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:
- Energy Transition
- Industry Transition
- Nature-Based Solutions
- Cities and Local Action
- Resilience and Adaptation
- Mitigation Strategy
- Youth Engagement and Public Mobilization
- Social and Political Drivers.
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: