“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just 'business as usual'” A summary of the UN climate summit
By Celine Barclay
UN secretary General Antonio Guterres convened a climate summit inviting —Leaders from government, business, and civil society to announce their “plans, not speeches” for scaling up efforts to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The conference also gave a platform for young people to share their solutions at the Youth summit on the Saturday.
In 2015 the Paris Climate Agreement took a bottom up approach to climate action, with countries making self-determined targets (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDC’s). As of 2020, these targets are to come into force, becoming Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s) which will be reviewed and scaled up every 5 years to “reflect its highest possible ambition"). However, current commitments fall far short and will struggle to hold warming below 3C by the end of the century. Antonio Guterres hoped to ignite a spirit of ambitious collaboration with the summit in New York.
What was the layout of the summit?
Leaders were invited to showcase initiatives organised under 9 Action Areas listed below:
Did the announcements deliver?
In short…no. Greta’s damming speech at the summit, reprimanded leaders “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
Here is a quick summary of the main announcements and their wider implications.
Firstly, we must mention the absence of announcements of any sort from 3 key carbon emitters: USA, Australia and Brazil who did not participate.
Broadly speaking, developed nations did not make meaningful changes to their existing pledges to reduce carbon emissions compared to countries with smaller economies.
One of the few countries who seems to be honouring the commitment to set targets reflecting their “highest possible ambition” was Slovakia which has made a “politically unthinkable decision to close our coal mines.” Given that Slovakia is part of the Visegrád group which has worked to block EU climate ambitions, this decision to phase out coal mines by 2023 is significant. It sets an example of the prioritisation of environmental over economic concerns that needs to be made globally in order for warming to be kept below 1.5 degrees.
There is an existing global inequality with respect to vulnerability to and responsibility for climate change; some developing nations are facing more serious and immediate consequences than the developed countries responsible. They are less equipped to mitigate the consequences, yet the summit demonstrated their commitment to making comparatively significant contributions. The president of Bhutan announced that all 47 countries in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) group he leads would commit to net zero emissions by 2050.
Indonesia also pledged to stop subsidising fossil fuels and develop a green finance facility. Such contributions from less developed nations will rely on funding from developed countries.
There were some significant financial commitments made to this end. Boris Johnson announced the UK would double contributions to the Green Climate Fund alongside France, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Korea and Germany. The Climate Investment Platform will seek to directly mobilize US$1 trillion in clean energy investment by 2025 in 20 least developed countries
However, the west can’t simply throw money at developing nations in the hope they will bear the brunt of carbon emission reduction. To truly help the most vulnerable to climate change, developed nations need to make more ambitious commitments to reducing their own emissions to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. The recent hurricane in the Bahamas which has left 70,000 homeless is surely proof that 1.5 degrees is not a luxury but a necessity.
It therefore came as quite a blow when China Turkey and India, the heaviest carbon emitters, made no announcement regarding their reliance on coal. China repeated its emissions target from the Paris Agreement without making a more ambitious pledge whilst Turkey still refuses to ratify the Paris Agreement unless it is classified as a developing country. Russia however, announced it would ratify the agreement.
Whilst pledges from individual countries were on the whole disappointing there were some positive announcements from coalitions such as the ‘Three percent club’ a group of countries, businesses and institutions promising to increase their energy efficiency by 3%. This is a key strategy that reconciles the climate change targets with economic prosperity.
Another significant announcement concerned the shipping industry with Maersk and partners committing to “commercially-viable” zero emissions vessels on deep sea trade routes by 2030.
However, as the secretary general said, “we have a long way to go”.
For more details of specific announcements, here is a link to the UN climate summit website:
Author: Celine Barclay
Walking round tents pitched on the most polluted road in Manchester, I looked up and saw the traffic lights turn from red to green. But there were no cars. The irony of the moment struck me- instead of inviting the usual belch of car exhaust fumes, the changing of the lights signaled a truly “green” movement: the occupation of Deansgate by Extinction Rebellion.
Last Sunday I joined my family on a shopping trip into the centre of Manchester only half conscious of the Extinction Rebellion protest happening that weekend. What could have been a day browsing the shops quickly turned into quite the opposite. My diversion from the shops symbolically achieved the turn away from the excessive consumption which Extinction Rebellion insists must be halted if we are to avoid a climate disaster. More explicitly, they protested against the exploitative impact of fast fashion by staging a “die-in” outside Primark. Each of the five “die-ins” some of which targeted banks for their investment in fossil fuels, involved protesters lying as though dead on the floor to represent looming species extinction.
The tone was not unbendingly morbid however; Deansgate was very much alive with the sounds of reggae, impassioned speakers and the smell of free Vegan food enjoyed by those drawn to the event. A highlight was the invitation of a man from an Amazonian tribe onto the main stage. He sang and lead us in a traditional dance inspired by the Boa constrictor which creates spirals of huge symbolic significance for his people. Instructed to form a line by putting our hands on the shoulders of the person in front, we were to “avoid breaking the chain at all costs”. Such a mantra surely rings true for global climate action also? The dance only took shape through collective participation, an elegant analogy for the collective not individual actions that are required to enact radical changes to our approach to climate change.
Whilst one can praise the symbolism of the protests and the evident enjoyment of the participants, what can be said for the success of the methods pursued by Extinction Rebellion? Many fear that their disruptive methods alienate people otherwise sympathetic to the cause rather than rally them round it. In Manchester the responses were generally positive-many saw the pedestrianization of the road as more of a positive than an inconvenience. When asked by my grandparents whether ‘those protests’ caused any trouble, my dad replied that that in fact they made the dreaded trip to the centre much more pleasant! Who can deny the benefits of the cleaner air, safety and relative calm of a pedestrianized main road?
There were inevitably negative responses- a headline announcing that a “Restaurant 'lost £7,000 in business' last night” or an disgruntled tweet about protestors being “a load of hypocrites creating massive traffic jams and large clouds of exhaust gasses. total toss pots." It is a shame that the press should should focus on such a minor aspect of an overwhelmingly positive event for the sake of scandalising its readers. The true scandal lies in the weak accusations of hypocrisy against a movement that is doing its very best to address the system that makes such hypocrisy unavoidable.
Those wishing to drown out Extinction Rebellion’s message resort to undermining the methods of communicating it. The fact that protestors decided to use a diesel generator to power their main stage instead of a solar panel is the type of logistical detail leapt upon by opponents of the movement. But as the organisers of the ‘Northern Rebellion’ pointed out, transporting the solar technology from London would have used 60 L of fuel, three times more fuel than was used by the diesel generator over the course of the 4 days. Another solar panel for the event would have cost £8000, money they simply didn’t have. This individual example typifies the catch 22 situation which our current system forces us to operate within. At the moment, sustainable choices are simply not viable. Coming clean about the use of a diesel generator therefore expounded rather than undermined their aims by proving the need to overhaul a system naturally geared towards damaging the environment.
From a broader perspective, regardless of whether the media attention is positive or negative, there is a sense in which “there is no such thing as bad publicity” when it comes to Extinction Rebellion. Regardless of whether “Extinction Rebellion” appears alongside words of praise or disparagement, the very ubiquity of the group’s name is a success in itself. Thanks to the disruption caused by protesters, climate change is increasingly framed in the urgent, apocalyptic terms connoted by the name of their organisation. This linguistic shift may seem insignificant but a discourse of urgency will precipitate the urgency of action required to tackle climate change.
OCS Media and Research Team
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