The Climate Summit in New York: Not an End, but a Beginning

, , director of strategy & policy | September 22, 2014, 5:46 pm EST
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On September 23 all eyes will be on New York City as more than 160 heads of state and other senior government officials come to the United Nations for a summit focused on a single issue: the need for effective action to confront the mounting threat of climate change.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently said, “Time is running out. The more we delay, the more we will pay. Climate change is accelerating and human activities are the principal cause… The effects are already widespread, costly and consequential — to agriculture, water resources, human health, and ecosystems on land and in the oceans. Climate change poses sweeping risks for economic stability and the security of nations.”

Photo: southbendvoice/Flickr

Photo: southbendvoice/Flickr

The Climate Summit is the unofficial beginning to a process that must eventually result in commitments across the globe to slash carbon emissions, reduce the world’s exposure to the risks of a warming planet and find fair ways to support nations that face the consequences of any warming we can’t contain.

World leaders attending the summit must demonstrate that they fully understand the dangers that climate change poses to the prosperity and well-being of their citizens; they must also acknowledge their collective responsibility to act urgently to reduce this threat.

The good news is that more and more countries are taking action to cut emissions of the heat-trapping gases that drive climate change, as a report by the Global Legislators Organization recently documented. Almost 100 developing countries now have renewable energy policies in place. Carbon pricing is gaining traction around the world as 40 national and 20 sub-national governments have some form of it; over 20 percent of all the world’s emissions are covered by a carbon cap or price.

But even greater action is needed if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Most importantly, governments and the private sector alike must urgently shift investments away from the polluting fossil fuel sources that have caused the problem, and towards the efficient and renewable energy technologies that can solve it.

There will be useful initiatives launched at the [AL1] summit across a range of sectors, involving action commitments by governments, business, and non-governmental groups. But these will only be a down payment on the national emissions reduction pledges that countries have agreed to put forward in the runup to the December 2015 meeting in Paris, where a comprehensive new climate agreement is to be reached.

Much has been made about the expected absence of a few major country leaders from the summit – such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While it would have been desirable for these leaders to join their peers in New York, their absence doesn’t mean they don’t understand the climate threat, or that they are not taking action at home to address it.

Take China: Just recently, Chinese leaders announced that a national carbon emissions trading program would begin in 2016, building on the experience gained through the seven regional programs now underway. While China remains the world’s largest emitter, the nation’s emissions intensity, which is the amount of emissions produced for each unit of GDP growth, has declined. And just last week, China’s State Council put forward the draft version of a new law to crack down on air pollution from coal burning, which severely affects Chinese citizens’ health. China will be represented at the New York Summit next week by Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who will be the most senior Chinese official to attend a climate talk since the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. He is expected to elaborate on China’s plans to put limits on its consumption of coal, which is the source of some 80 percent of the country’s carbon emissions.

Germany has also taken significant action to address climate change. The country has undertaken one of the most successful energy transformations in the world, while remaining the strongest economy in Europe. Germany currently generates almost 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and is on track to increase that to 45 percent by 2030. Germany has committed to cut its global warming emissions by some 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. And at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin in July, Chancellor Merkel pledged 750 million Euros towards capitalizing the new Green Climate Fund to help developing countries cut their emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change. So while Germany’s Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks will represent the country at the Climate Summit and not Chancellor Merkel, its clear that German leadership and action on climate change will both be front and center at the UN summit.

The Climate Summit isn’t just the largest collection of heads of state focusing on climate change in five years; it comes at a time when there is unprecedented public support to take action. On Sunday, the largest climate demonstration ever took place in the streets of New York as part of the People’s Climate March; similar marches also were held on the same day around the world.

Polling in Europe, the U.S. and other countries also shows support for climate action. American voters say they are more than twice as likely to vote for a candidate that supports climate action than for a candidate who does not. A whopping 84 percent of Germans want to move to a fully renewable energy economy as quickly as possible, and down under, three out of five Australians wanted to keep the carbon tax scrapped by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. So while leaders have the opportunity to talk the talk in New York, it’s clear that voters will be demanding that they walk the walk when they return home from the Summit.

What happens in New York will set a tone for the climate leadership needed from world leaders between now and the Paris meeting in 2015. They will need to keep engaging with each other over the next 15 months to work out the political compromises that will allow ministers and negotiators to craft an equitable and ambitious agreement.

This will happen through both bilateral and multilateral discussions. For instance, just one week after the Climate Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be meeting with President Obama in Washington, and as Secretary of State John Kerry made clear when he visited India in July, climate change is front and center in the U.S.-India dialogue. At the APEC Summit in Beijing in November, climate change and energy issues will be on the agenda, as they will in the bilateral meeting that President Xi of China will hold with President Obama the day after the summit. Similarly, Chancellor Merkel has made it clear that climate change will be a prominent topic of discussion when she hosts the G-7 summit in Germany next June.

The Climate Summit won’t be the end of this process; it’s just the beginning. As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon aptly put it in a speech in Brussels in April, “Much heavy lifting is required. We need to apply political courage, technological knowhow, and sensitivity toward human need. Humankind has caused this problem. We can only look to ourselves for the solution.”

Note: This post originally appeared as a guest post at Jeff Nesbit’s blog, “At the Edge”, at usnews.com.

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