Talk and a little action at UN climate summit

Politicians and business leaders announced new steps to fight climate change. But much remains to be done.
Source: The Economist

THOSE CONCERNED about global warming change had a clear message for the leaders attending the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23rd. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old activist, led protests in New York imploring politicians to act now to limit rising temperatures, and warned leaders at the summit: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.” Instructions from the UN’s secretary-general were more specific. In the run-up to the summit, António Guterres had urged governments to present plans in areas such as carbon pricing and reforestation, with the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. “I don’t pretend that I rule the world,” Mr Guterres acknowledged. “My role is to tell the world what the world needs to do.”

The one-day summit concluded with a torrent of new announcements. These included the commitment by 66 countries, 93 companies and more than 100 cities to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Germany and Slovakia were among those to join an alliance to halt the construction of coal plants; in total 32 countries are members. Companies and industry groups announced measures to reduce emissions from shipping, buildings and more. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, set a new 450-gigawatt target for renewable energy capacity by 2030, more than five times the current level. Mr Guterres highlighted its successes. “Today, in this hall, the world saw clear ambition and concrete initiatives,” he said.

A chasm remains

Some announcements were promises of future announcements. 59 countries said that they would shortly be unveiling more ambitious commitments under the Paris agreement, which aims to keep global temperatures “well below” 2°C above those in pre-industrial times; a global round of such increased commitments is to be negotiated next year. “These are useful steps,” says Nathaniel Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group. “However they are useful only to the extent that they are built upon and turned into action.”

Even if all the pledges are acted on, though, the gap between what the summit promised and what needs to be done remains a chasm. America, China and India, the world’s three biggest emitters, were not among those to set targets for reaching net-zero emissions. At the same time as India invests in renewables, its state-backed banks are propping up its coal sector. Russia at last announced that it is ratifying the Paris agreement, but the targets for action which it has set itself are very low. President Donald Trump, who announced that America was withdrawing from that agreement shortly after his election, made a brief appearance at the summit but did not speak.

‘Supermajor’ vows to satisfy demand for oil and gas

Activists remain deeply unsatisfied. Ms Thunberg and other children filed a complaint charging that five countries had violated their human rights by failing to halt the climate crisis. They filed their petition against Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey—five countries that allow such complaints to be brought against them under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty.

As the Climate Action Summit wound down at the UN, nowhere was the gap between stated intention and present reality more apparent than in a gathering that afternoon of oil and gas companies across town. The chief executives of the world’s supermajors sat in the airy Morgan Library for a forum organised by the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, their joint effort to invest in technologies that will help mitigate climate change. For more than two hours, the bosses of companies including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP defended their record as partners in the fight against rising temperatures.

They vowed to limit methane emissions and highlighted their support for research into new technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration. But they also explained their decision to continue investing in new extraction projects; no supermajor has yet said it will reduce emissions from its products on an absolute basis.

“As frustrating as it may be for some people who would like to see us declare that we intend to go out of business,” said Mike Wirth, the chief executive of Chevron, “we are meeting a demand for a product that makes the quality of life in the world better.”

The protests on September 20th will not be the last.

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