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The time for talk has passed

  • Five things we learnt from the UN Climate Action Summit in New York
  • More countries pledge deeper carbon cuts, and more funds made available for climate change adaptation

Average global temperatures between 2015-19 have been the highest on record, while CO2 emissions keep rising. Photo: Getty Images
Average global temperatures between 2015-19 have been the highest on record, while CO2 emissions keep rising. Photo: Getty Images

When UN secretary general António Guterres convened the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September, he was very clear on its objectives. “This is not a climate talk summit. We have had enough talk. This is not a climate negotiating summit, because we don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit…the ticket to entry is not a beautiful speech, but concrete action. And you are here with commitments," he said in the opening remarks in New York. And commitments there were aplenty, even though some of the world’s biggest emitters, like the US and China, didn’t commit anything at all. Here’s what we learnt.


At the Paris climate agreement in 2015, countries came up with individual nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to lower carbon emissions by 2020. Next year, countries will have to come up with another round of NDCs, promising to meet even more stringent carbon targets.

To this end, the summit was a success, as 70 countries have now announced that they will indeed come up with stronger NDCs, a jump from only 23 countries before the summit. But while this list includes countries like Norway, with its sizeable oil industry, and Turkey, a strategic player in international oil and gas, it doesn’t include the world’s biggest polluters. That might yet change when countries meet in Chile in December for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) COP25 conference. That’s where the nuts and bolts of individual national pledges will be discussed and updated.


India, the world’s third biggest emitter, is in line with its 2015 NDCs and on track to achieve its “2 degrees Celsius" compatible climate action targets. To this end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that by 2022, India’s renewable energy production would rise from 175 gigawatts to 450 gigawatts (India’s current total installed power capacity is 330 gigawatts). However, the fact that India’s coal consumption increased by 27 million tonnes in 2017 alone and that coal minister Prahlad Joshi has announced enhanced domestic coal production, from 730 MT to 1,149 MT by FY2023, dampens hopes that India will take the lead in reducing emissions. It remains to be seen what sort of targets India sets to become “1.5 degrees Celsius" compatible.


The big shift in current thinking is towards adaptation, since it is now clear that certain global warming effects have been set in motion and are unavoidable, even if the world drastically curbs emissions soon. At the summit, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced $790 million (around 5,530 crore) for climate change adaptation for small farmers. This will be financed by the governments of the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK, as well as by the European Commission, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Staying with this theme, the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries reduce emissions while also helping them restore ecosystems and adapt to global warming, got a boost, with wealthy nations such as Canada, France, Sweden and the UK pledging to bring the fund up to $7 billion.


The other big announcement at the summit was the launch of the Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance (NZAOA), a consortium of insurers and pension funds that together manage $2.4 trillion. They pledged to shift their portfolios away from carbon-intensive industries by 2050. Oliver Bäte, CEO of the German insurance firm Allianz, which is part of the NZAOA, said, “Mitigating climate change is the challenge of our lifetime."


And yet, is all this enough? Apart from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impact on oceans and the cryosphere that was released on 25 September, the other big scientific announcement this week was the United In Science report published on 22 September. Compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for the summit’s science advisory group, its findings are dire. CO2 emissions continue to grow by over 1% annually, which means that global emissions won’t peak even by 2030 (2020 was the target). Average global temperatures for 2015-19 have been the highest on record, while food insecurity is increasing year-on-year due to climate variability and extremes. The report called for countries to deepen their NDCs and decrease emissions fivefold to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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