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4 Leaders—And Far Too Many Laggards—At the UN Climate Action Summit

The UN Climate Action Summit 2019 was jam-packed with heads of states’ speeches about climate change, but too many were devoid of new commitments to actually address the emergency.

Some signs of progress were that 67 countries have now indicated their intention to enhance their Paris commitments to climate action by end of 2020, and separately, 77 have committed to targets to achieve carbon neutrality. A number of bright sparks shone at the summit through new initiatives and stepped-up commitments from businesses, investors, cities and civil society. But, unfortunately, these far outshone the leadership we had hoped to see from many leaders. In the words of WRI President Andrew Steer, “most of the major economies fell woefully short” of expectations. For all countries — and especially the major emitters — the critical test is now what they come forward with next year in their national commitments and long-term 2050 strategies under the Paris Agreement.

So who led the way and who lagged at the UN Climate Action Summit? Here’s a breakdown:

Leaders

Greta Thunberg. The Swedish teen activist, working together with incredible youth leaders around the globe, led the world’s largest climate strike in history. Thunberg’s blunt message to the UN conveyed the frustration and anger felt by many of the more than 4 million participants in Friday’s strike. “I shouldn’t be up here,” Thunberg said. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean… How dare you come to young people for hope, you have stolen our future…We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.."

<p>Greta Thunberg and other youth activists at a strike just before the UN Climate Action Summit. Photo by the UN.</p>

Greta Thunberg and other youth activists at a strike just before the UN Climate Action Summit. Photo by the UN.

António Guterres. Ever since Guterres took office as Secretary-General in 2017, he has been a tireless advocate for climate action — probably more ambitious than any previous leader in his position. Since he announced the summit late last year, he has surprised the world by pushing for the type of bold climate action that many countries have danced around in the past, such as calling for a commitment to no new coal plants after 2020 and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. “We have had enough talk,” Guterres said in his opening remarks yesterday. “This is not a climate negotiating summit, because we don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit.” He asked all world leaders to come to New York City with concrete plans to strengthen their national climate commitments by next  year. Despite his tireless efforts, most of the major emitters that made it to the podium failed to demonstrate how they will step up their efforts. Guterres’s closing remarks revealed his initial take on the day’s announcements: “We have a long way to go.”

Vulnerable nations. The leaders of small, low-lying islands and other countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change have long been the loudest voices urging for global emissions reductions. The Marshall Islands remains the only country in the world that has already submitted an enhanced national climate plan — known as a “nationally determined contribution,” or NDC —  and was the first island nation to issue a plan for carbon neutrality by 2050. By the conclusion of the summit, of the 67 nations that publicly indicated they will enhance their national climate commitments by next year, most were vulnerable developing countries and/or part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). These ambitious commitments from those truly on the frontlines of climate impacts today should serve as a wake-up call and an example for the rest of the world. If they can do it, so, too, can the larger, more wealthy economies.

<p>President of the Marshall Islands Hilda Heine (center, standing) speaks with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the UN Climate Action Summit. Photo by the UN.</p>

President of the Marshall Islands Hilda Heine (center, standing) speaks with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the UN Climate Action Summit. Photo by the UN.

Corporate climate champions and some leaders in the finance sector. On September 22nd, 87 major corporations announced their commitment to emissions-reduction targets that align with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, the target scientists say is necessary to avert the worst climate impacts. These companies — which include L’Oréal, Nestlé and IKEA — have a collective value of more than $2.3 trillion and more than 4.2 million employees. “It is encouraging to see many first-movers in the private sector align with civil society and ambitious governments by stepping up in support of a 1.5 C future,” said Guterres. “Now we need many more companies to join the movement, sending a clear signal that markets are shifting.” The campaign is part of the Science Based Targets initiative, which includes 650 companies committed to set targets that align with climate science. At the summit, Allianz and 11 other major asset owners with more than $2.4 trillion in investments globally announced a commitment to transition their full investment portfolios to net-zero emission investments by 2050.

<p>Image by UN Global Compact.</p>

Image by UN Global Compact.

Laggards

The empty podiums. Many of the world’s largest emitters were conspicuously absent from the stage — or from the meeting hall altogether. President Trump did make a surprise appearance only to dash off a few minutes later, followed by Michael Bloomberg thanking him for joining and suggesting that the day’s conversations will be useful in forming Trump’s climate policies. The Trump administration’s recent revocation of a waiver allowing California to set higher emissions standards for vehicles was just the latest example of President Trump’s animosity toward environmental and public health protections. Brazil, Japan, Australia and Canada were also notably absent. None of these countries has yet expressed intentions to enhance their NDCs by 2020; without their participation, the global community ultimately cannot limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

Time Will Tell

European Union. European Council President Donald Tusk announced that at least 25% of the EU’s next long-term budget will be dedicated to climate-related initiatives. The EU will also launch an international platform on sustainable finance, which will help private investors identify green investment opportunities across the globe.

