What to Expect at the UN Climate Action Summit
The Summit will focus on the heart of the problem – the sectors that create the most emissions and the areas where building resilience could make the biggest difference – as well as provide leaders and partners the opportunity to demonstrate real climate action and showcase their ambition.
Today, the United Nations will host a Climate Action Summit in New York City, where leaders of around 50 countries will come together to develop concrete and realistic plans to accelerate action to implement the Paris Agreement. The Summit will focus on the heart of the problem – the sectors that create the most emissions and the areas where building resilience could make the biggest difference – as well as provide leaders and partners the opportunity to demonstrate real climate action and showcase their ambition.
This comes in the context of a snowballing global movement that is raising a conversation on climate change.
On September 20, millions of young people flooded the streets of cities around the world to demand that political leaders take urgent steps to stop climate change, uniting in a worldwide protest inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg is now an international figure who sailed across the Atlantic in an emissions-free yacht ahead of the climate summit.
Furthermore, September 21 was the International Day of Peace, and we marked this year with a focus on the 2019 Theme: Climate Action for Peace. In the context of the Day of Peace, and the burgeoning movement on climate action, one central question that needs to be asked is this - Is Climate Change a threat to world peace?
Earlier in 2019, the UN Security Council debated the impact of climate change on peace, and recognised it as a ‘threat multiplier’. At the time, in her opening remarks, Rosemary DiCarlo, the Under Secretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs said, “The relationship between climate-related risks and conflict is complex and often intersects with political, social, economic and demographic factors”. Her biggest ask from the UN body at the meeting was for a resolution officially recognising climate change as a threat to international peace and security, as she reminded the world that we simply “do not have the luxury to not care about this issue”.
This led UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to say at a press conference last month, “Don’t come to the summit with beautiful speeches. Come with concrete plans ... and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050.”
In 2015, during the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions were made. These commitments are called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs. Now, according to the NDC Tracker 2020, 23 countries have stated their intention to enhance ambition or action in an NDC by 2020, representing 2.3% of global emissions. However, even in 2015, it was clear that NDCs alone would not meet the goal set in the Paris Agreement - to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. This understanding mandated that commitments would continuously be ramped up over time. 2020 is the time for the next round of reevaluated commitments.
The summit today is the ideal platform to do this. Together, countries can pressure those nations lagging behind their commitments, and award incentives to those who have performed better than committed.
The summit is structured in a way that gives the floor to nations that have done well, and denies speaking time to countries that are “building or financing new fossil fuel power plants or are neglecting their emissions commitments”. The countries that fall into this negative categorisation include the US, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Japan.
India will be represented at the summit by PM Modi, who is scheduled to speak fourth at the gathering. China will also be expected to make a representation. India, China and the US form the top three countries of greenhouse gas emissions. However, India and China have lower per capita emissions than the US, due to their larger populations; and both countries have been meeting their commitments. Per capita emissions notwithstanding, both countries will need to overhaul their approach to climate change and emissions to meet the overall goals in the Paris Climate Accord.
The summit is an opportunity not only for India to be seen as a world power, but also to transition into a sustainable economy. Revenue mechanisms - such as carbon taxation and emission markets - are likely to play a pivotal part in the new economy that is to be built from 2020.
Those looking out for the American position on climate change at the summit are likely to be disappointed - although the summit is taking place in Donald Trump’s home state, Mr Trump is not expected to attend. While world leaders like Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, and Narendra Modi discuss the impact and need of the hour of climate change control, Trump’s stance has been made clear from the start - he will not be party to any discussion based on the Paris Climate Accord. Trump decided to pull the United States out from discussions on the Paris Accord in 2017, and has repeatedly made it clear that he has no plans to engage with the science or cooperation involved in climate change.
Another track to keep an eye on is that of Non-State Actor commitments and plans at the summit. Major corporations, banks, cities, and local governments will all be making announcements as to their own plans to fight climate change.
That being said, although it is of utmost importance that non-government entities address emissions, real action can only stem from heads of state, and by implementing a comprehensive domestic legal framework of environmental norms.