promises they made in 2015 — a level of ambition that would lead to global warming of 2.7 degrees — a lot has changed over the last five years.

Siberia, Australia, the American West, Portugal and the Amazon burned. Youth-led climate protests swayed politicians. Green policies are now mainstream — starting with the EU’s Green Deal.

China’s pledge and the election in the U.S. of Joe Biden — who has promised to return to the Paris Agreement as soon as he takes office and for the U.S.

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