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Despite bold UN diplomacy, Climate Action Summit fails to galvanise world’s largest emitters

Authors: Céline Charveriat, Thorfinn Stainforth

The UN Climate Action Summit was intended to galvanise increased ambition from Member States and non-state actors. Unfortunately, the world’s large emitters have not met that challenge.

“For the first time, the issue of intergenerational equity was at the centre of climate talks in New York. However, this growing realisation is not yet leading to action that is commensurate with the climate emergency,” said Céline Charveriat, IEEP’s Executive Director.

“The failure of the international  community to close the widening gap between governments’ commitments to date and what is required to remain within 1.5 degrees of warming risks building a crippling ecological debt for the world’s youth and for future generations.”

For more on intergenerational equity, see “Will world leaders face the generational divide at the heart of the climate crisis?

The Climate Summit was intended to galvanise increased ambition from Member States and non-state actors in order to urgently fill the gap between current climate policy and what is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, despite some unusually bold diplomatic moves on the part of the UN, the world’s large emitters have not met that challenge.

Even the announcements from the most progressive major emitters were mostly incremental, aspirational, or re-stated existing plans; the gap between these plans and the minimum efforts recommended by the IPCC special 1.5-degree report, recently commissioned and welcomed by world leaders, is wide – and widening.

According to the UN, the following major announcements were made by governments:

  • France announced that it would not enter into any trade agreement with countries that have policies counter to the Paris Agreement.
  • Germany committed to carbon neutrality by 2050
  • 12 countries today made financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund, the official financial mechanism to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change. This is in addition to recent announcements from Norway, Germany, France and the United Kingdom who have recently doubled their present contributions.
  • The United Kingdom today made a major additional contribution, doubling its overall international climate finance commitment
  • India pledged to increase renewable energy capacity to 175gw by 2022 and committed to further increasing to 450GW and announced that 80 countries have joined the International Solar Alliance.
  • China said it would cut emissions by over 12 billion tons annually and would pursue a path of high-quality growth and low carbon development.
  • The European Union announced at least 25% of the next EU budget will be devoted to climate-related activities.
  • The Russian Federation announced that they will ratify the Paris Agreement, bringing the total number of countries that have joined the Agreement to 187.
  • Pakistan said it would plant more than 10 billion trees over the next five years.

However, most of these commitments are neither new nor sufficient given the widening ambition and finance gap.

It is for instance highly unlikely that objectives for the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund will be met, which means that the international community is unlikely to fulfil its promise to developing countries to reach $100bn in climate finance by 2020, as other countries are finding it difficult to make up for the shortfall in funding to the withdrawal of the US governments from its commitments to climate finance.

Some important diplomatic coalitions were formed and sectoral announcements made, notably with regard to sustainable climate finance. Of particular note are: the ‘Business Ambition for 1.5 °C’, 87 major companies committed to setting targets consistent with 1.5°C across their operations and value chains.

The companies are committed to setting science-based targets through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which independently assesses corporate emissions reduction targets in line with what climate scientists say is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This sort of voluntary action, if it is developed alongside and in coherence with regulatory and other government action, can help to show what is possible, and identify the scope for more ambitious public policies. 

In another initiative, 12 major investors formed the ‘UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance’, with over USD 2 trillion in assets, agreeing to transition their investment portfolios to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, consistent with a maximum temperature rise of 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, including establishing intermediate targets every five years in line with Paris Agreement Article 4.9. 130 banks agreed to the Principles for Responsible Banking under which they commit to strategically align their business with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.

The Principles are supported by a strong implementation framework that defines clear accountabilitiesand requires each bank to set, publish and work towards ambitious targets. Together these initiatives represent an important step forward for sustainable finance.

In terms of addressing climate justice, including intra-country, intercountry and intergenerational equity challenges, a large number of non-state actor youth-related initiatives have been launched but it is unlikely these will be sufficient to turn youth demands into action or political power, despite the rhetoric congratulating the youth climate strikes.

A new initiative called the ‘Climate Action for Jobs’ initiative, joined by 50 countries, calls on countries to “formulate national plans for a just transition, creating decent work as well as green jobs”. In terms of climate change and health, 47 countries and 71 sub-national entities committed to achieve air quality that is safe for populations and to align their climate change and air pollution policies, by 2030.

Despite these many worthy initiatives, the urgency is very much lacking behind national action both in terms of mitigation and adaptation.

More generous public grant financing support, and especially increased financing for adaptation is needed for developed countries to take responsibility and provide climate justice. New financing in this area is still grossly insufficient to the needs and no new innovative funding instruments were announced.

The drive to phase out coal and prevent the construction of new coal plants has become an important point in the international discussion, with the Powering Past Coal Coalition expanding to incorporate a number of new members, notably Germany and Slovakia, and Secretary-General António Guterres calling for no new coal power plants to be built after 2020. Nonetheless, several major emitters, have refused to commit to this standard, and pointedly did not mention this during the Summit.

The focus will now shift to the formal UNFCCC climate negotiation process. Parties are required to submit new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which formally outline the actions the party will undertake to address climate change, by the end of 2020.

To this end, the Chilean Presidency of COP25 has launched a new “Climate Ambition Alliance” intended to spur countries to enhance their ambition in the NDCs they must submit by COP26 at the end of 2020. So far, 66 parties have indicated their intention to enhance the ambition of their NDC. However, combined they represent only 6.9% of global emissions.

Although major emitters such as the European Union, Japan, and China did not make any formal announcement on enhancing ambition today, and clearly do not yet accept the need for urgent action, it is possible that diplomatic progress and public pressure over the next year could lead to enhanced ambition.

At the same time, the international situation is not auspicious for progress given active hostility to climate policy from vital countries such as Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and the United States; two of those, the USA and Saudi Arabia, will host the presidencies of the G7 and G20 next year. Fossil fuel companies continue to exert major political influence around the world and are not afraid to use their clout to prevent progress.

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