Nations will gather Monday in New York City for a high-profile climate summit that U.N. officials hope will lead to more aggressive carbon reductions under the Paris Agreement.
The daylong summit is the brainchild of U.N. chief António Guterres, who has poured resources into the event over the last year. He’s asked nations to come ready to announce plans to reduce their emissions.
At a briefing at U.N. headquarters yesterday, Guterres struck a somber tone.
“Let’s face it, we have no time to lose. We are losing the race against climate change,” he said.
The summit comes 15 months before countries are supposed to revise their commitments to the Paris climate pact.
The stakes are high. The pledges that countries enroll with the U.N. climate body by December 2020 will stand through 2030—the year when the world’s scientists warn catastrophic climate change could become unavoidable if global emissions don’t drop substantially.
Guterres can’t tell countries what to pledge or insist that they turn in their commitments early. What he’s trying to do instead is what his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, did to great effect in 2014, the year before the summit that produced the Paris Agreement. Ban called world leaders to New York to show them that global public opinion would no longer tolerate failure to forge a climate deal.
Abetted by a People’s Climate March that drew 400,000 and by an uptick in media coverage, Ban’s summit encouraged prime ministers and presidents to put political pressure on their countries’ negotiators to overcome decades of stalemate on climate change.
It helped Paris avoid the pitfalls of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, where political leaders descended on the Danish capital determined to be part of history and instead became entangled in a last-minute haggling session that ended with the meeting’s collapse.
Guterres’ political moment is different from Ban’s in that an agreement has already been reached. But the secretary-general’s call for urgency is amplified by last year’s marquee report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And while the United States is still set to leave the Paris accord and is sending only a career diplomat to Monday’s meeting in place of President Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, polls increasingly show that Americans across the political spectrum are concerned about climate change.
Guterres’ special envoy for the summit, Luis Alfonso de Alba, shrugged off a reporter’s questions Tuesday about Trump’s choice to skip a summit that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are all expected to attend.
“We will always keep the door open for the president of the United States to come to the climate summit,” de Alba said. “That would be amazing.”
But he added: “This really is about demonstrating leadership on what is a climate crisis, and we cannot get away from that.”
Here are four things to watch next week:
No ‘fancy speeches’
Guterres has said repeatedly that he wants the summit to focus on “concrete” action instead of “fancy speeches.”
Countries will get speaking time only if they’ve made significant progress toward the 2030 Paris pledge and the introduction of a national plan to zero out emissions by 2050, or if they’ve made commitments to shutter coal-fired power and fossil fuel subsidies or contribute to the U.N. Green Climate Fund.
The United States is not on the list.
“I think the theme, if you can call it that, of the day is ‘This is what leadership looks like,’” said Robert Orr, the dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and a senior adviser to Guterres on the summit.
“Both the heads of state who will speak, and the group leads will be putting some high marks on the wall,” added Orr. “It collectively will sum up to an important step forward in terms of ambition. But it’s not the end of the story, rather more the next big step as we head toward the 2020 ambition moment.”
The number of countries that have met the threshold for “concrete action” and have received speaking slots remains in flux. A schedule dated last Thursday showed 63 countries had been allotted time, but the number may have changed. Corporate and non-state participants will also make announcements.
Vanessa Pérez Cirera, global deputy director for the World Wildlife Fund, expressed disappointment that major governments like China and the European Union will not announce plans to align their 2030 or 2050 commitments with the IPCC’s imperative to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“I think at the beginning we all thought it was a delivery moment, and it’s actually a temperature check,” she said. “And the temperature is not good.”
China is likely to disappoint
China raised hopes in July that it might be on the verge of committing to a stronger Paris pledge—or nationally determined contribution (NDC), in U.N. jargon. And at the recent Group of 20 summit in Japan, both China and France agreed to revise their NDCs “in a manner representing a progression beyond the current one and reflecting their highest possible ambition.”
Experts have long said China’s greenhouse gas emissions will peak before the 2030 deadline it set for itself in its 2015 Paris commitment. Leading up to the summit, even U.N. officials seemed optimistic that China would expand on its pledge.
But China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment unveiled a new position paper yesterday that observers say shows little progress—or may even be a step backward.
Shuo Li, who is based in China for Greenpeace, said the statement showed a return to China’s historic position that developed countries are primarily responsible for addressing climate change. It gave no hint that a revised NDC might be imminent.
Instead, it states, “China is willing to strengthen its communication with all other parties in the implementation of nationally determined contributions and the formulation of mid-to- long term climate strategy.”
Shuo said the statement paves the way for China to opt not to strengthen its commitment based on economic or geological concerns.
“If the statement on the 23rd is drafted in line with this position paper, it will then preserve China with plenty of wiggle room for a final decision on its NDC enhancement in 2020,” Shuo said.
The paper also makes no mention of China’s role in funding coal-fired power around the world.
Joanna Lewis, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, said U.S. inaction on climate change has meant China felt little pressure to act.
“The E.U. and others are clearly working with China and hoping to push for as early and as aggressive an announcement as possible,” she said. “I think the Chinese leadership is currently considering a range of goals, and what is ultimately released will be influenced by a variety of domestic and international factors,” including the U.S. election.
E.U. needs more time
In the absence of U.S. climate leadership under Trump, advocates have looked to the European Union to engage with China.
But Europe, too, is coming to New York with neither a new NDC nor a long-term decarbonization strategy in hand.
The NDC was always expected to take another year to complete. But E.U. leaders had hoped to take to New York a plan for deep emissions cuts by 2050 before four countries—Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland—blocked it in June.
Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe, stressed that the 2050 carbon plan’s fortunes were tied to negotiations over a new post-Brexit 2050 E.U. budget. With Britain out of the union, its budget will tighten in ways that hurt less-developed countries in Central and Eastern Europe, he said.
“They want to use the climate debate to put pressure on the countries most reluctant to increase their contribution: Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark, for instance—by accident, also the countries who are among the most progressive on climate policy,” he said.
A Just Transition Fund for economically disadvantaged countries will be introduced in November and could win the four holdouts’ support, he said.
The delay, though, might ultimately make the European Union’s commitments stronger. European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has made aggressive climate action a priority for when she takes office in November. She’s planning to release a 2050 carbon neutrality plan in her first few months.
European Council President Donald Tusk will address the summit Monday. The commission released a communication last week that hints he’ll focus on the strong legal foundation for Europe’s NDC and its past support for climate finance. The European Union is also planning to unveil a new sustainable finance platform for private investment.
‘Young people are leading the debate’
Young climate activists are planning multiple events centered on the summit. They include a youth-led global strike tomorrow and a conference this weekend.
Dulce Ceballos, an 18-year-old organizer from Redwood City, Calif., said on a call with reporters yesterday that she worries about the effect of climate change on future generations.
“I want to have children of my own, and I want them to have a good life—a life better than me—and I don’t want that to be taken away because of climate change,” she said.
Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg is also scheduled to speak at the summit—immediately after Guterres.
“Young people are leading the debate,” the U.N. secretary-general said yesterday.
Dozens of other events are planned around the summit and the U.N. General Assembly session, which began Tuesday in New York City.
They include a side meeting Monday with CEOs of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which counts among its members BP PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp. The group is planning an announcement on carbon capture, utilization and storage.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news atwww.eenews.net.