World leaders' commitments fall short at UN Climate Action Summit

Person holding sign at People's Climate March in April 2017
ShutterstockNicole S. Glass
Person holding sign at People's Climate March

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres kicked off proceedings at Monday's Climate Action Summit by declaring "the climate emergency is a race we are losing." He immediately was followed by teenage activist Greta Thunberg's declaration that her generation "will never forgive" world leaders if they fail to avert dangerous climate change.  

But despite the stark warnings, many campaigners were left crestfallen by the lack of fresh climate plans from high emitting nations at the event, with little word from major countries such as India, China, and the United States on their plans to accelerate emissions cuts.

The summit left Greenpeace lamenting that world leaders "did not deliver what was needed," while Christian Aid said "the concrete outcomes we saw here did not match up with the demands made by science."

A succession of world leaders took to the podium during the event at the U.N. headquarters in New York, and many did make new announcements. Five countries — Austria, Chile, Italy, Japan and Timor-Leste — committed to setting a long-term net zero target by 2020, providing clear policy commitments alongside the launch of two new net zero coalitions.

Meanwhile, the European Union and 59 countries, including India and China, said they will deliver new plans in 2020, with France's President Emmanuel Macron calling for the EU to ramp up its targets under the Paris Agreement.

Macron also said France would not pursue new trade agreements with countries that do not follow the Paris Agreement, potentially scuppering any future EU deals with the United States and any other country that joins it in trying to exit the accord.

In addition, a number of concrete announcements came in the form of extra funding for the Green Climate Fund. Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark all promised to double their contributions Monday, following in the footsteps of similar announcements in recent days from Germany, Norway, France, United Kingdom and Canada.

However, following Thunberg's impassioned speech at the start of the day, many observers said the ensuing summit felt void of the urgency and radical action the teenager had demanded.

Critics noted that 14 high-emitting countries, covering 26 percent of global emissions, currently have no plans to submit new emissions targets ahead of the Paris Agreement coming into full effect next year. Meanwhile, Germany's Angela Merkel was accused of presenting a climate package not ambitious enough to meet her country's domestic targets, and China's representative Wang Yi gave little indication of what more China will bring to the table next year despite the promise that a new plan is in the pipeline.

U.S. President Donald Trump only briefly attended the summit to listen to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and left immediately after, with no indication he has shifted his opinion on climate action despite pleas from the stage. Trump later tweeted a clip of Thunberg's emotional speech appearing to mock the teenager with the sarcastic claim that "she seems very happy."

"What we've seen so far is really not the kind of climate leadership that we really need from the major economies," Helen Mountford, vice president of climate and economics at the World Resources Institute told reporters last night. "We have not seen most of them coming forward with the kind of leadership that we were looking for."

Jen Austin from the We Mean Business coalition of major businesses struck a similar note, warning the commitments made at the summit "fell far short of what is needed to limit warming to anything close to 1.5 [degrees Celsius]."

"Heads of state from the largest economies and largest emitters, whose leadership is desperately needed, mostly stayed the course today — recounting steps they've taken recently or saying nothing at all," she added.

However, the business community offered more in the way of major new commitments. Almost 90 companies have promised to align their climate targets with a 1.5 degree trajectory, major ports, banks and shipping lines committed to getting zero emission ships in the water by 2030, and an alliance of major asset owners committed to a net zero investment pathway. Meanwhile, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates committed $790 million to help bolster the climate resilience of small scale farmers.

"In many cases, the private sector and subnational actors are moving faster than national governments," noted Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute.

However, despite the progress made by a raft of multinational corporations, there is also worrying evidence that most firms are yet to move onto a sufficiently ambitious decarbonization pathway. A new analysis from investment data provider Arabesque S-Ray reported Tuesday by The Guardian reveals that more than four-fifths of the world's biggest firms are unlikely to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The analysis of 3,000 publicly listed firms found just 18 percent have climate plans aligned to limiting global temperatures to under 1.5 C.  

Most commentators agreed the lack of concrete commitments from major national emitters Monday puts more pressure on the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Conference of the Parties 25 in Chile and next year's Conference of the Parties 26 in Glasgow to secure new action plans from laggard nations.

"This largely disappointing set of outcomes from the Climate Action Summit raises the stakes even higher for the upcoming [U.N. climate conferences in December 2019 and 2020], when leaders have another chance to lead or let down, once again," said Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima. "We cannot keep pushing these decisions down the road — we are running out of time."

The message of urgency was echoed by Isabel Cavalier, a senior advisor for Mission2020.

"Today, it became clear that countries need to come by 2020 with enhanced ambition and comply with the Paris deadline like some leaders committed they would do today — the small islands, for example," she said. "Those who were absent and lagging behind like the U.S., Australia, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and others can and should hear clearly that they are expected to up their game and fast."

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