UN Climate Summit Disappoints

Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

By David Holmquist

On June 23, 2009, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon extended an invitation to international leaders to attend an “unprecedented” global summit at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Scheduled to coincide with the opening of the UN General Assembly Debate on Sept. 22, 2009, its purpose was to set the stage for final negotiations leading up to the 15th UN IPCC Conference of the Parties (COP15) to be held that December in Copenhagen. The press release that accompanied the invitation read, in part:

The Secretary-General today called on all world leaders to take part in the event and “make their commitment and give clear instructions to [their] negotiators on climate change.” Citing the top scientists, he stressed that there are fewer than 10 years left to stop rising emissions in order to avoid “catastrophic” problems. “Now is the time for action,” he emphasized.

Ten years on, the invitation to this year’s UN Climate Action Summit (the lead-up to COP25 in Santiago, Chile, this December) was distressingly similar, if more insistent:

Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. . . .

The latest analysis shows that if we act now, we can reduce carbon emissions within 12 years and hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and even, as asked by the latest science, to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. . . .

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on all leaders to come to New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans. . . .

The people of the world, especially its most poor and vulnerable, cannot wait yet another 10 years for robust policy and forceful action to combat climate change. There is no room left for continuing to move the goalposts. In her compelling address to the General Assembly, 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, upbraided world leaders and updated the numbers for them:

For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and the solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. . . .

How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, [the] remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in 8 ½ years. . . .

People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

But the outcome of the 2019 summit offered little hope for concerted and coordinated policy initiatives to address this urgent and growing crisis.

While the tone of the UN’s closing press release might lead one to believe that significant progress was made, press accounts and civil society reactions are less comforting. As reported in The New York Times and Vox, the most heartening news to emerge from the summit was that 65 countries had announced “efforts” to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In addition, 47 countries had announced “plans” to strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to global emissions reductions in 2020, as they are encouraged—but not required—to do under the terms of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

But it has been widely observed, and acknowledged by the UN, that it was primarily smaller countries—including Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries—who were among those making the most ambitious pledges. This despite the fact that they have, historically, contributed least to the problem. The world’s largest emitters, by all accounts, offered disappointing pledges.

It had been hoped that China would announce increased ambition, but it pledged only to “faithfully fulfill its obligations” under the Paris Agreement. Policymakers and advocates have increasingly expressed concerns over India’s continued expansion of coal-fired electricity assets, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on all countries to cease the building of coal plants after 2020. Speaking at the summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to significantly increase India’s renewables capacity, but declined to commit to quitting coal in light of the urgent need to bring electricity to the 230 million Indians who still lack it.

The greatest disappointment, of course, came from the United States, which alone is responsible for 25 percent of historical global greenhouse gas emissions. The pledge given by the current administration is to withdraw from the Paris Agreement next year, and it has reneged on earlier American financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund. India and China were to have been beneficiaries of that fund, and their ability to move quickly to a renewable footprint as their economies grow has been hampered by the slow pace of contributions from the world’s richer nations.

The Climate Action Summit was partly overshadowed by the domestic political difficulties of the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom, and highlighted the trade-related disputes that have complicated all manner of international cooperation over recent years. The Chinese called the United States to account for its non-cooperation on climate change, while President Emmanuel Macron of France suggested that the European Union should make climate cooperation a condition in ongoing trade negotiations with the Americans.

Once more, the will to confront the reality of the climate crisis has been overcome by the fear of loss in our hyper-competitive global economy and the entrenched convenience of the world’s richest inhabitants. And the burden of the climate crisis continues to be left for future generations—an abdication of responsibility for which the world’s “adults” should be ashamed. As Greta Thunberg so plainly stated:

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.