- World leaders gathered on Sept. 23 to address the climate crisis, but activists say they still aren’t doing enough.
- Although nearly 70 countries committed themselves to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, aside from the European Union most were relatively small and largely incidental to the global economy.
- The urgency of the summit was underscored by leaked details of a U.N. report set to be released this week, which suggests sea ice is melting much faster than expected and that irreversible tipping points have already been reached.
NEW YORK — Against the fitting backdrop of a hotter-than-average late September day in New York City, world leaders gathered at the United Nations yesterday to share what they were doing to tackle climate change. “We have had enough talk,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his opening remarks. “This is not a negotiation summit, because we don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit.”
But dozens of speeches and announcements later, there was little to suggest that the scale of change needed to avert catastrophe is on its way. Although nearly 70 countries committed themselves to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, aside from the EU most were relatively small and largely incidental to the global economy.
The urgency of the summit was underscored by leaked details of a U.N. report set to be released this week, which suggests sea ice is melting much faster than expected and that irreversible tipping points have already been reached.
Inside the darkened, cavernous hall of the U.N. General Assembly, a procession of prime ministers, presidents, kings, and business titans touted their individual efforts while warning of imminent danger to the planet. As they spoke, images of coral reefs and forests were projected onto the walls above them to remind the audience of what they stand to lose.
“Time is running out to respond to the climate crisis and its effect on the survival of species,” said Costa Rican President Carlos Quesada.
The day featured some notable announcements that pointed toward measured progress. Chancellor Angela Merkel, fresh off the release of a climate plan for Germany that’s drawn criticism from environmental groups, said her government would double funding for global climate protection to 4 billion euros ($4.4 billion). A coalition of large investment and insurance firms committed to making their portfolios carbon-neutral by 2050. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the United Kingdom was set to earmark 11.6 billion pounds ($14.5 billion) in aid for developing countries to combat climate change between 2021 and 2025.
Russia announced that after a lengthy holdout it would ratify the Paris Agreement, although researchers at Climate Action Tracker rated its emissions reduction target as “critically insufficient.”
But China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, declined to make any new commitments. And notably absent from the speakers’ list was the United States, which announced in 2017 that it planned to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
Numerous leaders took veiled shots at the U.S. for its refusal to cooperate with the rest of the world on addressing climate change. French President Emmanuel Macron said it would be “deeply hypocritical” to negotiate trade deals with countries that are “running counter to the Paris Agreement.” And China’s special representative, Wang Yi, promised that the “withdrawal of certain parties would not shake the collective will of the international community.”
But overall, the mostly subdued mood inside the hall stood in stark contrast to the fury and frustration of millions of protesters who poured onto streets across the world last week. Teenage activist Greta Thunberg channeled those demonstrations in the summit’s opening session, as she excoriated the assembled leaders in a fiery speech that quickly traversed social media.
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” she said. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.”
Thunberg’s outrage was shared by delegates on a panel of small island developing states, who could see their countries washed away by rising sea levels and increasingly destructive storms in the absence of robust action.
“Make no mistake, there will be mass migration by climate refugees that will destabilize the countries of the world that are not on the front line of this climate crisis,” said Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados.
Representatives of the 47 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) called for more funds to be allocated to climate resilience and adaptation programs for the world’s poorest nations.
“When we talk about LDCs, you’re basically talking about Africa,” said Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank. The continent has been “shortchanged,” he added, pointing out that despite contributing only 4 percent of global emissions, it’s already suffering some of the worst effects of climate change.
According to a press release handed out by LDC representatives, 69 percent of people killed by climate-related disasters over the past 50 years were from an LDC.
The Climate Action Summit was a precursor to next year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference. Known as COP26, the conference is set to be held in Glasgow and will be the first major check-in on how well countries are living up to the promises they made in 2015’s Paris Agreement. Yesterday’s summit was a signal that the conference is likely to be contentious, with climate activists walking away frustrated by what they see as inadequate progress in addressing the threat.
“We need far greater national leadership on climate action — and we need it now,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute.
Secretary-General Guterres sounded a more hopeful note in his closing speech, thanking “young people from around the world for leading the charge and holding my generation accountable.”
“We have been losing the race against the climate crisis,” he added. “But the world is waking up.”
Banner image: Child protesters during Climate Week. Photo courtesy Imelda Abano.
Ashoka Mukpo is a freelance journalist with expertise in international development policy, human rights, and environmental issues. His work has been featured in Al-Jazeera, Vice News, The Nation, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @unkyoka.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 outlets worldwide to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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