UN climate summit: Mandela’s widow says leaders lack courage

Graca Machel, member of the Elders group, attacks world leaders for weak promises at New York summit

(Pic: UN Photos)

(Pic: UN Photos)

By Ed King in New York

Nelson Mandela’s widow delivered a stinging rebuke to world leaders attending the UN’s New York summit on Tuesday, accusing them of lacking the courage to address climate change.

Addressing the General Assembly at the close of the one-day meeting, Graca Machel said there was a “huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard today”.

She added: “You, our leaders, you must have the courage that will make you unpopular for thousands of your citizens.”

Machel’s views stood in stark contrast to those of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who moments earlier had congratulated world leaders who attended the meeting.

“Today was a great day, an historic day” he said. ‘Never before have so many leaders come together to back climate action.”

The summit, billed as the first major climate meeting since 2009, offered a platform for more than 120 heads of state to outline their strategy to tackle climate change.

Virtually everyone backed plans for a UN climate agreement and confirmed their government’s support for the principle of curbing global emissions.

But most speeches were heavy on rhetoric and light on detail, offering few clues on what chances the world has to avoid dangerous levels of warming.

In a rare moment of clarity, France president Francois Hollande offered the UN’s Green Climate Fund $1 billion.

South Korea pledged $100m, while Mexico said it would contribute $10m to a fund designed to boost clean energy investments in developing countries.

According to Oxfam climate finance specialist Tim Gore this means the GCF can expect over $2 billion of public money to be delivered, an significant boost in one day but well short of the fund’s goal of raising $10bn by the end of 2014.

Tensions at UN headquarters rose ahead of scheduled speeches by US president Barack Obama and China’s vice premier Zhang Gaoli.

In a lengthy speech aimed at a domestic audience, Obama challenged China to act “like a big country” saying the US would reveal its contribution to a proposed UN climate deal in early 2015, and called on China to do the same.

“We have a special responsibility to lead. That’s what big nations have to do,” he said. Quoting Martin Luther King, Obama added: “there is such a thing as being too late.”

Speaking moments later, China’s vice premier Zhang Gaoli said the country was now aiming for a greenhouse gas emissions peak after 2020, and would provide enhanced levels of financial support to fellow countries in the global south.

It was a significant moment, and according to Jake Schmidt from the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, the first time a Chinese official that close to the apex of government has made such a pledge.

Obama and Gaoli’s speeches formed the unofficial centrepiece of Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit, held 15 months before countries are expected to sign off proposals to limit warming to below 2C, a level deemed safe by scientists.

Heads of state and leading officials crammed into the huge General Assembly hall to hear the two men speak, aware that the future of any global agreement largely depends on the political will in Beijing and Washington.

And despite previous warnings from chairman Ban over long speeches, officials did not even bother to turn on the clock behind Obama. Every word added credibility to proceedings.

UK energy and climate secretary Ed Davey told RTCC the new focus from China and the US on climate change was a major positive from the New York meeting.

“If you go and talk to the Americans you hear a message you have never heard before,” he said. “Real leadership and action. If you talk to the Chinese I think the air pollution in some of their cities has awoken both the people and the government and they are action now.”

Davey was keen to highlight a UK’s pledge worth £140m to finance forest protection, as part of a joint announcement to protect forests by Norway, Germany and Peru, backed by $300m.

But these efforts are unlikely to stem the loss of habitat in the Amazon, with Brazil president Dilma Roussef pointedly telling delegates the future of the world’s largest rainforest was a matter for her government, and no-one else.

“We will not relinquish the need to reduce inequalities and raise the living standards of our people. We, developing countries, have the same right to welfare,” she said.

In a later press conference Izabella Texeira, the Brazilian environment minister accused developed countries of excluding it from negotiations.

Business leadership

In his closing remarks, Ban – rarely out of the limelight on what must have been an exhausting day – said the level of commitments had left him confident that the path to Paris was becoming clear.

He reserved specific praise for announcements made by business leaders before and during the meeting.

Earlier on Tuesday the UN announced that a total of $200bn had been pledged by financial bodies towards the low carbon economy.

And later in the day Brian Moynihan, Bank of America Chief Executive Officer told a session chair by Mexico president Pene Nieto the green bond market was set to expand to $300 billion by 2020.

News that 73 countries and over 1000 companies had started to embrace carbon trading was also positive Ban said, citing a World Bank study, which said over 50% of global GDP was generated from regions which priced carbon.

Dirk Forrister, head of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), told RTCC business executives had stressed the role of carbon markets to government officials attending a private sector lunch.

“Hearing that from CEOs is perhaps the right voice, and they certainly got a strong message from Al Gore and [Californian] governor Brown,” he said.

The sense of urgency heightened as the day drew on, with small meetings taking place across UN headquarters, alongside large set piece events focusing on security, health, finance and transport.

As the clock passed five, Unilever’s chief executive Paul Polman was in deep conversation with the UN’s chief climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri. The White House’s lead climate official John Podesta chatted amiably to business executives.

Earlier in the afternoon lead US climate negotiator Todd Stern met his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua, burnishing what is likely to be a critical relationship in the lead up to Paris.

But despite the rousing summary from Ban, and a song by British pop star Natasha Bedingfield, the final results left some disappointed.

The ACT Alliance, a collection of 140 churches, described the summit as a victory for short term national interests.

“While many countries committed to work toward a binding Paris agreement, far fewer committed to long term goals of decarbonization, adaptation and equitable risk sharing,” it said in a statement.

PwC’s Jonathan Grant warned against taking the slew of activities and ambitions listed during the day at face value.

“It will take time to sort the new announcements from the old, and to understand whether the new announcements are a step change from business as usual,” he said.

Other analysts appeared less concerned, claiming the real achievements of the meeting were less visible.

“No leader will now be able to go to Paris and say they did not know about climate change,” said the NRDC’s Schmidt.

And Yvo de Boer, who led UN efforts to secure a climate agreement in 2009, told RTCC he felt the meeting should be repeated in the lead-up to Paris next year, to ensure leaders were reminded of their responsibilities.

“I’ll be interested to see if BKM announces another event next September, I think that actually be a would be a very good idea,” he said.

“This is an opportunity to take the process out of its coma for political leaders, but Paris is still quite far away, so if something like this were to happen in September of 2015, just a couple of months before the Paris conference I think that would be a perfect opportunity to really focus leaders at that moment in time on the key political issues that need to be resolved.”

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