Global leaders gathered in New York on Tuesday, ahead of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, to discuss arguably the pre-eminent question facing the world – how to tackle climate change? The UN Climate Summit 2014 in New York followed demonstrations on the weekend, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, from Manhattan to Melbourne to Mumbai, calling on leaders to take bold action to curb climate change.
The summit, attended by over 100 Heads of State and Government and more than 800 leaders from business, finance and civil society, was designed to build momentum in advance of the Paris summit in December 2015, where leaders have said they will sign a comprehensive global agreement to reduce emissions.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened proceedings declaring, “We are not here to talk, we are here to make history.” Actor Leonardo Di Caprio followed, claiming, “This body, perhaps more than any other gathering in human history, faces this difficult but achievable task.”
Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told the Summit that solutions are available, and outlined the three key messages to have emerged from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, widely viewed as the most comprehensive assessment of climate change ever undertaken. These were:
- One: Human influence on the climate system is clear – and clearly growing.
- Two: We must act quickly and decisively if we want to avoid increasingly destructive outcomes.
- Three: We have the means to limit climate change and build a better future.
Some 120 presidents and prime ministers, including from 38 of the 53 Commonwealth member states, took it in turn to deliver impassioned statements on what actions their countries where taking to tackle climate change. Some countries pledged funds to a climate change fund for poor countries (notably France who pledged $1 billion), and various countries vowed to take action to curb emissions. Many smaller countries called for firmer commitments to climate change funds. Nauru President Baron Waqa, the president of the Alliance of Small Island States, told delegates, “Climate change and sea level rise is already threatening our existence as sovereign nations ... The certainty of climate finance is essential to building trust for action… No one better understands the grave risk posed by climate change than Small Island Developing States (SIDS)”.
The Commonwealth is a network that represents the full spectrum of countries affected by climate change: of the Commonwealth’s 53 member countries, 25 are small island developing states. At the recent SIDS 2014 conference, host-country Samoa’s Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, urged the international community to offer support to SIDS, some of whom face “termination” owing to threats posed by climate change and rising seas. Addressing the conference, Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Deodat Maharaj said, "In shaping the new post-2015 global development agenda, the goals and targets set must recognise the particular and long term vulnerabilities of SIDS”.
It is clear that there is growing acceptance that climate change is a defining issue of our time that affects every country, and that action is needed to reduce emissions and build resilience. Ban Ki-moon ended the summit with an upbeat assessment of the many promises made by heads of government and business, declaring “We have delivered”. However Graca Machel, former Education Minister of Mozambique and former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique, and widow of Nelson Mandela, then provided some perspective by telling the general assembly, “I acknowledge that there is the beginning of understanding of the gravity of the challenge we face… But at the same time, I have the impression that there is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response which we heard here today.” While some campaign groups welcomed financial commitments which highlighted a fresh alliance between governments and business to tackle climate change, others were more critical. Dipti Bhatnagar of Friends of the Earth said: “The finance pledges made at the summit had no specifics, no timelines, and nothing saying if they are about new and additional climate finance or simply aid pledged in the past.”
Tuesday’s Summit marked a step towards dramatically important negotiations that will conclude next September in New York when the world agrees the post-2015 development agenda; and next December in Paris at the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, where a comprehensive climate change agreement will be signed. Commonwealth countries, making up over a quarter of UN member states, will have a massive role to play and Commonwealth Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers will meet in New York on 25th September, to discuss the priority development concerns of small states, the Commonwealth’s interaction with the G20, and post-2015 development agenda, and to agree a Commonwealth statement on the development agenda.
As world leaders descended on New York this week, setting the foundations to a more sustainable planet was a key topic. The stage has been set for critical negotiations that will take place in the coming year. One hope is that as these take place, the words of IPCC Chair Mr Pachauri are foremost in everyone’s mind: “We are told the costs of limiting climate change are unaffordable - they are not. But wait until you get the bill for inaction.”
Photo by Oisin Prendiville