What is the UN climate action summit?

It’s been billed as the defining political event for climate in 2019. But what is it?

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres (Photo: UN)


UN secretary general António Guterres is hosting a climate summit in New York on 23 September to ramp up global efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

The high-level meeting at the UN headquarters is a critical moment for political leaders to show their willingness to increase their climate plans and deepen the decarbonisation of their economies.

Here is how it’s going to work.

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When and where?

The summit will take place over three days 21-23 September at UN Headquarters in New York. With a culminating summit of national leaders on Monday 23.

What’s going to happen?

A youth climate summit on Saturday 21 September will open the meeting, bringing together young activists, entrepreneurs and change-makers on the day following the world’s first global climate strike.

On Sunday, the nine coalitions are due to meet to take stock of their recent work and finalise details before Monday’s big reveal.

Monday’s plenary meeting, the main event, will be a combination of presentations from the best national plans and coalition initiatives being showcased on stage.

Why another UN climate meeting? Isn’t the Paris Agreement already acting as a compass for action?

Despite commitments by governments to tackle the climate crisis, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise year on year.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries pledged to limit global temperature rise “well below” 2C of warming. But current national commitments will struggle to hold warming below 3C by the end of the century.

Countries have also agreed to review and update their climate plans every five years, with a view to progressively increase their emissions reductions targets. The first stage of this process is due next year.

To galvanise political leadership for ambition at a time when much of the world is gripped by a surge of nationalism and turning inwards, Guterres personally convened the summit, backing it with the full force of the UN machine.

It is expected to be a critical moment for climate diplomacy, intended to kick-start the process of increasing countries’ climate plans.

Further reading: Nationalism could sink the Paris Agreement. The UN chief is fighting back

What is Guterres demanding?

“Bring plans, not speeches,” Guterres told countries.

In a letter sent to every head of state, the UN chief set-out his expectations for the summit, urging governments to come with concrete and meaningful plans for action.

Excerpts of the letter, showed Guterres asked all leaders to come “ready to announce the plans that they will set next year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050”.

His demands, in line with the tougher 1.5C goal of the Paris deal, set a high benchmark for ambition. Reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 is something only a handful of largely developed countries have so far committed to do.

Guterres also called on countries to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030, end fossil fuel subsidies and ban new coal plants after 2020 – a set of asks unusually prescriptive for the head of the UN.

Further reading:

What noises are coming from governments?

Countries are expected to compete for the spotlight with only the most ambitious and meaningful plans being showcased on stage on Monday 23, with the aim to spur a race to the top.

Between 80 and 100 countries have suggested they were ready to increase their climate plans ahead of schedule, with some countries signalling they could make an announcement at the summit, according to the UN.

Special envoy for climate change Luis Alfonso de Alba said a number of countries had told the UN they were “committed to be reaching new [climate] plans but they might not be ready to do that by the summit”. The UN is also expecting countries to set-out how they are going to meet their targets and plan to increase them.

Indications of what large emitters might bring to the summit remain mixed. Days before the summit, de Alba said he was “very confident” that China will come to the summit with clear commitments and “a much higher level of ambition”.

The UN has repeatedly pointed to a statement signed by China, France, and Guterres on the margins of the G20 as an indication of Beijing’s plans. It included a commitment to increase their climate plans and publish their “long-term mid-century low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020”, something Beijing could flesh out at the event.

In a communique released last week, EU Commission outgoing vice-president for the energy union Maroš Šefčovič said the EU will bring “the fruit of our work”, which he described as “a realistic perspective of a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, backed by ambitious policies set in binding legislation.” The Commission is hoping members states can agree on the target by early next year, but must overcome resistance from some holdouts.

The US is not part of the conversation at the moment. For China and the EU, the ultimate deadline to come up with more ambitious plans will be next year’s climate talks. And yet, without a strong indication that the world’s largest emitters are ready to take more robust climate action, the summit’s success could be compromised.

Further reading:

So is this all about competition?

No, it’s also about cooperation.

Besides, a push for countries to increase their climate plans, preparation for the summit have seen the creation of nine tracks – or coalitions – under which governments together with businesses, NGOs and other international organisations are expected to present meaningful, realistic and scalable initiatives.

The tracks have been led by national governments and include mitigation (Chile), energy transition (Denmark and Ethiopia); industry transition (India and Sweden); climate finance and carbon pricing (France, Jamaica and Qatar), infrastructure, cities and local action (Turkey and Kenya); nature-based solutions (China and New Zealand), resilience and adaptation (UK and Egypt), youth engagement and public mobilisation (Marshall Islands and Ireland) and social and political drivers (Peru and Spain).

Each track is led by an alliance of countries working with a range of partners, including businesses and civil society. The proposals emerging from these tracks should be “transformational”, the UN said, in a way that doesn’t leave communities who depend on fossil fuels for their livelihood behind.

Who is coming?

60 heads of states are expected to take the podium to announce more ambitious plans – or at least plans to plan in time for next year’s climate talks.

Some of those expected to make an appearance include India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, France’s president Emmanuel Macron, the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson and German chancellor Angela Merkel. China is due to send a lower-ranking minister than initially anticipated – and the foreign minister is expected to be in attendance.

Neither US president Donald Trump, nor Australian prime minister Scott Morrison will attend the summit despite both attending the UN’s assembly general later in the week. Foreign minister Marise Payne and ambassador for the environment Patrick Suckling are expected to represent Australia, while US state department officials are also due to attend.

Besides business and civil society representatives, more than 500 young people have been selected to attend the summit, with youth due to play a key role throughout the event. The UN has funded travel “as carbon-neutral as possible” to New York for 100 young climate leaders from across the world.

Greta Thunberg, who crossed the Atlantic on a race boat as an alternative to flying, is also due to have a speaking role during the three-day event.

What happens next?

The summit is a political moment for world leaders to take concrete steps to ramp up ambition. It doesn’t replace the annual climate negotiations talks, which this year are taking place in December in Santiago, Chile.

Instead, the summit marks an additional step for countries to build momentum ahead of the 2020 climate talks – the most important negotiating moment since the Paris Agreement when countries are due to announce how they are going to update their climate plans.

Following the summit, Guterres is expected to write an analytical report about the meeting’s achievement in securing additional emissions reduction pledges and the support needed to implement the proposed initiatives.

The report is due to be presented at Cop25 in Chile.

Read more on: Analysis | Climate politics | UN Climate Action Summit 2019 | UN climate talks