The United Nations Climate summit today was unforgettably disappointing to climate activists, who hoped that today might mark a new era in climate action.
“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you,” teen climate activist Greta Thunberg told the UN delegates inan opening statementat the summit.
Researchers have said that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world needs to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, a goal that is far beyond most countries’ current commitments. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today,” Thunberg said. “Because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.”
World leaders are gathering this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly, which this year opened with a whole lot of fanfare around climate change. Secretary-General António Guterres convened the special September 23 summit on climate change with the aim of pressuring countries to ramp up their individual actions on the issue. Anticipation has been building for months prior to the event, culminating in millions of people participating in climate strikes across the world on Friday. But some of the biggest economies and polluters have yet to ramp up their pledges to reduce emissions.
“While countries were expected to come to the Summit to announce that they would enhance their climate ambition, most of the major economies fell woefully short,” Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the environmental organization the World Resources Institute, said in a statement. “Their lack of ambition stands in sharp contrast with the growing demand for action around the world.”
The expected commitments were an update on pledges that countries made during the landmark Paris climate accord in 2015. That’s when 195 nations agreed to work together to stop the world from warming beyond the crucial tipping point that scientists identified as 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Building on those commitments is crucial, the combined strength of all the countries’ current action plans still only limit global warming to somewhere between2.7 and 3.7 degrees Celsius.
So far,65 countrieshave said that they will up their national climate targets — but that’s not enough. China, the US and India are the world’s biggest emitters of planet-warming greenhouse gases, so their commitments stand to make the biggest impact on preventing a climate crisis. But these three haven’t yet given clear pledges to increase action ahead of a 2020 deadline to update their national climate plans. That is, assuming all three countries remain committed to the agreement.
President Trump, who has derailed federal action on climate and pledged to take the US out of the Paris agreement, sat in on today’s summit for all of 15 minutes. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at the summit that he would more than double increase the target for his country’s renewable energy mix to a goal of 450 gigawatts. But his remarks didn’t include a concrete timeline, or commitment to raise India’s official carbon emission reduction targets under the Paris Agreement. China highlighted the pace at which its worked to meet its current goals, but also did not signal exactly how it might raise ambitions in its climate plan moving forward.
Environmental advocates say continued pressure will be necessary to achieve the bold moves they’re hoping to see from countries. “This largely disappointing set of outcomes from the Climate Action Summit raises the stakes even higher for the upcoming [United Nations climate conferences in December 2019 and 2020], when leaders have another chance to lead or let down, once again,” Oxfam International executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said in a statement for the development organization. “We cannot keep pushing these decisions down the road – we are running out of time.”
But some small island nations, which are vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather events connected to climate change, are charging forward andcalling on others to follow their lead. The Marshall Islands declared a “climate crisis” and updated its commitments to try to reach the more ambitious target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“History will judge this #ClimateActionSummit by whether countries submit plans next year to increase their Paris targets & to reach net zero [carbon emissions] by 2050. The Marshall Islands has done so but not enough have followed our lead,” President Hilda Heinetweeted.
The climate action summit did have some wins. Companies and countries got a high-platform international stage to showcase climate solutions that are already at work, including renewable energy and disaster preparedness efforts. And the summit led to more money to help developing nations with their climate efforts through the Green Climate Fund. Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway among others, doubled their current pledges to the fund, helping that fund reach $7 billion.
Smaller regional players and businesses are stepping up alongside national leaders. Germany and Slovakia were joined by New Jersey and Puerto Rico in a promise to stop opening new coal plants after 2020. There are now 32 national governments, 25 subnational governments and 34 businesses that have committed to no new coal plants.
Set against this backdrop of modest ambition, calls for bolder action from young climate activists like Thunberg rung out throughout the event. By the end of the day she and 15 others between the ages of 8 and 17 had filed acomplaintto the United Nations claiming that inadequate action on climate change constitutes a violation of their rights as children.
Despite the conference fizzling out without a significant increase in ambitious, concrete commitments from the planet’s biggest polluters, Thunberg kept her resolve to keep pushing forward. “We have to prepare ourselves for the worst and continue even if [the summit] has a bad outcome,” she said at a press event in the afternoon, “everything we do matters.”