New York summit: what it means for climate treaty prospects

The world’s superpowers have woken from their climate coma, but there is still much work to do towards a global deal

The UN's New York headquarters (Pic: United Nations Photo/Flickr)

The UN’s New York headquarters
(Pic: United Nations Photo/Flickr)

By Ed King

The world’s superpowers have finally woken from their climate coma.

That was the message from the UK’s secretary of state for energy and climate change Ed Davey, speaking on the sidelines of the UN’s climate summit in New York.

“If you talk to the Americans, you hear a message you have never heard before. Real leadership and action,” he told RTCC.

“If you talk to the Chinese the issue of air pollution in some of their big cities has awoken the people and government to the environmental challenge.

“And I think the new government in New Delhi, prime minister Modi has a deep understanding of climate issues… all the signs are we’ll see action from the Indians on an ambitious level.”

For a global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas levels to work, Davey will have to be right. Those three countries account for nearly 50% of the world’s annual emissions.

Last week it was revealed China now emits more than the US and EU combined. India is also set to overtake the EU by 2019, as its vast economy expands – although its emissions per capita are far behind the Western world’s.

Countries are currently engaged in negotiations over an international agreement to limit global warming to below 2C, a level deemed safe by scientists.

This week the US and China confirmed their support for that process.

China’s vice premier Zhang Gaoli said early next year it would reveal when its emissions will peak, likely to be in the 2020s. US president Barack Obama said he would announce new climate targets beyond 2020 by March 2015.

India offered a more hardline view. Environment minister Prakash Javedkhar rejected calls for Delhi to accept emission cuts, calling on developed countries to “walk the talk”.

The New York Times reported Javedkhar’s comments as being a “blow” to hopes for a climate deal. But in reality the minister was simply sticking to a familiar script, part of a well rehearsed negotiating strategy.

Given that 400 million Indians are still without electricity, it seems inconceivable India will accept tough carbon cuts in a 2015 deal, but Modi will need to offer more assurances on capping coal use.

EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, said on Thursday India “had to be part” of a climate deal, but outlined a set of climate goals for beyond 2020 that could be more palatable to Delhi.

“They have big needs; what we could see from India is what are they doing on renewables, efficiency, how are they pushing a low carbon development strategy, not total cuts. There the US and China will have to go before India,” she said.

Paris push

Amid all the backslapping and talk of tipping points, there is now a sense from ministers and climate negotiators that the final push to Paris has now started.

Three events in the next three months stand out, each critical in their own way.

First, EU leaders need to sign off their 2030 climate package in late October. This will set the tone for the US and Chinese pledges for a 2015 deal.

If Brussels fails to deliver it would be a “disaster” said Gambia’s environment minister Pa Ousman Jarju, who also speaks for the Least Developed Countries group.

Second, the Green Climate Fund will convene a final resource mobilisation meeting in early November, scheduled to take place in Oslo.

Just $2.3bn has been promised by governments so far, the bulk from Germany and France, well off the $10 billion demanded by the fund’s chief.

That’s a shortfall the US, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands need to make up, says Oxfam’s Tim Gore.

Without cash in the bank, levels of trust between developed and developing countries at the UN could disintegrate, said Jarju, whose own country needs $1 billion in energy investment by 2024.

And third, Lima, where nearly 200 governments will meet for two weeks of negotiations at the start of December. The goal is for a draft text and an idea of what countries should include in their pledges towards the 2015 deal.

On Monday Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister and the man set to chair the Paris talks, said the agreement would be formed of four elements: legally binding rules governing monitoring and accounting of emissions, national contributions, finance and a new segment representing cities and business.

Hedegaard, who leaves her role next month, indicated debate over the legal nature of any agreement was likely to be contested in Peru. The US for one has flatly rejected any legally binding treaty, citing a hostile Congress.

She said: “If something is just politically binding how can the we be sure when you have had your next election that this is actually binding governments. It’s serious. Is it just a nice intention or is it something we are actually going home to do after Paris?”

