7 key discussions around the NY UN Climate Summit

imagesOn the 23rd of September 2014, heads of state and leaders in finance, business and civil society gathered in New York City for the United Nations Climate Summit 2014. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon organized the high-level meeting, asking leaders to “bring bold announcements and actions to the Summit that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015”.

This summit was a critical step on the path towards a new climate deal at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit and ahead of the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru from the 1st to 12th of December 2014. As the world gears up for these events, we look at the key discussions and outcomes from the UN Climate Summit in New York. We also like this post – 7 charts that show why UN climate talks keep breaking down.

  1. Record temperatures

2014 saw Earth’s hottest summer with May, June and August all setting global heat records, as confirmed by scientists at NOAA and NASA. Although cooler in parts of the United States, Europe and Australia, August was a scorcher in the Pacific and Indian oceans and in Africa, and August and June were tied for the seas’ all-time highest temperature record.

  1. Peoples Climate March

As hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets on the 22nd September ahead of the summit it was clear that the international climate change movement is back and growing in force. And the general understanding of how climate change will affect people’s lives has diversified from focusing on fossil fuels alone (although in New York protestors campaigned for the UN to cut fossil fuels) to looking to its impact on food, water, health, agriculture and jobs, to name a few. Oxfam spurred its supporters into action, marching to prevent climate change exacerbating hunger. As Joern Fischer on his blog, Ideas for Sustainability, noted about the London march, “This was a march that felt different to most climate events in the past. This march surpassed all previous events in size and commitment but is clearly only the beginning of a long discussion about how future generations should live in the world.”

  1. The role of uncertainty

Despite enormous public pressure and support for mitigating climate change, there are still questions remaining regarding the science behind climate change predictions and the impacts of drastic changes. One article notes the risk that significant cuts in fossil fuel use would pose to billions of peoples’ lives. In another article the uncertainty of climate science is believed to need to be better communicated, as widespread acceptance of what is presented in say the IPCC reports can prevent meaningful academic and policy discussions. While, in the future, agreeing a new climate deal is critical, agreeing the wrong climate deal would be harmful, and so the uncertainty in our climate future and the trade-offs presented by various courses of mitigating action need further discussion.

  1. The role of China

Some of the media content around the summit pointed to the critical role China will play in determining whether we can prevent or reduce climate change. A number of climate scientists believe that for us to have a chance at mitigating dangerous climate change, China’s emissions need to peak at 2025 and then reduce. So far China have been quite resistant to a climate deal, they are an emerging economy and many countries in the west have been afforded the luxury of rapid development without concern for fossil fuel use. But China is now the world’s largest polluter and is predicted to become the world’s largest economy this year. Unless China can reduce its rapidly growing carbon emissions (China currently emits some 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year) then the chance of preventing the harmful impacts of climate change are non-existent.

  1. Don’t forget adaptation

Some commenters noted that discussions around adaptation were largely missing from Climate Summit talks. While mitigation is critical, Mark Suzman, president of Global Policy, Advocacy, and Country Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said in his article “we cannot overlook the importance of acting now to help the tens of millions of poor farmers in developing countries who are already suffering the devastating effects of climate change”.

Climate impacts, such as increased drought and pests, are already lowering crop yields for many farmers in developing countries, impacting food prices and accessibility. In the future, yields of major crops are expected to be significantly impacted by climate change, even with immediate mitigation. Helping farmers to cope with such dramatic changes in growing conditions is critical to food security and human development. A recent report by the Climate Policy Initiative states that only about 6% of global climate funds go towards adaptation, the rest to mitigation. Recently the CGIAR announced that the majority of its funding will go to help farmers adapt to climate change.

At the Summit, one initiative announced was The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, developed by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, which aims to achieve reduced emissions and increases in yields. ActionAid, however, criticised the initiative for lacking a clear definition of what Climate Smart agriculture was, stating this lack of clarity could be used as a way of transferring emissions to poorer countries to meet developed country emissions reductions targets.H

  1. Economic gains

New economic analyses including the New Climate Economy report dispel the notion that climate change mitigation will slow economic growth. For example, switching to renewable energy sources, which for the most part are free, would save an estimated 5$ trillion by 2030. Health costs would also be reduced, which in some of the most polluting countries can be as high as 4 to 10% of GDP. This report presents the hopeful message that future economic growth does not have to be carbon-heavy but the report has been criticised for presenting a view that the current economic system only requires small changes to work for the climate. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein suggests it is a failed economic model that drives inequality and climate change, and more wholesale changes are needed.

Alternatively We Mean Business, a coalition of world-leading business and climate organizations, aiming to tackle climate change and transition to a low carbon future, published a report entitled, The Climate Has Changed, which reviews actions and investments of companies which reported their emissions over the past three years. The report “provides compelling evidence that smart climate action make business sense”. Over the past two years around 1,450 companies reported carbon savings of just over 420 million metric tons through investment of over US$140 billion in low carbon projects. Coalitions and reports such as these, critically show that businesses can play a huge role in cutting emissions and avoiding climate change, which poses a huge threat to businesses and the economy.

  1. Money, money, money

The general feeling on the outcome of the summit seems to be that yes there were significant pledges made but not enough. The U.N. Secretary-General’s office estimates that the summit resulted in a financing package of more than $200 billion from public and private sources and the amount of funding pledged to the Green Climate Fund more than doubled with France promising $1 billion over four years. The $2.3 billion pledged so far, however, is still a long way from the fundraising target of $10 billion by 2014 and many countries including the UK and US were silent on the scale of their pledges. The Fund is designed to support developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change, and has an agreed target of raising $100 billion annually by 2020. The latest IPCC scientific assessment report, predicts that by 2040 climate change could cost Africa $460bn or 4% of the continent’s GDP.

Other commitments included China’s pledge to triple support for South-South cooperation on climate change, and to give $6 million to the U.N. Secretary-General’s office to support developing country learning and collaboration. More than $500 million was also committed to address the linkages between forests and climate change.

Divestment, halting investment in coal, natural gas and oil companies, was also a big issues at the summit. An investor coalition of the U.N. Environment Programme Finance Initiative, the Carbon Disclosure Project and two of Europe’s largest pension funds committed to divest from $100 billion in fossil fuels. Ahead of this announcement the Rockefeller Foundation revealed that it would be divesting from fossil fuels. National development banks of the International Development Finance Club (IDFC) and the multilateral development banks announced they will continue increasing their spending on low-carbon and climate-resilient development. While the World Bank, pointed out that it has allocated more than $42 billion to maximise global investment in climate-related activities.

Whether the Summit has created a momentum toward achieving more ambitious and binding commitments on emissions reductions and climate financing remains to be seen. What is clear is that public momentum is growing, the climate movement is gaining strength and people want to see pledges and commitments being turned into real action.

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