Will World Leaders Step Up to Deliver at the UN Climate Ambition Summit?

September 18, 2023 | 2:07 pm
Elizabeth Rocco
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

On September 20, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres is hosting a Climate Ambition Summit seeking to galvanize greater climate action from world leaders. Coming on the heels of the powerful ‘March to End Fossil Fuels’ last weekend, this summit continues the pressure on governments to meet the urgency of the moment.

Despite this year’s grim series of extreme climate-fueled disasters and record-breaking temperatures—part of a trend of worsening climate impacts—global heat-trapping emissions continue their alarming rise. The big question, though, is whether world leaders will show up and deliver—or will they, once again, fail us?

What is the Climate Ambition Summit?

Back in March of this year, when the sobering IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report was released, the UN Secretary-General made a powerful speech calling the scientific report a ‘how-to guide to defuse the climate time-bomb.’ He also called for a quantum leap in climate action and announced an Acceleration Agenda for governments, the financial sector, and businesses. The upcoming Climate Ambition Summit will serve as an opportunity for those who have taken up the challenge to announce specific actions and commitments to deliver on this agenda.

The three tracks for the Acceleration Agenda are Ambition, Credibility and Implementation, outlined in more detail here.

Governments are being asked to commit to more ambitious emission reduction commitments for 2030 and beyond by 2025, as part of the regular cycle of updates in line with the latest science called for in the Paris Agreement, as well as to boost climate finance commitments from rich nations.

At the same time, businesses, states and others making commitments to net zero goals are being asked to ensure that these are robust commitments, with high standards for integrity and without harmful loopholes designed to perpetuate business-as-usual fossil fuel use while misleadingly invoking carbon management technologies as a panacea. A session on Loss and Damage is designed to help deliver on this critical climate justice outcome for COP28.

This is not meant to be a talk-fest, full of hot air and meaningless bloviation. This is a summit that is meant to be action-oriented. Secretary-General Guterres has made clear that countries that want to participate prominently in speaking roles must come to the table with a tangible increase in their climate commitments.

Some major world leaders—including US President Biden, British PM Sunak, and China’s President Xi Jinping—have already indicated that they will not attend the summit. (Special Envoy Kerry is expected to represent the United States) That is a worrying political signal about the seriousness with which countries are taking the goals of the summit.

Secretary-General Guterres is using the full moral and convening power of his position to shine the light on an urgent global crisis and genuine solutions to address it. Of course, the UN cannot compel national governments to do anything, and national governments have sovereignty over their decisions, but they will certainly feel the heat from their own people if they fail to step up. And meanwhile, climate- vulnerable countries are being forced to contend with impacts they have no choice over—impacts that are also undermining sustainable development goals—because of decisions imposed by richer, major polluters.

As the weekend’s climate march showed, all eyes are on world leaders to do better, and young people especially have run out of patience for half measures as they see their future threatened.

Here in the US, despite important progress on clean energy secured through the Inflation Reduction Act and other federal and state policies, fossil fuel production and exports continue to expand and threaten to undermine that forward momentum.  

What are the major goals of the summit?

The goals of the summit are for nations—especially richer countries and major emitters—to provide clear plans and commitments to advance climate action, including through:

  • Raising ambition in countries’ emission reduction goals. To deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement—limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible—nations must do more to cut global heat-trapping emissions quickly, including cutting them approximately in half within what’s left of this decade. The recent UN Global Stocktake report shows that current commitments (or Nationally Determined Contributions aka NDCs) are well off-track from science-based goals
  • Phasing out all fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas, with specific timelines and plans for that phaseout and without resorting to loopholes
  • Committing to ambitious 2030 goals for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and plans to ramp up beyond that as well.
  • Ratcheting up climate finance from richer nations. This funding is vital for low-and middle-income countries to quickly transition to clean energy and invest in climate resilience, yet richer nations have fallen well short of delivering on it
  • Operationalizing the Loss and Damage Fund at the upcoming UN climate talks in Dubai—also referred to as COP28—to deliver justice for the millions suffering on the frontlines of the climate crisis despite having contributed little to its creation.

What next?

The Climate Ambition Summit is one important political moment on the way to COP28 later this year. The goals of the summit are very much in accord with what we will be fighting for at COP28. Success at COP28 depends on securing significant footholds ahead of time that can help increase the level of goodwill and cooperation among nations to secure more ambitious and just outcomes at the UN climate conference.

In addition to this summit, world leaders must use every opportunity to make multilateral and bilateral progress on climate issues ahead of COP28, to ensure that nations arrive at COP in the best position to consolidate that progress and deliver a robust outcome. These opportunities include a meeting hosted by South Africa and Denmark on responding to the Global Stocktake report on September 21 ahead of a workshop October 12-14; Meetings to address operationalizing the Loss and Damage fund, including a Ministerial meeting on September 22 and the fourth Transitional Committee meeting on October 17-20; the conference for the second replenishment of the Green Climate Fund on October 5; and the Fall meetings of the World Bank and the IMF on October 9-15.

As a relatively rich country, the largest contributor to historical heat-trapping emissions, and a leading producer and exporter of fossil fuels, the US certainly has an important responsibility to help deliver on global climate goals. The Biden administration and Congress simply must do more, and faster.

It’s in our own self-interest to limit catastrophic climate change, and it is the only way to unlock the necessary reciprocal actions from other countries required to meet our collective global climate goals.

Self-interested and narrow geopolitical fights, as well as obstruction and deception from the fossil fuel industry, remain very significant challenges to addressing the climate crisis. But shame on world leaders if a year like this one—filled with tremendous suffering and exorbitant costs from human-caused climate change, and on track to be one of the hottest on record—is not enough to make them rise to the occasion.