World leaders outline plans to tackle climate change

25 September 2014

Tuesday’s much-anticipated UN climate summit in New York saw 125 heads of state take the opportunity to highlight their national climate efforts, while unveiling a raft of new financial commitments in this area.

Among others, these included the mobilisation of US$200 billion for financing low-carbon and climate resilient development, calls for carbon pricing, a declaration to halt deforestation, and a promise to scale up renewable energy access in Africa and small island states.

The largest-ever gathering of world leaders on climate change took place at the invitation of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who urged participants to act in order to “set the world on a new course.”

The meeting also aimed to build momentum around a global climate agreement, which governments hope to hammer out by next December. The planned deal, which would take effect from 2020 onward, would be geared towards keeping world temperatures below a two-degree Celsius rise compared with pre-industrial levels.

Conducted under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the next major round in these talks will be in December in Lima, Peru, with technical meetings set for October.

Many leaders on Tuesday reaffirmed their commitment to agree to a meaningful deal through the UN process, including by reaching a first draft in time for Peru, and by outlining their national contributions by the first quarter of 2015. (See BioRes, 17 June 2014)

Reining in emissions

The climate fanfare follows repeated warning from scientists, such as those from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the damaging consequences of ballooning emissions. (See BioRes, 14 April 2014)

A number of countries on Tuesday outlined their current efforts to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including calling for these to peak before 2020, and a desire to achieve climate neutrality by the second half of the century.

The EU, represented by outgoing Commission chief José Manuel Barroso, said it would reduce emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The promise augurs well for an October meeting of EU heads of state where the bloc plans to agree to its climate regime for 2020-2030.

For his part, US President Barack Obama affirmed that his country was on track to cut its emissions by 17 percent by the end of the decade from 2005 levels, and that his Administration would continue to implement climate policies such as the recently-announced move to cut emissions from existing domestic power plants. (See BioRes, 9 June 2014)

“The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it,” the US leader warned, calling for more to be done.

Obama said that the new global deal must move past the rich-poor country divide in the current regime to include emerging economies, adding that he had just met with China’s vice premier Zhang Gaoli on the subject. 

China, whose carbon emissions now outstrip those of both the EU and the US combined, signalled a willingness to make sure its emissions peaked “as early as possible.” The Asian giant does not currently have an absolute cap on emissions, an issue that many experts deem critical to the UN climate talks. Media reports earlier this month indicated that Beijing is preparing to put in place a national carbon market from 2016. (See BioRes, 12 September 2014)

Carbon prices and market-based emissions trading schemes have both gained traction in recent years as viable policy tools. Ahead of Tuesday’s summit, some 73 countries, regional governments, and more than 1000 business figures – collectively responsible for 54 percent of world greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – signed on to support carbon pricing initiatives.

The New York gathering also saw the announcement of new initiatives to tackle particularly potent and escalating greenhouse gases, including calls by over 20 countries and 10 international organisations for the launch of formal negotiations for an amendment under the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

New climate economy

Fears that strong climate legislation could hinder further growth and development, harm export competitiveness, or cause industries to move overseas to less stringent climate regimes – known as carbon leakage – have been tricky to navigate in international negotiations.

Among the thematic discussions held Tuesday, one panel looked at the economic case for climate action. The session drew on the New Climate Economy report, released prior to the conference by a panel of world leaders and experts.

“The New Climate Economy report refutes the idea that we must choose between fighting climate change or growing the world’s economy. That is a false dilemma,” said former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, chair of the commission that produced the report.

The report argues that the next 15 years will mark a critical phase in world development. Fundamental shifts such as mass migrations to urban centres and rapid technological advances could see up to US$90 trillion invested in urban, land use, and energy system infrastructure in that period. The direction of these investments will likely determine the shape and health of the global economy.

The study also includes a section on the role of trade agreements in buoying the world’s green transformation. Efforts to speed up the resolution of WTO disputes around low-carbon trade are called for, as well as language in regional trade agreements to boost green commerce.

Spats around renewables trade have become increasingly frequent both at the WTO and elsewhere, raising questions around how governments design sustainable energy support policies.

A group of 14 WTO members – including the US, EU, and China – is currently in the early stages of negotiating an Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA), which would slash tariffs on select green goods. The move has been billed by participants as an effort from the trade world to contribute to tackling climate change. (See BioRes, 15 July 2014)

Climate cash flow

As predicted by climate watchers, Tuesday’s meet included a number of financial pledges earmarked to scale-up climate action and cope with the impacts that are already locked in.

A combination of announcements from governments, the investment community, and institutions promised US$200 billion would be made available by the end of 2015.

The new financial commitments include US$30 billion in climate finance from commercial banks in the form of green bonds by 2015 and a promise of US$3 billion channelled from the EU to developing countries between 2014-2020.

A total of US$2.3 billion in financial pledges was made to a Green Climate Fund (GCF) from six countries, with a further six indicating that a contribution announcement would follow later this year. A new US$1 billion offer for the GCF from France for 2015-2018 was among the largest made on Tuesday.

The GCF is designed to boost a low-carbon transition in developing economies and help the world’s poorest deal with the impact of climate change. The fund is also supposed to assist developed countries in coming through on a 2009 pledge to set aside US$100 billion per year by 2020 in climate funds, with US$10 billion a year as “fast start” financing for the period 2010-2012.

It is still not quite clear, however, what portion of the climate finance pledge will be managed by the green fund.

Good news for forests, agriculture, renewables

A boon for forests came on Tuesday as more than 130 governments, companies, civil society groups, and indigenous peoples endorsed a New York Declaration on Forests, which for the first time promises to end forest loss by the end of 2030, along with restoring over 350 million hectares of forest and croplands.

These actions, if undertaken, could cut between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2030, according to a UN press release – equal to removing one billion cars from the road.

Other commitments at Tuesday’s summit included over 20 governments and 30 organisations signing up to new actions under the UN’s Global Alliance for Smart-Agriculture, which seeks to build food systems capable of handling a changing climate.

The summit also witnessed a collective pledge from public and private actors to channel over US$50 billion away from fossil fuel investments and into new energy sources during the next three to five years. Sending market signals such as shifting funds away from fossil fuel projects plays a role in transitioning to a cleaner energy mix, economists say.

Separately, a coalition of governments and stakeholders announced two initiatives set to expand access to renewable energy for eastern and southern African economies, as well as small island developing states.

Peru and beyond

Not all were complimentary of Tuesday’s proceedings, with Nelson Mandela’s widow Graça Machel among those warning that the rhetoric did not match the scale of the problem. As the dust settles, time will tell whether sufficient momentum has been built to navigate the tricky climate negotiations ahead.

“Climate2014 Summit closes with a vast array of action announcements. This is wind in the sails of the UNFCCC process!” UNFCCC Secretariat chief Christiana Figueres said on social media site Twitter, seemingly confident of the boost the summit provided.

Meanwhile, French President François Hollande said next year’s Paris meeting would be a pivotal moment.

“Paris is a city where a large revolution once took place and in December 2015 there should be another revolution around climate change,” the French leader concluded.

ICTSD reporting; “Finance finally on horizon for UN’s Green Climate Fund,” RTCC, 15 September 2014; “China drives world carbon emissions to a record high,” REUTERS, 21 September 2014; “Rockefellers join anti-fossil fuel drive,” FINANCIAL TIMES; 22 September 2014; “7 areas of climate action at the UN climate summit,” RTCC, 23 September 2014; “Climate summit ends with rebuke to leaders,” THE FINANCIAL TIMES; 24 September 2014.

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