Tusk claimed that early next year the EU will submit an ambitious long-term strategy, however this remains to be negotiated with member states. In June, European leaders tried to set a net-zero goal for 2050, but the effort was blocked by Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia and Hungary. There is more optimism that the deal will go through the next time. Many European nations have already committed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and Tusk said that it’s “just a matter of a little time before all EU countries subscribe to it.”

Encouragingly, President Tusk also referred to European Council President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s plans to strengthen the EU’s national climate commitment by increasing its 2030 emissions-reduction target to 50-55%.

<p>European Council President Donald Tusk meets Lotay Tshering, Prime Minister of Bhutan, at the UN Climate Action Summit. Photo by the European Union.</p>

European Council President Donald Tusk meets Lotay Tshering, Prime Minister of Bhutan, at the UN Climate Action Summit. Photo by the European Union.

Indonesia. While Indonesia had previously pledged to cut emissions by 29-41% by 2030, Vice President Jusuf Kalla didn’t quite commit Indonesia to enhance its national climate commitment. However, he did say “we no longer have the luxury, nor the option, but to increase our mitigation and adaptation action.” He mentioned that while Indonesia once had 150 million hectares of forest cover, it has now been reduced to 90 million hectares, and the number of forest and peatland fires is accelerating due to climate change. Additionally, he highlighted the country’s new Low Carbon Development Initiative (led by the government in partnership with the New Climate Economy, WRI Indonesia and other local partners), which has found clear evidence that more ambitious climate action “goes hand-in-hand with economic and social benefits.”

As the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter when you factor in emissions from land use and deforestation, seizing these opportunities could have an important impact on global climate action. Vice President Kalla also noted the country’s intention to restore degraded land, reform fossil fuel subsidies, and take ocean-based climate action, and invited international partners to collaborate with Indonesia on its new environmental funding facility.

China. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that China has achieved its 2020 carbon reduction targets two years ahead of schedule, reducing emissions per unit of GDP by 45.8% from 2005 levels. Its share of non-fossil fuel energy in total primary energy consumption had also reached 14.3%, on track to achieve the national target of 15% by 2020.

Despite these achievements, during the summit Chinese leadership did not make any new commitments to climate action or pledge to enhance the NDC next year. In June, China released a joint statement with France that “reaffirmed their commitment to update their nationally determined contributions in a manner representing a progression beyond the current one,” and committed to finalizing its long-term climate strategy in 2020. The world is watching for China to announce its enhanced NDC and long-term climate strategy by next year. Recent research from WRI shows that China has a big chance to cut non-CO2 emissions like methane, HFCs and nitrous oxide, which would help combat climate change and deliver multiple gains for health, food security and sustainable development.

India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed at the summit to more than double India’s renewable energy capacity by 2030, reaching 450 gigawatts — a step up from its already bold target of 175 gigawatts of renewable power by 2022. He also mentioned increasing e-mobility in the transport sector, launching a coalition for disaster resilient infrastructure and reducing single-use plastics.

However, Prime Minister Modi did not make any specific mention of whether India intends to enhance its NDC by 2020. This would be an important signal that the country is serious about rapidly reducing its emissions.

Climate finance contributorsNine additional countries pledged to the Green Climate Fund's (GCF) replenishment during the summit, bringing the total raised so far to $7.4 billion. But several major contributors have been silent so far. It is now just a month until the formal pledging conference, and ensuring a well-funded GCF is critical to maintain momentum behind the Paris Agreement. Countries that haven't yet done so should at least double their contributions.

There were also welcome pledges to the Adaptation Fund and Least Developed Countries Fund by Sweden, Belgium, Spain and Quebec, while the UK committed to double its overall climate finance, and pledged up to £90 million to the Global Risk Financing Facility.

Elsewhere, commitments on adaptation finance were underwhelming. Multilateral development banks (MDBs) released a joint statement projecting that by 2025, they would double their adaptation finance to $18 billion a year. However, this will be just 27% of their projected total climate finance of $65 billion, far from the balancing called for in the Paris Agreement.

Furthermore, the group of MDBs reflected in this number has expanded from six in previous years to nine. With more institutions, it's fair to expect more ambition. MDBs and other public financial institutions need to step up their game with much greater increases in their adaptation finance and aligning their entire portfolios with the Paris Agreement. This includes phasing out financing for fossil fuel energy projects, something the European Investment Bank is currently considering, and which would set the gold standard for climate leadership in the finance sector.

What’s Next?

While one-third of countries have committed to enhance their NDCs by 2020, as the Paris Agreement calls for, these countries only represent a paltry 8% of global emissions. The commitment by 77 countries to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or around then is a very important development. But the latest climate science shows that the entire world must reach net-zero emissions by mid-century to prevent the worst effects of climate change — so we have a long way to go.

If we are to have any chance of limiting the devastating impacts of climate change, the world’s largest emitters — whether countries, corporate CEOs or investors — need to stop congratulating themselves for taking small steps. The science is clear: An incremental approach is dangerous and irresponsible. The climate crisis demands urgent action. During her powerful speech before representatives of 200 nations, Greta Thunberg reminded world leaders that the “eyes of all future generations” were on them. “If you choose to fail us, we will never forgive you.”

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