After a summer of wildfires, heat waves and hurricanes, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he is banking on new pledges from governments and businesses to abandon fossil fuels during a special climate summit in New York on Monday.
With Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and other activists piling pressure on delegates ahead of the Climate Action Summit, UN officials expect about 60 countries to build on their commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat global warming.
“We are losing the fight against climate change,” Guterres told a news conference on Wednesday. “I expect that there will be the announcement and unveiling of a number of meaningful plans on reducing emissions in the next decade and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.”
On the stage next week will be countries including small island states most vulnerable to sea-level rise and European nations such as France and Germany, according to a draft schedule seen by Reuters.
So far, big economies that still build or finance coal plants — such as Japan, South Korea and Australia — are not due to speak but may still introduce plans. And US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, among the world’s only global leaders that publicly question climate science, are not due to take part, their representatives said.
Environmental groups say the summit is coming at a crucial time, as extreme weather events and spiking temperatures affect more people in more parts of the globe.
“The meeting couldn’t be more important,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, a climate activism group. “It means countries will need to finally talk about the source of the flames engulfing our planet: fossil fuels.”
Coal in the crosshairs
Guterres has called for an end to the construction of coal plants from 2020 worldwide, as well as transitions away from subsidies for fossil fuels and a rapid shift toward renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal.
He and other UN officials also want China to avoid ramping up coal production in Asia and Africa through its “Belt and Road” infrastructure vision.
“I am much more concerned for countries in Africa that need to have the option not to get into coal. They need to have more opportunity for renewables,” UN climate change envoy Luis Alfonso de Alba told Reuters in an interview.
Among the private sector speakers scheduled at the summit is the chief executive of Danish power company Orsted, which earlier this year divested from its oil and gas assets and shuttered its coal plants.
A group of big oil companies called the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, however, will host a meeting on the sidelines of the summit, focused on tempering the climate impact of fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage technology, and methane capture, according to a draft program.
Although the Paris Agreement commits governments to a rapid transition to clean energy, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high last year. Under current pledges to the accord, the world will still easily overshoot an increase in global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, a threshold the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in an October report would have catastrophic consequences.
The IPCC also said last month that far-reaching changes in land use would be needed to avert runaway warming and is due to issue another report on the impact of climate change on oceans next week.
While the Trump administration’s support for fossil fuels and US-China trade tensions have undercut hopes of global climate cooperation, diplomats say they also see some encouraging signs. An upsurge in activism has forced climate up the agenda in some countries, particularly in northern Europe, while disasters from floods in the US Midwest to fires raging in the Amazon and Arctic have focused voters’ minds.
In Europe, the new European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen has said she wants to make Europe the world’s first carbon neutral continent. And in the United States, Democratic candidates for next year’s presidential election are championing a proposed Green New Deal to boost renewables and end fossil fuels use.
Investors are noticing, moving money to companies that can do well in a clean energy economy, said Nigel Topping, chief executive of We Mean Business, a non-profit coalition working with businesses on climate action. “We see investors becoming clear this change is going to happen.”