Climate Summit: Five things you need to know

The UN Climate Summit in New York saw a host of impassioned speeches, revamped national commitments and new industry-led initiatives. But what does this all mean for your business? Edie's round-up should help...

More than 120 international figureheads descended upon the UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday (23 September) to raise political momentum for a meaningful universal climate agreement in Paris 2015 and galvanise transformative action to curb runaway greenhouse gas emissions.

So… was this a successful day of positive pledges for tangible action, or – as Friends of the Earth puts it – a ‘fool’s paradise out of touch with the climate emergency we are facing’? Here’s a round-up of the key points from the Summit once you get beyond the boilerplate. 

1) China pledges emissions action

China has, for the first time in its history, pledged to take firm action on climate change, with a commitment to curb emissions by 2020.

Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli said China’s emissions – the world’s highest – would be reduced by 45% per unit of carbon, compared with levels in 2005.

“As a responsible major country – a major developing country – China will make even greater effort to address climate change,” Zhang said. “Five years after Copenhagen, China is in a vastly different position. Domestic air pollution is forcing the country to embark on a new path away from coal and 2014 saw the lowest coal consumption growth in a decade.

“All countries need to follow the path of green and low carbon development that suits their national conditions [and] set forth post-2020 actions in light of actual circumstances.”

2) Carbon pricing receives full UN support

“Let us also put a price on carbon,” proclaimed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his opening remarks at the Summit. “There is no more powerful way to drive the market transformation we need.”

Seventy-three countries and 22 states, provinces and cities joined over 1,000 businesses and investors in signalling their support for an internal price on the heat-trapping emissions.

To accelerate the transition to carbon pricing, the World Bank Group, World Economic Forum and We Mean Business Coalition announced they would convene a carbon pricing leadership coalition with business and Government leaders.

Among those joining the ‘Put a Price on Carbon’ statement read out at the Summit was consumer goods giant Unilever, which wrote “Many of the impacts of our operations fall outside our direct control so we need to engage governments to create an environment that is supportive to meeting the big sustainability challenge the world faces.”

3) Governments and businesses set a date to end deforestation

A public-private partnership of multinationals, governments, civil society and indigenous peoples have pledged to halve the rate of deforestation by 2020 and eradicate the issue completely by 2030

The ‘New York Declaration on Forests’ has been endorsed by the US, the EU and a large number of tropical forest countries, as well as multinationals from the food, paper, finance and other industries.

The global pledge will eliminate the emission of between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year – the equivalent to removing the carbon emissions produced by the one billion cars that are currently on the world’s roads.

But a significant blow to the anti-deforestation pledge came when Brazil refused to sign up, with the nation’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira telling the Associated Press the Declaration had been drafted behind closed doors at the United Nations without Brazil’s participation.

4) Cameron calls for legally-binding climate change treaty

Delivering a four-minute address to the UN at the Summit, the Prime Minister called for the international community to come together behind a ‘new, ambitious global deal’ to restrict global warming to 2C.

“We need to give business the certainty it needs to invest in low carbon,” said Cameron. “That means fighting against the economically and environmentally perverse fossil-fuel subsidies which distort free markets and rip off taxpayers.

“It means championing green trade, slashing tariffs on things like solar panels. “It means giving business the flexibility to pick the right technologies for their needs. “In short – we need a framework built on green growth not green tape.”

Contrary to reports earlier on in the day, Cameron did not promote shale gas as a means of combatting climate change, but he did stress that the UK would be ‘investing in all forms of lower carbon energy including shale gas and nuclear, with the first new nuclear plant coming on stream for a generation’.

5) Some are calling the Summit ‘a fool’s paradise’…

Despite all of the above, it’s important to note that the event was not a ‘formal’ negotiation on climate change, but a step towards getting a climate deal signed at a summit in Paris at the end of next year. Many organisations are arguing the financial pledges tabled in New York had no specifics or timelines.

Friends of the Earth’s international climate justice and energy coordinator Dipti Bhatnagar said: “The Climate Summit was a fool’s paradise out of touch with the climate emergency we are facing.” 

“Polluters like Statoil and Shell are unwilling to change and their influence is undermining the UN and our governments. Scientists are telling us that renewables, not fossil fuels, must become the core of our future energy mix, starting now, in order to avoid the worst the climate crisis may bring.

During the Summit, six energy companies did announce that they had signed a pact to curb methane emissions. But Bhatnagar pointed out: “The energy companies pact is a purely voluntary pact – they are not under obligation to disclose their emissions. This pact is just one additional half-baked corporate measure, a drop in the ocean when it comes to saving the climate. But it will surely help companies greenwashing their dirty image.”

Mark Kenber, chief executive of The Climate Group, had a more positive outlook after the Summit. He said: “The good news from today’s summit is that an unprecedented number of heads of state and government committed again to a global climate agreement. But what really made a difference for me is the concrete plans brought to the table by the corporate sector and sub-national governments with the money to invest behind them. Finally, we are seeing shift here from words to action.

“What we witnessed today, and throughout Climate Week NYC, is a series of converging tipping points: the public pressure, the acceptance of the science and an increasing recognition that both the economics and the technology are in place to embrace a clean revolution. This makes it now inevitable that we take things forward.”

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