Climate Change

Climate summit in New York: Why it’s happening and what to expect

The hopes for this summit seem to rest on China and India as they are likely to take inspiration from the joint statement issued at the BASIC meeting

 
By Tarun Gopalakrishnan
Last Updated: Monday 23 September 2019
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. Photo: Twitter/United Nations

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Despite the growing disdain for international summitry, there is logic to the sequencing of high-level meetings on the climate crisis. In the absence of an international government or regulator, global action relies on establishing path dependence and building momentum.

The 2015 Paris decision established (broadly) three tracks for this purpose — a science track, a rules track, and a political track. The decision laid out time-bound action points for these tracks, coordinated to culminate in an ambitious step up in climate targets this year.

Things have obviously not gone according to plan. The science track was the Paris decision’s request to the IPCC to compile “a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways." This was done to enable a science-based decision between the two targets mentioned in the Paris Agreement – 2°C and 1.5°C.

That report was published, on schedule, in September last year. It was all that a responsible policymaker could hope for.

It laid out the critical difference in impacts at the two thresholds highlighting the far worse impacts on developing countries at 2°C. It clarified 1.5°C-compliant pathways, which require coal and oil use to be nearly completely phased out by 2050.

Yet, at the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2018, the US and Saudi Arabia, among others, made sure that the report will not be a formal basis for further negotiations.

The rules track aimed to flesh out the reporting obligations in the Paris Agreement. The decision assigned responsibility to various subsidiary and ad-hoc bodies to develop rules, modalities, procedures and guidelines on elements of the Agreement (subject to final approval by the COP).

These included the format for reporting future climate targets, performance on past climate targets, finance, market non-market mechanisms, adaptation actions, and the structure of a periodic Global Stocktake, among others.

These were collectively referred to as the rulebook. Considering the importance of different elements of the rulebook for different countries, they were all negotiated in parallel. A balanced rulebook was supposed to be finalised at last year’s COP.

What we got was a rulebook with minimal standardisation of reporting on mitigation, minimal reporting requirements — period — on finance, and no rules on markets. A rulebook that is highly likely to be gamed by precisely those countries most responsible for the climate crisis.

The political track was the invitation in the Paris decision to “communicate, by2020 […] mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies”. In theory, having established the importance of a zero-emissions world by 2050 through the 1.5°C report, and putting in place norms for target-setting through the rulebook, the scene would (ideally) be set this year for high-level political commitment in the form of long-term strategies aimed at decarbonisation by 2050.

The UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in New York is a significant milestone on the political track. There is a sense that the climate crisis can be tackled if only politicians could find some courage in New York. This is generally true, but it ignores the signs.

Firstly, the science and rules tracks were supposed to facilitate political pluck, by clarifying the scope of the challenge, as well as policy options. This has not happened. Instead of the 1.5°C report driving coordinated action, it has spurred a mix of outraged activism and a tilt toward fatalism.

Even if we do get announcements at the summit, they are likely to take a variety of forms, taking their lead from the weak norms in the rulebook. Parsing the statements to figure out what has actually been committed will likely be a task in itself.

The more obvious sign is the root cause of the stumbling in the science and rules tracks: the US government. The Paris Agreement took the specific form it did because of the preferences of the Obama administration.

The election of Trump has confronted us with the incongruous spectacle of a climate summit being convened in a country which intends to leave the Paris Agreement in November 2020. It has not gone quietly either — US negotiators have systematically obstructed progress in the science and rules tracks from the inside over the past three years.

Climate policy developments in the rest of the world this year are not much more inspiring. France and the UK have implemented domestic legislation targeting carbon neutrality by 2050, when, as developed countries, they should be targeting 2030.

Attempts to get the EU behind a net-zero-by-2050 target were stalled earlier this year. Germany, long considered a climate champion, supported the 2050 target at the EU level, but failed to commit to even that minimum in its latest plan unveiled earlier this week. Japan and Australia continue to insist on pushing coal, which will (mercifully) see them sidelined in New York.

The hopes for this summit seem to rest on China and India. Atleast one UN official seems convinced that China will have something to announce, based on a joint statement by China and France at the G20 Summit earlier this year.

While pleasant surprises would be welcome, it seems overly optimistic. China has not only accumulated massive coal-fired electricity generation capacity, it is aggressively pushing fossil fuel investments abroad too.

China’s and India’s announcements are more likely to take their inspiration from the joint statement issued at the BASIC meeting in August. That statement reiterated the need for finance to flow to developing countries, if they are expected to take on more climate responsibility.

India’s statement immediately preceding the summit makes clear that no mid-century vision will be forthcoming. If anything, there may be a little more detail on how it plans to achieve its first NDC, which contains some targets with a 2030 deadline.

Considering that India’s NDC is already well rated for equity and ambition, the minimal additional clarity might be the most ambition on display in New York. It will not be enough.

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