UN climate summit, day #2: Few announcements in the end – ‘How dare you’

Sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg addresses world leaders at the start of the 2019 Climate Action Summit, New York, USA, 23 September 2019. [EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE]

Over this special series on the UN climate action and SDGs summits (23-25 September), EURACTIV gives you a glimpse into the goings on in New York and what is driving the conversation there. In this edition: An angry Greta Thunberg, a technical Angela Merkel, a passive Donald Trump and four ambitious EU member states.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres opened the summit on Monday (23 September), saying: “Earth is issuing a chilling cry: Stop.”

“Time is running out,” Guterres warned, “but it is not too late.” Despite his call for urgent action and the unprecedented youth mobilisation on Friday (4 million protesters worldwide), the UN climate action summit offered only little in the way of announcements.

The World Ressources Institute (WRI), a US think tank, did not mince its words: “While countries were supposed to come to the summit to announce that they would strengthen their climate ambitions, most of the major economies did not live up to the task. Their lack of ambition contrasts sharply with the growing demand for action around the world. Many companies and investors are stepping up their efforts, which should give momentum. Similarly, small countries, especially the most vulnerable countries, are moving forward. But we need much stronger national leadership on climate change, we need it now. The summit must be a springboard for action and not the end of the road.”

WHAT HAPPENED?

66 countries said they will raise their ambition in order to meet the Paris Agreement climate target, 59 countries will definitely boost their climate plans in 2020, and 30 pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Four EU Member States (Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden) committed to support an update of the EU’s 2030 climate target by the first quarter of 2020. Several European countries also announced they will host major summits in 2020: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his country will host a summit on adaptation to climate change. Portugal will host a United Nations conference on the oceans in Lisbon in June, according to President Marcello Rebelo de Sousa. This adds to the United Kingdom, which will host COP 26, while Italy will host the pre-COP.

Greece. One major announcement came largely unexpected: Greek Prime minister Mitsotakis not only supported a climate neutral Europe by 2050, he also announced plans to close all coal power plants in the country. “Our goal is to close all the lignite power plants by 2028,” Mitsotakis said, even though Greece is heavily dependent on coal and still has mining activities. Greece will start dismantling plants in 2020, Mistotakis said, highlighting the climate impact already being felt in Greece.

Russia has ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree on Monday (23 September) to ratify the 2015 pact, arguing that climate change endangers its agriculture sector as well as the “safety of people living in areas with permafrost,” which covers two-thirds of Russian territory (more here).

Portugal became the 13th country to officially submit its long-term low-emissions development strategy to the UN Climate Change Secretariat. Dozens of countries are currently developing these plans to be delivered by the end of 2020.

Greta Thunberg. Before world leaders made their promises in three-minute speeches, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg gave her most emotional speech by far, repeating the phrase “How dare you” as a mantra: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us for hope? How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. 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.”

Donald Trump. US President Donald Trump dropped by, listened to Chancellor Merkel and Indian PM Modi and then left. Former New York City Mayor and UN special climate envoy Michael Bloomberg thanked Trump for stopping by, adding that it might prove useful “when you formulate climate policy.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted for his part that “the withdrawal of certain parties will not shake collective will of the international community,” clearly referring to the Trump administration which flagged its intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Angela Merkel. Speaking shortly after Greta Thunberg, Chancellor Merkel’s speech sounded rather technical in comparison. “Nationally, the situation is as follows: Germany has 1% of the world’s population, but causes 2% of global emissions. If everyone acted like Germany, global emissions would double. Everyone knows what that means.” At the end of her allocated three minutes, she went on explaining the balancing act she believes her government is expected to do. Because in addition to those who exert pressure with their demonstrations, there are also “doubters”, she added, saying it is the task of every government to “take as many people as possible with it”. This is the idea behind the climate package her government presented last Friday. She only omitted to mention the uproar caused in Germany by her government’s climate plans, which observers say lacks what Guterres had been calling for: climate ambition and action. According to estimates, the new measures announced in the plan will only achieve a third of the efforts needed to reach a 55% emission reduction by 2030. Still, Angela Merkel reiterated that Germany is committed to reach climate neutrality by 2050.

