Most Leaders on Wrong Side of Science at U.N. Climate Summit

The U.N. Secretary-General drew a clear line in the sand when he called on world leaders to “bring plans, not speeches” in line with climate science to the U.N. Climate Action Summit. Yet most leaders missed the opportunity to demonstrate they are on the right side of science and history. With climate damages and global temperatures escalating, world leaders failed to show they fully understand the crisis and that they stand with young people around the world demanding stronger climate action now. Leaders’ words must be followed by deeds. This moment demands much greater ambition in the fight to avert a full-blown climate catastrophe.

Science demands the world significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately and bring emissions down to net-zero by 2050. The science is abundantly clear, reflected by the U.N. Secretary-General’s demands of leaders to stop building new coal plants by the end of 2020 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Leaders have a clear path forward as they should have come to the Climate Action Summit and delivered on four key areas. However, only a handful of leaders rose to the occasion.

Below is a round-up of significant new announcements from the U.N. Climate Action Summit that move in the direction science urgently demands of all leaders:

Ramping up India’s renewables

The Prime Minister of India committed to increase the country’s renewable energy capacity to 450 gigawatts, more than five times its current renewables capacity. India is already well on its way to meeting its target of 175 gigawatts of renewable energy of 2022, and this scaled-up goal will provide a new benchmark for sustained progress. For a country that once had a significant pipeline of coal plants in the works, India is now leading the way on renewable energy installation, replacing energy demand that might have been met by more coal plants with clean power. In fact, earlier this month, two Indian states indicated that they would not build any more coal plants.

Enhancing countries’ Paris Agreement plans

A total of 67 countries have now committed to enhance their Paris Agreement targets by the end of next year. The President of Chile announced a “Climate Ambition Alliance” of 59 countries that will enhance their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement by next year, and nine additional countries that are working to accelerate the implementation of their national plans. Additionally, a larger group of leaders under the Climate Ambition Alliance committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, including 66 governments, 10 regions, 102 cities, 93 businesses, and 12 investors. This sends a powerful signal to all countries that they need announce ambitious new targets to help protect children around the world next year.

The President of Korea announced the country is working to enhance the delivery of their Paris Agreement plan and will submit an enhanced pledge next year. And South Africa announced in a statement they will be enhancing mitigation through their NDC by the end of 2020.

Phasing out coal

The Powering Past Coal Alliance expanded to include 30 countries, 22 states or regions, and 31 corporations committed to stop building of new coal power plants in 2020 and rapidly transition to renewable energy. 

Backing governments’ coal phase out commitments, the largest-ever group of 515 investors managing $35 trillion in assets urged governments to phase out thermal coal power worldwide, end subsidies for fossil fuels, price carbon, and strengthen their Paris targets by 2020. 

The Prime Minister of Greece committed to rid the country of lignite coal plants by 2028 as part of an effort to phase out coal as soon as possible.

In the process of phasing out coal, countries must not incentivize extending the life of old dirty coal infrastructure by converting them to burn biomass that destroys forests around the world, all under the guise of promoting “green” energy. Energy subsidies for so-called biomass energy in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere across the E.U. must end.

Protecting nature

The President of Seychelles committed to protect 30% of their ocean—out of a total area the size of Germany—by next year. This leadership represents a significant early boost to the growing chorus of groups calling on governments to protect 30% of the world’s ocean and 30% of the world’s land by 2030 at a nature summit to be held in China in October next year.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Danone launched the One Planet Business for Biodiversity initiative which includes 20 of the largest food, agriculture, and other businesses in the world committing to put nature-based solutions at the heart of their strategies. These companies must be serious about ensuring the accountability of their commitments, given past experience with corporate pledges going unmet, and should commit to rigorous third-party verification. Companies must also be more responsive to farmers’ demands, such as the recent call from U.S. farmers to support family farming, soil health, and a systemically sustainable food system.

Scaling up energy efficiency

The Three Percent Club launched a global coalition targeting 3% increases in energy efficiency per year. 29 countries, businesses, and organizations united behind the coalition that will save more than half a trillion dollars in household energy bills by 2040. Efficiency policies can achieve over 40% of the emissions cuts needed under the Paris Agreement without requiring any new technologies.

Financing climate action

The International Development Finance Club (IDFC)—a global group of 24 national and regional development banks announced their first-ever quantitative target of mobilizing $1 trillion by 2025, with at least $100 million dedicated for climate adaptation.

The President of the African Development Bank announced it will no longer finance coal, ensuring a region poised for significant energy growth will shift toward cleaner energy.

Young leaders: “You are failing us!” 

Youth climate leaders have sacrificed their education to strike in the streets and call on leaders to deliver bold action commensurate with the science. As Greta Thunberg said at the opening of the summit: “You are failing us...The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” 

Leaders must clearly demonstrate in the coming months that they are firmly united behind the science and their young citizens, lest history judge them harshly. It is time for world leaders to decide which side of history they are on.

About the Authors

Brendan Guy

Manager, International Policy, International program

Jake Schmidt

Managing Director, International program

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