UN calls for climate action; governments must answer
“Don’t come with a speech, come with a plan.” That was UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s instruction to world leaders ahead of the Climate Action Summit taking place in New York in September. I agree: we need to move beyond negotiation to implementation, to see at the Summit concrete, ambitious proposals and examples of progress already made which will set the world on a path to 1.5℃. We need to see catalysing acts which have the potential to transform key sectors and lay the foundations for the crucial next stage of the Paris Agreement, at this pivotal point in the effort to tackle the climate crisis.
The Climate Action Summit marks only the second time a UN Secretary-General has convened such an event. The first time, five years ago, was Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit 2014, which began a year of intense diplomatic activity and civil society activism that ended with the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015.
Now, as then, the Summit will play a vital role in building momentum around individual country commitments. It is one of three key milestones this year – alongside the Petersberg Dialogue which took place in May in Berlin, and COP25 in Santiago, Chile, in December – that will set the stage for crucial decisions in 2020.
That momentum is urgently needed. Around the world, governments have been distracted by populism and isolationism, even as the urgency of the climate crisis is becoming more evident. Last October’s 1.5°C report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelt out the challenge that is facing us, namely for the global economy to become net-zero emitting in the second half of this century – and made it clear we have no time to lose.
By the end of next year, countries need to have revised their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – their emissions pledges made as part of the Paris Agreement. These NDCs, which at present put us on a pathway for more than 3°C of warming by the end of the century – need to be more ambitious, in line with the climate science, and be more comprehensive.
What does this ambition look like? It should recognise the economic transformation that is needed to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. It should demonstrate the strong political will needed to overcome vested interests. And it requires clear, measurable action, not just pledges to action in the future, particularly among the big emitters.
It also requires countries to set out their 2050 strategies. For example, at the start of May, Scotland announced that it will introduce legislation to become net zero-emissions by 2045. That move followed a comprehensive report from a UK government advisory body spelling out how the UK as a whole could do so, by 2050. And yesterday, Japan tabled its long-term decarbonisation strategy with the UN.
Ambition can also be expressed through the policies and measures that will deliver low-carbon economies. Governments have a range of levers at their disposal – of tried and tested mechanisms, such as carbon pricing, energy efficiency standards and clean energy mandates – that can encourage companies and individuals to reduce their climate impacts. Many of these have low or even negative costs.
The Climate Action Summit offers the perfect platform for governments – in alliance with non-state actors – to announce these strategies, plans, policies and initiatives. Its objective is to develop ambitious solutions in several key areas: a global transition to renewable energy; sustainable and resilient infrastructures and cities; sustainable agriculture and management of forests and oceans; resilience and adaptation to climate impacts; and alignment of public and private finance with a net-zero economy.
The Secretary-General has established action portfolios, covering these areas as well as mitigation writ large, youth engagement and public mobilisation, and social and political drivers.
Strong commitments and announcements around these nine elements could generate the momentum we need for success in Santiago – creating in turn a powerful impetus for ambitious climate action as we enter 2020.
In a few days, we will have the chance to take stock of how we are progressing toward this important moment, to allow for peer review of the Summit Outcomes currently proposed by the nine Summit work streams, and to make a strong push for the type of ambition we need to see by September.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is the leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice. He is based in Lima, Peru.