Emmanuel Macron. Europe must “do more”, the French President said. And to do so, it must reduce its emissions further, to -55% by 2030 on 1990 levels. France has joined Germany and the Netherlands in supporting this objective. “Going faster and stronger” at European level will be made possible by the introduction of a carbon price “that we will raise” and the creation of a carbon inclusion mechanism at the EU’s external borders, the French president said, reiterating one of his long-time ideas (a border carbon tax). He said he also wants to “have a trade agenda in the service of the climate agenda”. “We must build, at least at European level, a trade agenda that targets zero carbon and zero imported deforestation.” This implies profound changes, he said. But “the immediate priority” is the replenishment of the Green Fund, he added, which will take shape at a conference in Paris at the end of October. To date, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Sweden have announced that they will double their contribution to this fund. Canada also made a similar announcement at the G7. Together, these countries will provide $7 billion to the fund, out of a target of $10 billion to fill in the gap after the withdrawal of the US financing. The French contribution, which will reach 1.5 billion dollars, will be financed via up to 80% through donations, the French president said.

MONEY-WISE

Green Climate Fund. Country pledges to the Green Climate Fund reached $7 billion with top ups from Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and Norway, ahead of the conference in Paris in October – the target for which is $10 billion. The Green Climate Fund supports climate action in developing countries.

The Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, a UN-supported initiative of international investors, said it will invest only in carbon-neutral portfolios by 2050. These major international pension funds and insurers said they will “immediately start engaging with the companies” in which they invest, “to ensure that they decarbonise their business models”. They also said they will hold themselves accountable for their progress, “by setting intermediate targets in accordance with Article 4.9 of the Paris Agreement” and by publicly reporting on their commitments. This coalition of major international pension funds and insurers – whose members represent more than $2,400 billion – was initiated by Allianz, Caisse des dépôts, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), Folksam Group, PensionDanmark and Swiss Re in early 2019. Since then, they have been joined by Alecta, AMF, CalPERS, Nordea Life and Pension, Storebrand and Zurich. It is supported by WWF and is part of the Mission 2020 campaign, led by Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the Climate Convention and a pivotal figure in the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The Emir of Qatar, Hamad ben Khalifa Al Thani, announced a contribution of $100 million to small island States and least developed countries. He reviewed Qatar’s environmental objectives, in particular the objective of reaching 500 megawatts of solar energy within two years. Qatar, which is hosting the Fifa World Cup in 2022, wants to make it the first carbon-neutral event with stadiums equipped with solar panels.

Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, presented India’s roadmap. He said India will invest about $50 billion over the next few years to increase the share of renewable energy to 450 gigawatts, improve the transport sector, increase the share of agrofuels, provide a gas connection for cleaner cooking, and preserve water.

Major steel, cement and shipping companies announced plans to become carbon neutral, while a coalition of public and private entities working on the heavy industry set out pathways for carbon intensive sectors for doing the same by 2050.

WHAT ELSE?

The Clean Air Fund raised $50 million in new commitments to combat air pollution from fossil fuels.

Carbon Neutrality. Five new countries joined the Carbon Neutrality Coalition (CNC): Austria, Chile, Italy, Japan and Timor-Leste. The coalition now includes six of the seven members of the G7 (The US being the exception). It accounts for 15% of global CO2 emissions and nearly 30% of GDP. The other 19 coalition members are: Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Amazon. The vice-president of the NGO Conservation International, actor Harrison Ford, announced that his NGO will commit an additional $20 million. France will contribute $100 million, Germany $250 million. The EU is mobilising up to €190 million through its cooperation and development programmes. Five criteria will be used: Biodiversity conservation, the development of a sustainable value chain in forest areas, sustainable soil and forest management practices in consultation with local populations and stakeholders in the field, the promotion of traditional practices and knowledge and transboundary cooperation for protected areas.

In order to ensure the follow-up and effective operational deployment of these announcements: a group of representatives appointed by donor states, partner states and key civil society actors will be set up. Their objective will be to define the criteria and methods for selecting the projects to which the funding will be allocated. The Chilean President will ensure political follow-up with an Alliance meeting on the margins of COP25 in December.

Smallholder farmers. A coalition of donors, aid institutions and philanthropy promised to invest more than $650 million in the CGIAR System Organisation to help 300 million smallholder farmers in developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change, which already are eroding crop and livestock production in places like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The investments from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the European Commission, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, are part of a broader commitment of more than $790 million to address the impact of climate change on food and agriculture. The investments announced at the UN climate action summit are a response to a call to action from the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) urging world leaders to mount a “massive effort to adapt to conditions that are now inevitable.” The GCA is co-chaired by Bill Gates, former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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