UN Climate Ambition Summit seeks 'quantum leap' on emissions cuts

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres holds a press conference, ahead of G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, September 8, 2023

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres holds a press conference, ahead of G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, September 8, 2023. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

What’s the context?

The gathering, aimed at raising the bar for climate action ahead of COP28, will be preceded by a march against fossil fuels

  • UN chief hosts ambition summit on sidelines of UNGA
  • New York march to call for fossil fuel phase-out
  • Climate diplomacy ramps up ahead of COP28 conference

RICHMOND, Virginia - With no end in sight to global warming and its dire effects for people and the planet, top United Nations officials next week are set to prod major polluters to boost their targets to cut emissions, including a faster transition away from fossil fuels.

The Climate Ambition Summit convened by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in New York on Sept. 20 aims to spotlight trailblazing climate action that goes beyond what countries have already pledged to do in their plans to meet targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

"I would of course be very happy if several of the G20 countries will be able to come to the summit and announce a quantum leap in their efforts to reduce emissions," Guterres told reporters this week.

He also urged stronger financial support for developing nations facing "enormous difficulties" in designing and implementing programs to ramp up clean energy and adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas fuelled by a hotter climate.

The U.N. has so far not publicly announced the roster of participants in the summit taking place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, though Selwin Hart, special adviser to the secretary-general on climate action, noted there had been more than 100 "expressions of interest".

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Hart called the summit an "important political moment" ahead of the COP28 U.N. climate talks in Dubai which start on Nov. 30, as officials try to showcase so-called "first movers and doers" among both governments and businesses which are accelerating their own climate goals.

"Is this new? Is this ambitious?" Hart asked a briefing of U.N. member states this week, suggesting efforts to fast-forward timelines to reach net-zero emissions, develop plans to phase out fossil fuels, and make "generous" climate finance pledges.

Guterres has prodded the Group of 20 (G20) rich nations - which are responsible for about 80% of total planet-heating emissions - to strengthen their targets in a bid to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5C (2.7F) above pre-industrial times, as called for in the Paris Agreement.

A U.N. progress report released earlier this month warned that the trajectory of global emissions - which are still rising - is "not in line" with meeting that warming goal.

A G20 summit in India this month concluded with a pledge to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030, but lacked a unified statement to phase out the use of all fossil fuels, which climate advocates and some countries had pushed for.

World leaders 'slow-pedal' on ending fossil fuel use

The U.N. chief's summit next week will address topics ranging from accelerating decarbonization of economies to expanding work on adaptation and early warning systems – which, Hart pointed out, are lagging in developing regions like Africa.

Mindy Lubber, who heads sustainability nonprofit Ceres, said Guterres had consistently pushed for high standards in climate action, while finding ways to call out those who fall short.

Announcing this September's summit last year, Guterres gave it a clear mandate: only countries and private entities that put meaningful skin in the game would be allowed in.

"There will be no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters or repackaging of announcements of previous years," he told an end-of-year news conference.

But the U.N. leader's strong words on climate change, its causes - including berating the fossil fuel industry for thwarting progress - and solutions have yet to catalyze adequate responses in the real world.

Wealthy countries, for example, have to date famously failed to meet a pledge to contribute $100 billion annually in climate finance for developing nations starting from 2020.

And in the United States - the world's largest historical emitter - advocates have vociferously protested President Joe Biden's moves to open up more land for oil and gas leasing - even as he shepherded major new green funding through Congress.

"We have a (U.N.) secretary-general who's generally in line with the climate movement - but we have world leaders that are continuing (to) slow-pedal progress on ending fossil fuel usage," said Jonathan Westin, executive director of the Climate Organizing Hub, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group.

Protesters for climate change and against the use of fossil fuels shout slogans in Lisbon, Portugal, November 12, 2022

Protesters for climate change and against the use of fossil fuels shout slogans in Lisbon, Portugal, November 12, 2022. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Protesters for climate change and against the use of fossil fuels shout slogans in Lisbon, Portugal, November 12, 2022. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Climate marchers return to the streets

The Climate Ambition Summit is also occurring against the backdrop of Climate Week NYC and will follow a massive march on Sunday where activists will try to spur leaders, including Biden, to move away from fossil fuels more quickly.

The street protest - complemented by others worldwide - is a major opportunity to reinvigorate a climate movement that has struggled to regain momentum over the last few years after the COVID-19 pandemic had curbed such mass public events.

"It's almost definitely going to be the largest demonstration since the pandemic," Westin said.

Next week's summit, march and climate-themed events hosted by green groups are a key element of a packed diplomatic agenda - including this month's Africa Climate Summit in Kenya, the G20 leaders' meeting in India, and a major pledging conference for the Green Climate Fund in Germany next month – intended to build appetite for strong outcomes at COP28 starting in late November.

Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi-based energy think-tank Power Shift Africa, said the U.N. chief's summit is "exactly the kind of thing we need" with just 10 weeks to go before COP28, to get the world back on track to reach its climate goals.

The summit will help sharpen focus on the most difficult things COP28 needs to deliver, he said: phasing out fossil fuels, adopting renewable energy at scale and mobilizing sufficient climate finance for developing countries.

"What Guterres has been doing is not pulling any punches in laying out the stark reality of the climate crisis we are facing," Adow said, noting the U.N. chief was also unafraid to shame leaders who show up with "pitiful" climate action offers.

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Megan Rowling)

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