A time for bold actions and political vision

Written by: RWW | Published:

Waste reduction and recycling schemes play crucial roles in reducing the impact of climate change, but while private individuals diligently sort out their recyclates what are world leaders doing to combat the rise in global temperatures? David Burrows reports on the recent UN climate summit.

The UN's climate summit in New York last month certainly created a stir. 

Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie star who recently became a UN ‘messenger of peace’, made a passionate speech (“Mankind has looked at climate change … as if it were fiction.”). There was a film narrated by Morgan Freeman and over 100 world leaders turned up. And before it even started 400,000 people gathered for what organisers claimed to be the largest climate march in history. 

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in the run-up that he was counting on leaders to “bring bold actions and ideas and strong political vision and political will to New York”. 

“Greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels and the effects of climate change are already widespread, costly and consequential. We need a clear vision, anchored in domestic and multinational actions, for keeping global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius,” said Ban Ki-Moon. Indeed, a study published just before the summit showed a likely 2.5% rise in greenhouse gas emissions this year compared to 2013. 

The researchers calculated that emissions will hit 40 billion tonnes this year, compared to 32 billion in 2010. As former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson would say: “It’s squeaky bum time”.

But Ki-moon is confident that, come December next year in Paris, a global deal can be struck; one that will replace the Kyoto Protocol and offer hope of keeping emissions levels low enough to avoid the two-degree rise in temperature that scientists see as the point of no return. 

“The Climate Summit is showcasing a level of ambition not seen before and producing actions and new initiatives that will make a significant difference,” Ki-moon noted.

Not everyone agreed. “Make no mistake - this was an historic moment,” said WWF head of delegation Samantha Smith. “Every part of society showed up and delivered here at the summit, with the exception of world leaders who still have a lot of work to do.” 

Heavy on rhetoric and light on commitment

Each country’s representative - in the vast majority of cases the head of state - had four minutes to address the summit. Though very few appeared to keep within that time limit, fewer still had anything new to say. The speeches were heavy on rhetoric and light on commitment. “A laundry list of moderate country action,” WWF called it.

But this was never going to be the time for politicians to stick their heads above the parapet, announce ambitious new plans and stump up more funding (though the Green Climate Fund was topped up slightly). 

In negotiations there is a very definite “you show me yours first” policy, especially among the big emitters like the US, Canada, India and, of course, China. This was in evidence during US president Barack Obama’s oration. 

“Just a few minutes ago I met with Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli and reiterated my beliefs that, as the two largest economies and emitters in the world, we have a special responsibly to lead,” he said.

Such political posturing will undoubtedly continue until Paris. 

Before that, in March, countries are expected to submit their intended nationally determined contributions towards reducing greenhouse gases. This will provide a much clearer insight of who is committed to what. 

“Only then can we judge whether [New York] was a success or not,” said Jan Kowalzig, senior policy advisor for climate change with Oxfam Germany.

Following on from Obama, China vice premier Zhang Gaoli did offer a flash of what might come in March. In what is believed to be the country’s most committed speech on climate change to date, Gaoli said he hopes to see emissions peak as early as possible. 

However, he didn’t offer a timeframe.

The big carbon emitters

China and the US will, as the big two carbon emitters, be crucial to the negotiations next year. China produces almost 30% of the world’s emissions, the US 15% and the EU 10%. Recent research also showed that China’s emissions per head of population has now surpassed that of the EU. The EU’s climate chief is among those lining up to pile pressure on the US and China to turn last month’s encouraging words into policy. “It matters a lot what will come out of America in the first quarter of 2015,” said Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for climate action in the European Commission, in an interview following the summit.  

The EU has often cast itself as a leader in climate policy. “The European Union has been and remains at the forefront of efforts to address climate change,” said EU Commission president José Manuel Durão Barroso in his four-minute statement. “In the critical run-up to Paris, the European Union is leading by example. The European Commission has proposed an ambitious reduction target of 40% of domestic emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, plus a renewables target of at least 27% and energy savings of 30%.”

Barroso said he was confident the targets will be agreed later this month. Campaigners argue that this isn’t a fair reflection of the EU’s responsibility to tackle global change; they say the target should be 55%. “The EU brings nothing new to the negotiating table yet still pretends to be a climate champion,” said Jean-Cyril Dagorn, EU climate expert at Oxfam. 

Others were also critical of the EU’s stance. “The 55% target is what is needed and what’s necessary,” said Maeve McLynn, policy coordinator for climate change at CAN Europe (Climate Action Network Europe).  

Oxfam’s Kowalzig agreed, suggesting that what’s on the table is “totally inadequate” if Europe is to play its part in keeping temperatures below the two degree threshold.

It’s an interesting about-turn with China offering the hope, the US the spirit and the EU mocked as laggards. Of course, there is a long way to go to Paris 2015. And let’s not forget that the New York summit is all part of a new game plan employed by the UN.

All or nothing?

What no one can afford is a replay of Copenhagen in 2009. That platform failed because of a lack of cohesion in the run-up with world leaders left to strike a deal in days. 

By the time you read this it will be a little over 400 days until Paris. New York might not have been a revelation in political ambition, but it certainly marks an evolution in the way these negotiations take place. With dozens of new private-public commitments and coalitions announced there is a sense that momentum is gathering. As Jason Anderson, head of EU climate and energy at WWF, reflected: “It’s not the all or nothing we had in Copenhagen.”

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