After months of preparations and arm-twisting, the United Nations is signalling that as many as 36 countries could announce more ambitious climate targets at today’s global climate action summit in New York City.
But as delegates gather, the New York Times is pointing to a fundamental disconnect: the diplomats at UN headquarters and the four million protesters who thronged the world’s cities at last Friday’s #ClimateStrike live in separate worlds.
“This is the world we live in: Punishing heat waves, catastrophic floods, huge fires, and climate conditions so uncertain that children took to the streets en masse in global protests to demand action,” writes reporter Somini Sengupta. “But this is also the world we live in: A pantheon of world leaders who have deep ties to the industries that are the biggest sources of planet-warming emissions, are hostile to protests, or use climate science denial to score political points.”
The “stark contrast comes at a time when governments face a challenge of a kind they have not seen since the beginning of the industrial era,” Sengupta adds. “In order to avert the worst effects of climate change, they must rebuild the engine of the global economy—to quickly get out of fossil fuels, the energy source that the system is based upon—because they failed to take steps decades ago when scientists warned they should.”
UN Secretary General António Guterres has mounted a sustained effort to prime summit participants for decisive action, asserting months ago that he expected countries to show up today with action, not just words, and warning last week that humanity is falling behind in the global effort to avert climate disaster. “What I want is to have the whole of society putting pressure on governments to make governments understand they need to run faster, because we are losing the race,” he told France 24. Yet “what the science tells us today is that these targets are still reachable.”
Guterres and his team made waves by rejecting more than half of the more than 100 countries that applied to speak at the summit, Climate Home News reports. “Countries are competing for the limelight, with only the boldest and most transformative action being presented on stage on Monday.”
A draft agenda for the day shows 36 countries “expected to present enhanced national plans in three-minute speeches,” the UK-based publication writes.
“In all the time I have worked on climate change I’ve never seen the UN take a powerful stand like this,” tweeted ClimateWorks advisor Justin Guay. “@antonioguterres has drawn a bright red line—no new coal plants, and he’s serious. This is the leadership we need to address the crisis.”
“This really is something. Thanks to Antonio Guterres,” agreed 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben.
But that still left the UN to decide which national plans were the boldest, “and that’s been tough”, deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed told Climate Home, citing the challenge of taking different national contexts into account. “We will see on Monday who is stepping up,” she said. “We will see what climate leadership looks like.”
Rachel Kyte, the secretary general’s special representative for sustainable energy, added Thursday that “the criteria was whether the heads of state or government would be coming with a clear articulation of a plan to increase ambition.”
That means Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison won’t be invited to speak. China, India, France, Germany, South Korea, and the UK are all expected to receive podium spots, even though India has signaled that it won’t be announcing a more ambitious climate plan and China’s statement is looking similarly iffy.
Yesterday, former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry urged the two countries “to be much more explicit in their commitments about strengthening action, and to clearly prove that they won’t be held back by a recalcitrant Washington or anyone else.” But Climate Home said both China and India were putting the onus on the “countries historically responsible for climate change” to deliver the financial support that will enable them to boost their ambition.
E3G policy advisor Jennifer Tollmann told CHN the summit was “a final warning call for governments that what they are doing is fundamentally inadequate,” adding that “looking ahead to 2020, and in the face of mounting climate impacts, they can’t continue to say they were not ready.”
Meanwhile, the strengths and gaps in the official summit program didn’t stop the fossil industry from convening two side events that were immediately written off as greenwashing. The industry-led Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) hosted a “closed high-level discussion” with selected stakeholders yesterday, The Guardian reports, with an invitation-only forum planned for today.
“By holding this event just steps from the UN summit, the OGCI is attempting to appear as part of the solution and gain further influence over policy-making,” said Corporate Accountability Press Secretary Taylor Billings. But that effort is “nothing more than an opportunity for some of the world’s biggest polluters to greenwash,” she added. “Until governments and the UN realize that trying to put the fire out with the arsonists in the room will not work, we risk letting another year go by without adequate action on climate change or supplanting real solutions with fossil fuel industry-driven schemes.”
“You make progress by talking to people you don’t always agree with, as well as people you do agree with,” countered Mark Brownstein, senior vice-president of energy at the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, who attended the forum. “Climate change is a global challenge and we cannot afford to marginalize anyone.”
In the run-up to the summit, several organizations published reports or announced initiatives aimed at prodding countries toward faster, deeper carbon cuts. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) urged governments to double their renewables investments to about US$750 billion per year by 2030, and unveiled a new online platform to help developing countries “mobilize low-carbon, climate-resilient investment,” alongside the UN Green Carbon Fund, SEforAll, and the UN Development Programme.
The journal Nature published an analysis of the gaps in international climate finance, 130 banks with a combined $47 trillion in assets signed a set of responsible banking principles to promote climate action and sustainability, the UN Environment Programme pointed to the opportunities for G20 countries to boost their climate ambition, and a cluster of UN agencies reported on the gap between countries’ climate commitments to date and the level of action the science demands.