UN climate summit tackles a warming planet

World leaders from more than 125 nations were in New York last week for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit. His aim was to boost international efforts to tackle climate change before a scheduled meeting in Paris in December next year, where the goal is to establish a global agreement to cut greenhouse emissions.

Key figures from the biggest polluting countries, notably the United States and China, called for a binding outcome at the Paris meeting.

US President Barack Obama declared: “We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair. Not when we have the means – the technological innovation and the scientific imagination – to begin the work of repairing it right now.”

Walking the talk?

In a reference to the 400,000 people who marched in New York last Sunday, Obama told the summit that Earth’s climate was changing faster than the efforts to address it, that “the alarm bells keep ringing; our citizens keep marching; we cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call”.

“We have to cut carbon pollution in our own countries to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We have to adapt to the impacts that, unfortunately, we can no longer avoid. And we have to work together as a global community to tackle this global threat before it is too late.”

The US, however, was one of the only nations to turn up with completely new policy announcements while most other leaders repeated promises they had already made.

China's Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli for example, simply repeated that his country's goal was to cut carbon intensity by 40% to 45% of 2005 levels by 2020.

Zhang said China's carbon emissions would peak "as early as possible". This was a statement made by a senior Chinese climate negotiator earlier this year but that comment was not regarded as official government policy until Zhang made it one in New York.

In a detailed analysis of the summit’s outcomes, The Carbon Brief publication reported that China’s “flexible language makes it hard to tell exactly what its commitment means".

Obama, on the other hand, has signed an executive order directing federal agencies to consider climate resilience when designing programmes and allocating funds.

He also ordered government agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide their data so other countries could use it in managing climate change, while also extending programmes to train developing country scientists.

Research reports

In the week leading to the summit, two large reports of economic analyses were released.

One, the Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project spearheaded by Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, considers economic pathways to achieve carbon neutral countries by 2050.

The other report, steered by Lord Stern of the London School of Economics, reviews pathways leading to a new climate economy before 2020.

Both reports argue that ambitious climate action is achievable and can stimulate growth and jobs with appropriate policies and investment, whereas development that generates high levels of carbon pollution is increasingly holding back current and future prosperity.

Coinciding with the UN summit was the release by the Global Carbon Project of its annual update on global carbon emissions.

The report reveals that CO2 emissions will likely reach 40 billion tonnes this year while growth in emissions continues to match the worst-case scenario modelled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – with a 3.2 to 5.4 degrees Celsius rise in atmospheric temperatures above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

The report notes that China is the world’s biggest emitter in terms of usage of fossil fuels, followed by the US. But cumulative emissions since 1960 show the US has contributed the most to CO2 emissions over the past 50 years.

Comparing emissions between developed and developing nations also tells a different story, revealing that developed nations are responsible for the majority of historical carbon emissions. But that is rapidly changing: in 1990, about two-thirds of CO2 emissions came from developed nations; today only a third are from these countries.

Commitments – and silences

In his address, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched an initiative to mobilise US$200 billion of private and public funds by the end of 2015 to stimulate “green growth” and support efforts to address climate damage, particularly in poorer countries.

American actor and Ban Ki-moon’s “UN Messenger of Peace”, Leonardo DiCaprio, attracted much attention for his speech. “We need to put a price tag on carbon emissions, and eliminate government subsidies for coal, gas, and oil companies,” he told the summit.

“We need to end the free ride that industrial polluters have been given in the name of a free-market economy, they don’t deserve our tax dollars, they deserve our scrutiny. For the economy itself will die if our ecosystems collapse.”

Among many significant announcements were plans to scale up renewable energy projects and energy efficiency efforts while 28 governments agreed to an end to forest loss by 2030. In addition, 2,000 mayors signed a compact to strengthen emission reduction targets and to promote ‘climate-smart agriculture’ to 500 million farmers.

Although more than 120 leaders were present at the New York summit, another 35 were not and they included China, India and Australia. India and China are being cautious, arguing there should be greater action to reduce emissions by developed countries.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop was present and spoke but the absence of Prime Minister Tony Abbott – famed for once claiming that “climate change was crap” – was notable.

Australians attending the summit were asked repeatedly by government delegations and international bodies why a wealthy country like Australia was sending signals that it placed a lower priority on needed international action at this crucial time.

In his summary of the meeting, Ban Ki-moon said that if the vision set out by leaders from government, finance, business and civil society was to be achieved then the pledges and initiatives announced at the summit would need to be met and expanded on.

“We must maintain the spirit of commitment and action that characterised the summit,” he said. “As we look forward to Lima later this year, and Paris in December 2015, let us look back on today as the day when we decided – as a human family – to put our house in order to make it sustainable, safe and prosperous for future generations.”

But the widow of Nelson Mandela punctured the self-congratulatory mood of the summit by declaring that the world leaders had failed to rise to the challenge of climate change.

“There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today,” Graça Machel told the closing moments of the summit. “The scale is much more than we have achieved.”

* Click here to see a detailed report on the outcomes of the climate summit

Country commitments
  • • Barbados: 29% of electricity will be green by 2029
  • • Brunei: 63% reduction in energy consumption by 2035
  • • Chile: 45% of energy to be green by 2025
  • • China: Reiterated commitment to cut carbon intensity by 40% to 45% of 2005 levels by 2020, and committed US$6 million to advance South-South cooperation on climate change
  • • Costa Rica: 100% of energy to be green
  • • Denmark: Aims to be fossil fuel free by 2050
  • • Ethiopia: Zero net emissions by 2025
  • • European Union: Committed to cutting emissions by 80% to 95% by 2050
  • • Finland: Phasing out coal in power stations by 2025
  • • France: US$1 billion will got to the green climate fund over the next few years
  • • Georgia: Aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050
  • • Germany will go carbon neutral by 2050 – an important opportunity for a mid-century decarbonisation target in an agreement at the Paris meeting.
  • • Iceland: Commitment to become an entirely fossil free economy
  • • Indonesia: Will cut emissions by 26% by 2020, rising to 40% with international help
  • • Ireland: Reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050
  • • Korea: Next year it will become the first Asian country with a national carbon trading scheme
  • • Mexico: More than one third of electricity-generating capacity
  • • Monaco: Goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050
  • • United Kingdom: On track to cut emissions by 80% by 2050
Source: United Nations

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