More than 125 political leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York to pledge support for climate action, in a day that alternated between hope and fear: fear of the consequences of climate change that all agreed is now well under way; hope that perhaps, after decades of doing little more than talk, the United Nations could finally galvanise political leaders to get on with the action.
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon put it in stark terms: “The world’s leading scientists warn that we have less than 10 years to avoid the worst-case scenarios projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC],” he said.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, from the Marshall Islands, is feeling the effects already. She talked of the waves that were already crashing into homes in the islands. The actor Leonardo di Caprio stepped up to reinforce the urgency of the message before a succession of leaders of poor and vulnerable countries came to the podium to lay out the dangers they faced, and to demand both more action and more funding from the richer countries.
The president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou spoke of vanishing rainfall in the Sahel and the disappearance of Lake Chad, which has lost 90% of its surface area in that last 20 years. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president, regretted the disappearance of six out of nine ice caps on the Rwenzori Mountains, diminishing the rivers that flow from them. From the vulnerable islands of the Pacific, delegates spoke of the threat to the survival of their countries, and not for the first time, pleaded with the global community to speed up their action.
Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli — representing the absent president Xi Jinping — promised the country would peak total carbon-dioxide emissions "as early as possible", but held back from providing a more specific timescale, saying only that China would announce post-2020 actions on climate change soon. Zhang did, however, pledge to double China’s support for South-South climate cooperation, starting next year, and to give US$6 million to the UN secretary general for advancing the same cause.
There was a moment of uplift in the mood when the French President, Francis Hollande, put a promise of US$1 billion in climate aid on the table, though details remain to be revealed. France’s generosity was more than matched by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who could claim to have fulfilled the promise made 18 months ago of US$16 billion over three years in climate assistance to developing countries. Japan had nearly met that target already. He also renewed his support for a 50% reduction in global emissions by 2050, and promised more of the technical innovation that has made Japan one of the world’s most energy-efficient countries.
The EU also put some numbers on the table with promises of 180 billion euros to be spent on climate action by 2020. In the next seven years, the EU will commit 3 billion euros in grants to sustainable projects in developing countries over the next seven years and 14 billion euros in public climate finance to non-EU partners.
Brazil’s embattled Dilma Rousseff made no new pledges, despite a stuttering economy and an alarming recent up-tick in deforestation in Brazil, forest destroyed to feed a growing world demand for soy and other food crops. Brazil had succeeded in reducing the rate of deforestation by 79% in the last decade, but progress has stalled recently and Rouseff is now facing an imminent electoral challenge from the opposition politician and green campaigner Marina Silva.
From South Korea’s president Park came a can-do message and a reminder that climate change offered opportunities as well as threats, along with a promise of US$100 million for the Climate Fund. (The failure of developed countries to live up to financial promises to the Climate Fund is one of the major complaints of poorer and vulnerable nations. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales demanded on behalf of the Group of 77 plus China that developed countries put at least US$70 billion a year on the table immediately.)
The financial pledges have been welcomed, but the key to the success of the summit will lie in indications it might give of the level of willingness of the major emitters to make drastic reductions. Of these, the leaders of India and China are absent, and the key to effective global action may well lie elsewhere, in the developing climate relationship between China and the United States. President Obama acknowledged the two countries had a "special responsibility to lead" in his speech, but made no big announcements, barring that of a new executive order to tie climate-change measures to international development programmes. He is due to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing in November. Given the fraught state of the bilateral relationship in everything except climate, new announcements on cooperation are expected.
How far the day has bolstered the political will required to reach a global agreement will be tested in the coming months. At the next major UN climate talks in Lima in December, the hosts, the government of Peru, aim to agree a document that will form the basis of a new final agreement in Paris in 2015. But, speaking on Monday in New York, Peru’s environment minister admitted that the draft document still has a long way to go.
The evidence of the flood of commitments this week from sectors outside the UN process, including city mayors, business leaders and the financial sector, seems to indicate that, while lip service is paid to the cumbersome and fraught global process, few are betting the farm on the chances of its success, preferring to take what action they can while waiting for the talking to stop.
It wasn’t just heads of state making promises today. Businesses, institutions and local governments joined in. Here’s a flavour of the vows so far:
Private financial institutions and investors joined in, in all committing to find over US$200 billion for clean and green development.
The announcements are a mix of public and private financing, including pledges by developed and developing countries to capitalise the Green Climate Fund. The new financing, according to the announcements, would be available by the end of 2015.
On the eve of the summit, over 50 countries and 500 companies endorsed the need for developing mechanisms that would adequately reflect the true costs relating to pollution – a realistic price on carbon emissions. Germany, Norway and Britain are expected to announce a push for large-scale economic incentives as part of the climate negotiations that are scheduled to lead to a deal during the December 2015 climate summit in Paris.
Over 130 governments, companies, civil society and indigenous peoples endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, pledging to cut the loss of forests in half by 2020 and, for the first time, to end it a decade later in 2030, said a UN spokesperson.
The declaration also calls for the restoration of over 350 million hectares of forests and croplands, an area greater than the size of India. This will bring significant climate benefits and take pressure off primary forests. It could avoid 4.5-8.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year by 2030. That is equivalent to removing the emissions produced by the one billion cars that are currently on the world’s roads.
Another big announcement today was a promise to protect 500 million farmers from climate change while increasing agricultural productivity and reducing carbon emissions. Over 20 governments, 30 organisations and companies announced that they would join the newly launched Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Bank announced that all their agricultural investment portfolios – about US$11 billion – would be climate-smart by 2018.
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) will allocate US$10.2 billion over the next 10 years to climate-smart agriculture research. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s agriculture initiative is prompting actions to reduce the levels of methane and soot emitted during livestock and manure management, rice farming and agricultural burning.
One of the more surprising announcements at the informal summit came from multinational oil and gas companies, pledging to cut emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas. The petroleum industry has traditionally been the strongest opponent of any action to combat climate change. Firms that took the pledge include ENI of Italy; Petróleos Mexicanos; the US gas company Southwestern Energy; Norway’s Statoil Group; BG Group, the former British Gas, and Thailand’s oil and gas company, PTT.
The International Energy Agency has identified methane emissions as one of four key mitigation opportunities that can be used before 2020 with existing technologies.
After thermal power stations, transport is the biggest cause of carbon-dioxide emissions. During the informal summit, four international transport alliances launched or advanced initiatives that aim to significantly scale-up proven low-carbon transport technologies – increasing the number of electric vehicles on the road, increasing the efficiency of rail transport and air travel, and providing sustainable public transportation options.
An Urban Electric Mobility Initiative (UEMI), supported by private companies including BYD, Mahindra Reva and Michelin, was launched to increase the number of electric vehicles in cities to at least 30% of all new vehicles sold by 2030.
Improving energy efficiency is probably the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and it makes money at the same time. During the informal summit, leaders from more than 40 countries, 30 cities and dozens of corporations launched large-scale commitments on energy efficiency. A Global Energy Efficiency Accelerator Platform was launched under the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, a public-private partnership led by Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. The initiative’s primary goal is doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.