Zero net emissions

For her part, the UN’s senior climate official Christiana Figueres appeared content just to savour the rare feeling of an international climate gathering that did not descend into bitter recriminations.

The meeting had “gone beyond expectations”, she said at an event on the 44th floor of the Empire State Building on Wednesday afternoon.

And Figueres, who had kept a low profile at the New York summit, indicated there could be a new push for countries to aim for a long term target of carbon neutrality, or zero net emissions between 2050 and 2100.

“That is our goal – and everything we do needs to be strategised around that goal… to get there,” she said. “By this time next year we need to be loud and clear that’s where we are going.”

Sitting alongside her Rachel Kyte, World Bank special envoy on climate change, said city leaders as opposed to national governments could offer the fastest way of achieving this ambition.

“It means a change in mindset. It means putting cities at the forefront,” she said.

That event illustrated two factors that could become relevant as Paris approaches.

One – there is a growing constituency within the UN and business that wants climate negotiators to think more carefully about longer term global goals.

This was highlighted recently in the Trillion Tonne Communique, named after the amount of CO2 that can be released before warming is all but guaranteed to break 2C.

Backed by 143 companies, including Shell, Cisco, Nestle and Adidas, it calls on government to “set a timeline” for net zero emissions, adopt carbon pricing and develop a plan to phase out coal.

Two – we can expect the UN and negotiating groups to use business and cities both as examples of action and also as leverage over certain countries unwilling to accept tougher climate regulations.

One example of this is in the New York declaration on forests, which aims to halt the destruction of natural forests by 2030, a move it says would cut up to 8.8 billion tonnes of C02 by 2030.

Brazil’s government did not back the agreement, but it was supported by the Brazilian state of Acre, while most of the 34 multinationals who signed up do business in the country.

States will remain the final arbiters of any treaty in Paris next year. But this agreement, and others signed by business relating to fossil fuel divestment and energy efficiency suggest power is no longer just in the hands of heads of state.

This sentiment was best summed up by Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, which promised to source all of its energy from renewables by 2020.

“I’m not accepting there’s a trade-off between the economy and the environment,” he said. “Too many people believe you can do this or that. You must do both.

“The boomer generation needs to look at ourselves. Do we want to be the first that leaves the next generation worse off. Are we going to be the first ones who screwed this up?”

People power

Ban’s New York summit may also be remembered for the rebirth of green groups, who for the past five years have stood by impotently, howling like King Lear as emissions soared and their pleas were ignored.

For once the leaders of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth International, along with colleagues from Christian Aid, Action Aid and the ACT Alliance allowed themselves to smile.

Sunday’s march through Manhattan had allowed them to rediscover their strength: mobilising people. Organisers claim between 300,000-400,000 walked through the streets.

“They have reminded both leaders and editors that there are millions of people who care about this, and who are not going to sit quietly if governments do not rise to the challenge,” wrote Michael Jacobs, a visiting professor in the Grantham Research Institute on climate change.

Veteran climate campaigner Saleemul Huq described it as “by far the most exhilarating experience I have had”, and called it a “turning point” in efforts to generate global awareness.

Timmons Roberts, an environmental professor from Browns university, counted students from across the States. Virginia, Texas, California, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts were all represented, he said.

Other marchers were from a less traditional ‘green’ background – among them Greg Barker, the UK’s climate envoy and French foreign minister Fabius.

These perhaps were the most significant, evidence that the climate consensus has expanded well beyond the tie-dye tribe.

New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, walking amid a phalanx of guards with his daughter and colleagues, told RTCC the record attendance was evidence of  the concern many in the US feel about climate threats.

He said increasing levels of extreme weather events across the country was a factor in convincing the population new carbon cutting policies introduced by president Barack Obama made sense.

“In New York we have more severe episodes of rainfall. In California they have a drought. It’s the same set of issues. This has changed what people demand from corporate America and our political leaders.”

Read more on: China | Comment | EU | UN climate talks | US | |