For a conference aimed at inspiring world leaders to dramatically ramp up their efforts to combat climate change, the United Nations’ Climate Ambition Summit was anything but ambitious.
That’s the message from climate activists after the day-long special summit came to a close without any notable commitments from the nations most responsible for causing global warming. The event was held Wednesday in New York City during the U.N. General Assembly.
“There is simply a huge mismatch between the depth of actions governments and businesses are taking and the transformative shifts that are needed to address the climate crisis,” David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative, wrote in a statement shortly after the summit adjourned. “And some of the biggest emitters were noticeably absent from the stage.”
But the countries missing from the talks—the United States, China, India, Russia, France and the United Kingdom—were left out by design. The leaders of those nations, which altogether account for more than half the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, were not invited by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to speak at the summit in order to send a message: Step up your climate game or we’re all in trouble.
The world is not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the U.N. warned in a major report earlier this month. Guterres reiterated that warning in his opening speech Wednesday, noting that Earth would warm by an average of 2.8 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century—well beyond the targets set by the international climate pact—if far more isn’t done by top-polluting nations. The U.S. and other wealthy nations have drawn criticism from Guterres and other climate advocates in recent years for not only failing to curb their use of fossil fuels, but actually expanding it, often justifying broken climate promises on rising inflation and the Russian war in Ukraine.
In fact, the U.K. walked back one of its climate commitments as the summit was underway. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the country’s plan to ban new gas and diesel cars by 2030 would now go into effect in 2035, saying the previous goal would impose “unacceptable costs” on U.K. citizens.
The move was one of many decisions by wealthy countries over the last two years that have disappointed climate activists and raised concerns among scientists, who say the window to slow down global warming enough to avoid its worst consequences in the coming decades is quickly closing, despite whatever the market forces and geopolitical circumstances may be.
“The move from fossil fuels to renewables is happening, but we are decades behind,” Guterres said in his speech. “We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels.”
That’s not to say there was nothing for climate activists to celebrate at the Climate Ambition Summit. Several nations have made more ambitious commitments this year, which they touted at the event.
Germany announced it would keep its promise to add $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which helps pay for clean energy and climate adaptation projects in developing countries. Denmark announced it was moving forward with its plan to reach net zero emissions by 2045 rather than 2050. The Marshall Islands, a Pacific Island nation that plays an outsized role in global shipping, announced it would join more than a dozen other countries in their pledge to phase out oil and gas. Brazil announced that by 2030, it would end deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and slash national emissions in half, rather than its previous pledge of 43 percent. Thailand also touted a recent update to its 2030 climate goals, saying it will reduce the country’s emissions by 40 percent instead of 20 percent. And at least 67 countries signed a new global pact aimed at protecting the oceans from ecological degradation and biodiversity loss.
There were positive announcements outside the summit, too, regarding two of the world’s most carbon-intensive materials—cement and steel. A Los Angeles–based company announced it had found a way to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of its cement. And several major companies, including tech giant Microsoft and real estate developer Trammell Crow, announced a new “green steel” pledge, aimed at reducing the industry’s carbon emissions by 2 million metric tons a year.
Still, activists said those announcements—though welcomed—are unlikely to change the planet’s current trajectory. “The small steps countries offered are welcome,” Waskow said, “but they’re like trying to put out an inferno with a leaking hose.”
With the COP28 climate talks now just two months away, many advocates worry that Wednesday’s summit was a clear sign that a deal to phase out fossil fuels worldwide remains beyond reach. Each year that passes without such a deal, they say, only reduces the chances of achieving the Paris Agreement’s targets and makes addressing climate impacts more costly for everyone.
“All eyes are now on COP28,” Waskow said. “The onus is especially on the world’s wealthy countries and biggest emitters to step up both by drastically cutting their own emissions and showing solidarity with climate-vulnerable countries.”
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