'Unprecedented' climate summit leads to bold pledges
Sep 30, 2014
After 11 gruelling hours of announcements, pledges and promises, there was a clear sense in the New York headquarters of the United Nations that the wheels on the climate change bus had been set in motion. Investments will be greener, deforestation will be stopped, and poorer nations will be supported in their efforts to prepare for climate change. But how much it will all mean in terms of emissions cuts and avoided warming remains, for now, something of a guessing game.
The summit was unprecedented in several ways. Never before had so many heads of state – more than 120 – met under one roof to discuss climate change. And never before had a climate summit been attended by more than 100 CEOs from major companies, including oil and gas and large banking institutions.
The day was explicitly not part of the UN climate negotiations, which freed everyone up from the usual red tape, protocol and posturing. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wanted the day to be a show of determined action on climate change – a demonstration that the tools to fight the inexorable rise in emissions and temperatures are ready to be deployed. And in this respect at least it was a success.
After the obligatory rousing celebrity speech, delivered by Leonardo DiCaprio (“Honourable delegates, leaders of the world, I pretend for a living but you do not”), the roll call of announcements began. Among them, a coalition of 160 institutions, local governments and 500 individuals made a promise to shed $50 billion in fossil fuel assets, and invest in renewables instead. Remarkably, among them is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund – whose fortune was built on oil.
No more deforestation
The conference also saw the birth of the New York Declaration on Forests that promised to halve deforestation by 2020 and halt it entirely by 2030. This last point is a first. The declaration was endorsed by over 130 parties, including Peru, Norway, Germany and the UK. Brazil as a whole is notably not on the list,although several Brazilian states have individually signed up.
Next year, Paris will host climate talks that are intended to produce a new international agreement on climate change. It will be hosted by the French government, who said on Tuesday that it will lead by example. It pledged $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund, matching a pledge made by Germany last summer. A few other countries also pledged to support the fund, which will channel precious dollars from rich nations to poor ones to help them prepare for global warming. By the end of the day, $2.3 billion had been promised, all of which was new money except for Germany’s contribution.
The list goes on. If the traditional UN climate talks, where nations are urged to cut emissions, is the “what”, yesterday’s summit was all about the “how”. The real question now, is how much all these announcements will add up to in terms of real carbon cuts. And that is a question we are unlikely to be able to answer for some time.
What is clear is that the emissions cuts that governments have so far committed to add up to around 3.5 oC of global warming, well above the internationally agreed target of 2 oC. What is not clear is whether the promises made in New York yesterday are merely a means to meet existing government pledges, or something extra on top.
“It’s critically important that we do the accounting,” says David Waskow of the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. But he points out that there is now a new constellation of actors – the private sector. “It’s very exciting but we need to figure out how all the pieces fit together.”
Waskow and others said that more action was clearly needed. But they were all eager to point out that the huge momentum generated in New York marked a significant change. For Nathaniel Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund, it’s about getting the wheels moving across all sectors, from farming to oil and gas, so that eventually, emissions will peak and begin to come down.