Momentum on climate action as UN gathers in New York
03 Oct 2018
Sam Bickersteth, Executive Secretary of the Rockefeller Economic Council on Planetary Health at the Oxford Martin School, looks back on promises and progress at New York Climate Week.
Each September, as world leaders descend on New York, duelling narratives compete for attention during the frenetic opening week of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). While much of the media circus focused on US President Donald Trump’s attack on multilateralism and the laughs elicited by his “America First” remarks, global cooperation still triumphed, especially when it came to the climate agenda.
For the past decade, Climate Week – running in parallel to the UNGA – has successfully brought together international leaders from business, government and civil society to promote discussion on climate change and reinforce the need for collective, multilateral action on this front.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke of the reality that climate change is moving faster than we are, and the urgent need to deliver on the Paris commitments, particularly to raise ambition for the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and to mobilise support around the many synergies and co-benefits of climate action.
The secretary-general cited the latest New Climate Economy report, which indicates that climate action and socio-economic progress can be mutually supportive, with estimated benefits of $26 trillion predicted by 2030, compared with business-as-usual scenarios. Other UN leaders such as the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner, spoke of how the air pollution agenda is galvanising action in favour of low carbon energy and transport systems. Patricia Espinosa of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat spoke of the need for an inclusive multilateral approach that increases the number of voices around the table and integrates green growth, rights and poverty reduction. But she warned that countries are not living up to their emission reduction pledges as we head for an average global temperature rise of 3°C.
Across the many SDG-related events of the week – 336 by one count – progressive leaders from governments (both national and subnational), international organisations, business and finance spoke of what they are doing on climate action and their vision for change. A panel discussion convened by The Climate Group, Johnson & Johnson and The Rockefeller Economic Council on Planetary Health, of which I am the executive secretary, was one such event, and brought together healthcare leaders from business and government to discuss economic and policy solutions, and how to seize the opportunities presented by tackling climate change and interconnected health environmental crises.
At a national level, a growing number of countries are producing 2050 decarbonisation strategies, many with a net zero emissions goal. France and Sweden have led the way in making such a commitment and in the UK a cross-party consensus for 2050 net zero is emerging (Norway has even brought forward its net zero target to 2030.)
At Climate Week, US Governor Jerry Brown announced that California is seeking carbon neutrality and that this will require profound transformation and technological change. He noted, however, it will be a challenge as a net zero goal is in collision with continued, and in some cases rising demand for, and vested interests in, fossil fuels. The net zero commitments by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also provide huge challenges for her natural resource and agricultural-based economy. Meanwhile, President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands launched a net zero strategy, the first for a small island state, in an effort to shame big emitters to action.
Climate Week in New York is also a space for business and finance to show their commitments. The rise of the Green Bond market to an issuance of nearly $180 billion is an impressive signal of the shift amongst the financial community, but a gathering of bankers, asset managers and others indicates that progress is still nascent. Even the asset manager, Blackrock, whose chief executive Larry Fink has called for all businesses to have a social purpose and pursue a strategy for achieving long-term growth, is screening for coal-related investments across its $7 trillion portfolio. Without a realistic carbon price (the consensus of a gathering of finance leaders was that this must be greater than $100/tonne of CO2) and a shift from short termism, incentives are insufficient to shift investors adequately to address climate change risks and opportunities.
Throughout Climate Week, finance and business leaders, as much as political leaders, repeated their concern about the ongoing reliance on coal and oil in the energy mix and how far we are from meeting the Paris Agreement targets. The latest International Energy Agency report on energy transitions shows the high proportion of coal that persists in the G20 energy mix (more than 40% of the mix).
Yet, it was an impressive line-up of companies that spoke of their progress in decarbonisation, not only in their direct operations but throughout their supply chains. Their stories are dominated by the transformation of energy systems, the normalisation and mainstreaming of alternative energy systems driven by digital and material science technologies as well as government policies. The same exponential rate of change is now underway in the electric vehicle market, notably the electrification of China’s bus fleets.
New York City Climate Week 2018 came on the heels of the Global Climate Action Summit in California. In both instances, leaders of countries, governments, cities and business have set out visions, plans and actions on climate change. Much is underway, but it’s short of the level of action needed to really address climate change. A stronger multilateral regime is required, bolstered by these many actors – and by action across a wide range of sectors including agriculture, food, nature-based solutions and health. Let’s hope we can come back in a year from now for the UN secretary-general’s special climate summit and see how many of the initiatives highlighted this past week have mobilised action and made progress.
This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.