United Nations summit raises ambition on climate action

United Nations Headquarters (New York – Credit: stock/kanzilyou)

The Climate Action Summit, hosted on 23 September at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, succeeded in securing stronger action to reduce greenhouse gases, even though media attention was focused on a powerful speech from Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg’s intervention at the start of the Summit left many audience members sitting in stunned silence. Her emotional address, during which she appeared at times to be fighting back tears, began with the words: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you!” The end of her speech was similarly blunt: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.”

The Summit was convened by the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, to try to persuade countries to strengthen their revised nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement, which are due to be submitted early next year. Mr Gutteres called for countries to come to the Summit with “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050”.

It is accepted that collectively the current nationally determined contributions, which were submitted ahead of the United Nations climate change summit in Paris in December 2015, are insufficient to achieve the stated goals of the Paris Agreement – “[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”, and achieving net zero emissions in the second half of the century. A mechanism for ratcheting up ambition every five years was explicitly included in the Agreement.

Against a backdrop of intensifying public concern and rising pressure from young people around the world, Mr Guterres opened the Summit’s proceedings by emphasising its purpose. “This is not a climate talk summit. We have had enough talk. This is not a climate negotiation summit. You don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit.”

Political and business leaders followed with speeches announcing efforts to accelerate action, including: the launch of the Climate Ambition Alliance with commitments by 65 countries to reach net-zero emissions of annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050; declarations by 70 countries that they will be boosting their national action plans by 2020; and pledges by investors with more than US$2 trillion to develop carbon-neutral portfolios by 2050.

Among the major announcements by countries was Russia’s promise to become the 187th to ratify Paris Agreement. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said that his country would increase its renewable energy capacity to 175 gigawatts by 2022, with a further increase to 450GW beyond that date. China indicated that it would cut emissions by over 12 billion tons annually. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, disclosed plans to close all coal power plants in the country by 2028, and expressed support for a climate neutral Europe by 2050. A group of 15 smaller nations, led by the Marshall Islands, committed to delivering new emissions reduction targets in early 2020 and, by the end of next year, will produce longer-term strategies for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

In the lead up to the summit, China and India had called for rich countries to fulfil their commitments to mobilise US$100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries make the transition to zero-carbon economies and to adapt to those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided.

The response from 12 countries was to raise their financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The UK will double its overall international climate finance to £11.6 billion for the period from 2020 to 2025. The European Union announced that at least 25 per cent of its next budget will be devoted to climate-related activities. Qatar pledged US$100 million to fund climate action and resilience in Small Island States and Least Developed Countries. Suma Chakrabarti, President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, drew attention to a joint statement by nine multilateral development banks about raising their annual global climate action investment to US$175 billion by 2025. The Clean Air Fund raised US$50 million in new commitments to combat air pollution from fossil fuels.

Leaders from the private sector also made important announcements, including 87 companies, with a collective value of over $2.3 trillion and an annual climate impact equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants, putting forward emissions reductions targets in line with the goal of limiting the rise in global mean surface temperature to 1.5°C.

The Asset Owner Alliance, a group of the world’s largest pension funds and insurers together responsible for directing more than US$2 trillion in investments, committed to making the transition to carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050. In the industrial sector, major steel, cement and shipping companies set out plans to become carbon neutral, while a coalition of public and private entities in heavy industry laid out pathways for carbon-intensive sectors to do the same by 2050. In addition, 100 banks worth US$35 trillion set corporate-level business targets.

A program of complementary events also took place in New York ahead of the Summit. At the Youth Climate Summit, the State of Youth Platform and the ActNow Platform were launched. Elsewhere, the High-Level Commission on Carbon Pricing and Competitiveness of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition launched its new report, concluding that there is little evidence that carbon taxes or emissions trading systems have forced companies to re-locate.

In closing the summit, Mr Guterres said: “You have delivered a boost in momentum, cooperation and ambition. But we have a long way to go. We are not yet there”. He went on to urge governments, businesses and people everywhere to join the initiatives announced at the Summit and identified the United Nations climate change summit in Santiago in December 2019 as the next critical milestone for climate action.

Charlotte Taylor is a policy analyst and research advisor to Professor Nicholas Stern and Bob Ward is policy and communications director, at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.