We all know that the impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere and are having very real consequences on people’s lives. Global emissions are reaching record levels and the last four years were the four hottest on record, with winter temperatures in the Arctic having risen by three degrees Celsius since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heat waves and risks to food security.
Now, while these changes disrupt our national economies to cost us dearly, there is a growing recognition that attainable solutions are available now that will enable us all to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies. Individual commitments to save our planet is already on the rise, but we all understand just how crucial it has become to mobilize the international community now more than ever. And this was why the UN Climate Action Summit that took place in New York last month gave me hope and optimism.
In the weeks leading up to the Summit, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres relayed that this was to be an ‘action summit’, not another form of negotiation with nature. While calling on world leaders to come armed with realistic plans to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade –down to net zero emissions by 2050- Antonio reiterated that the time for flowery speeches was over. In his opinion, we already are battling against time here and at this point our quickness to action is our only chance of surmounting the climate emergency we all face.
More than 60 world leaders took the stage at the summit to talk about their revised contributions to the fight against greenhouse gas emissions; most of them from small countries with relatively low emissions. They promised to deploy more clean energy and retire fossil fuel power plants, and wealthier nations pledged international assistance for countries dealing with the most severe consequences of warming. In the aftermath of all these however, it seemed that the attention of mainstream media was drawn a lot more to the unsavory aspects of the summit rather than on the whole picture.
Much was said about China, the United States and India being more or less non-committal at the summit despite being the largest green gas emitters in the world. There was also the buzz made about Trump’s brief stay at the event; more buzz about his insistence on pulling out of the Paris Agreement and how he had repeatedly shown contempt for policies that limit greenhouse gas emissions in the past. Oh and let’s not forget the even bigger media buzz about the facial expressions of Greta Thunberg upon seeing Donald Trump.
Now the effect of all the negative information being replayed and analyzed by the media is that the positive developments from the summit tend to be watered down, drowned out by all the noise. The narrative adopted by many media sites in this case isn’t complete because there were actually various encouraging highlights and outcomes from the Climate Action Summit; and these include the following:
- The UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced that there are now 70 countries planning to come up with tougher Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to curb climate change in 2020. The enhancers include Norway, Argentina, Ethiopia, and Turkey. This number is up from just 23 countries before the summit and these countries together represent 6.8% of global emissions.
- Several countries at the summit demonstrated next steps on how they will upgrade their NDCs by next year, with the aim to collectively reduce emissions by at least 45% by the year 2030. 59 nations signaled their intentions to submit an enhanced climate action plan (NDCs) and an additional 11 nations have started an internal process to boost these ambitions and have them reflected in their national plans. Other countries, like Guatemala, pledged to restore 1.5 million hectares of forestland by 2022 and Nigeria said it would employ youth to plant 25 million trees.
- The President of Chile Sebastian Pinera announced the ‘Climate Ambition Alliance’ which Chile hopes to build in the lead-up to the COP25 coming up in Santiago a few weeks from now. This Alliance brings together nations upscaling action by 2020 as well as those working towards achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
- Former Microsoft chair Bill Gates announced $790 million to help small-scale farmers adapt to climate change, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, and several governments.
- Almost 90 multinational companies, including Danone, Nestlé and IKEA with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion and representing over 4.2 million employees, have committed to implement the 1.5 degrees target across their operations and reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.
- President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands announced that her country would reach net-zero emissions by 2050, a difficult task for an island country with limited land that highly depends on imported fossil fuels. A further 15 countries promised to do the same: Belize, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Grenada, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Saint Lucia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Vanuatu.
- Getting out of coal is a priority. The Powering Past Coal Alliance expanded to include 30 countries, 22 States or regions, and 31 corporations committed to ending their reliance on coal, stopping the building of new coal plants next year and rapidly transitioning to renewable energy. This includes Germany, one of the world’s largest users of lignite, the dirtiest form of coal.
- Most importantly, all initiatives presented to the General Assembly at this Summit were captured on the UNFCCC Global Climate Action Portal. This portal will track the progress on commitments made in order to guide the implementation phase of the Paris Agreement post-2020; and towards the global stock-take in 2023.
The purpose of this article is very simple; to bring these resolutions and commitments to the knowledge of as many people as possible. That way, we can begin the next step of holding the governments and institutions accountable for their commitments. The more people who are aware, the better. Climate action impacts our collective futures, so it’s vital that we don’t just leave it to the diplomats and politicians.
In addition, as we hold our leaders and governments accountable for their actions or lack thereof, we should also make the effort to commend them when they take positive steps to do the right thing. All in all, it’s impressive that the summit motivated so many countries in a short period of time. Of course, in an ideal world, every nation should be on board, but we are talking about a fundamental change in the way our societies and economies operate and some nations are bound to act slower than others. Regardless, the plans and commitments made by many world leaders at the Climate Action Summit has inspired hope in millions of people across the globe and this is a reason to celebrate.
It has been a month since the nations gathered to discuss the subject of climate change, and it’s still too soon to say decisively whether the summit has led to action but we will keep watching and evaluating. The next opportunity for international climate negotiation is the Santiago Climate Change Conference in December. At this gathering, nations are expected to hone out exactly how they plan to meet their pledges. The countries that still haven’t upgraded their NDCs will face another round of pressure to curb their emissions and if the results are as impressive as what we saw from Climate Change Summit, I for one will breathe much easier.
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Title image via of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson via Shutterstock.