Catalyzing Action At The September 2014 UN Climate Summit

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Almost everyone in the media has taken a stab at summarizing, if not snap-judging, the results of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s one-day UN climate summit last week. The meeting had a real name, but Robert N. Stavins in his New York Times runup to the conference was the only writer I observed using it: “Catalyzing Action.” Not a bad description.

While I have purused a pretty large sample, I admit not being able to check out every American source that I respect. I am not a shade embarrassed for ignoring the posts of the “3%” climate deniers and their mouthpieces, but I do feel some shame for having mostly stayed away from the corridors of international attention. That said, here’s a report from a close climate-observing American newsperson on what did and did not occur at the UN climate summit last week in New York.

To establish a relevant context for the summit, let’s start by noting the emergence of a gazillion related climate change reports during the past year. Perhaps most importantly, just days before the conference, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere last year reached a new record. WMO also attributed the stats directly to the world’s unrelenting use of fossil fuels.

Global warming map (

Only a few months earlier, in April, the most authoritative world body on climate—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations—said that the best and by far most agreed-on science on earth shows that in order to limit global warming to 2°C, by the year 2050, the planet’s governments would have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70%. (This may, in fact, be optimistic.)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (UN photo)Oddly, of the dozens on dozens of pieces I read summarizing the one-day UN climate summit on September 23, I found the most inclusive and succinct coming from the most appropriate source, one that was not credited or quoted by most other US reporters. That source is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the guy who proposed the meeting in the first place. I thus adopt the outline he used in his closing remarks as a framework for this discussion.

Commitment to actively address climate change

First, Mr. Ban said, “we heard strong commitment for a meaningful, universal climate agreement in Paris next year, with a first draft to be presented in Lima in December.” Yes, we did. And many congratulations to the Secretary-General for including the Lima meeting in his chronology of events. It clearly belongs there, but most North American reports skipped right along from New York to the Paris accords late in 2015 without mentioning either Lima (December) or the first drafts due from individual governments early next spring—drafts that comprise an expected milestone in commitments to both emissions reductions and climate funds.

Important environmental meetings leading up to Paris 2015 (Paris 2015:Getting a Global Agreement....pdf)
Important environmental meetings leading up to Paris 2015 (Paris 2015:Getting a Global Agreement….pdf)

News sources were also unclear about the official status of these meetings. Quite a few (including The New York Times, to my surprise, incorrectly plunked the New York UN climate summit into the official UNFCCC basket. (From Eduardo Porter in the Times, “World leaders have been trying without success to cut such a deal for almost two decades.”) Another journalist incorrectly reported the summit as part of the regularly scheduled September UN General Assembly meeting.

Catalyzing Action definitely does not belong where those sources put it. As I noted in “Don’t Expect a Climate Treaty tomorrow—or Anytime Real Soon,” a previous article:

“The Climate Summit is another sort of beast. It has no legally binding status for either setting up or enforcing international action. In fact, no one is even whispering such a goal for the agenda. Voluntary commitments will be made, for sure. However, the summit aims first and foremost to bring public and business decisionmakers of the world together in an unprecedented push for quick education and inspiration for concerted action…. The summit reflects the determination of one man—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon—and those who agree with him, to put the issue front and center before the movers and shakers of the world’s economy. ”

Paris 2015: Getting a global agreement on climate change (Green Alliance, 2014)We did hear a strong commitment to progress at Paris 2015 from most nations. Christian Aid, Green Alliance, Greenpeace, the RSPB, and WWF recently produced a useful view of how this conference might achieve global agreement on climate change.

However, the commitment expressed by summit attendees begs the question of the views of countries not adequately represented at the summit. Russia—the world’s largest refined petroleum and natural gas exporter,  second largest crude oil exporter, fourth largest electricity producer, and fourth largest electricity consumer—huge in geopolitical influence but fairly steady in its own emissions since 1995—was the most glaringly absent.

Mashable's careful take on world climate promises (
Mashable’s careful take on world climate promises (

On the other hand, China stepped readily up to the plate, reflecting rapport with the United States in the past year on almost all the issues. The exception was that the rapidly developing Asian giant once again raised the question of inequity of commitments, apparently taking the view of most developing countries against a perceived penalty due to emissions resulting from recent strides toward development. And there were about 80 nations not represented at all, except within multinational groups such as “Africa” (15% of the world’s human population) and “island states” (nearly 10%).

The oil-producing nations of the Middle East and North Africa stayed pretty silent for the most part. One commenter even characterized MENA as disorganized.

For its size and huge importance, India appeared surprisingly noncommittal. At least by US news reports, the developing #2 Asian giant rarely took a leadership position on any issue. The reported excitement of Americans at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the States today may signal the depth of or reason for this omission.

On the whole, Mr. Ban correctly assessed the mood of the summit: leaders who were present did reaffirm their determination to cut emissions and thus attempt to limit global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius. Some countries were softer on the goal than others, and a few, along with Climate March organizer and head Bill McKibben, issued pointed warnings that to date the world is way off on its targets, a situation that worsens every day.

GHG emissions going from bad to worse (
GHG emissions going from bad to worse (Global Carbon Project, from

As for the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, Ban cited many leaders “from all regions and all levels of economic development” as advocating a peak in greenhouse gas emissions before 2020, decisively reduced emissions thereafter, and climate neutrality after 2050. “We heard commitments to cut emissions from many countries,” he added.

From my vantage point, that’s really “some,” not “many,” even discounting those who did not attend or stayed mum on the issue. For the sake of convenience, we’ll consider only gases covered under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several fluorinated gases, focusing on the first two.

Global greenhouse gas statistics (World Resources Institute and Food and Agriculture Organization, May 2014)
Global greenhouse statistics (World Resources Institute, CAIT, 2014, and Food and Agriculture Organization, FAOSTAT, 2014)

A GHG issue Mr. Ban did not detail from the UN climate summit was the specific amounts of national commitments to GHG reduction. Some parts of the world (for example, Asia) produce far more greenhouse gases than others, depending on factors like population, climatic conditions, economic activity, and land uses. Asia, Europe, and the United States together account for 82% of total global emissions in 2011, according to USEPA. Today, the US and China emit 45% of greenhouse gases.

The question of relative emissions challenges everyone, because nations use different measuring sticks in this respect. Emissions statistics generally accepted at the UN climate summit meeting reflect neither recent nor representative statements, and national and corporate contracts to reduce them are few. They are thus not in any sense complete, though they may be our best current yardstick to what’s going on in the upper atmosphere. The figure below, right, represents one of the better attempts to quantify them.

Greenhouse gas composition by sector and gas (
World greenhouse gas composition by sector and gas

On a quick examination, of the 34 reporting countries, these important nations lacked specificity in their emissions commitments:

  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • South Korea

Notably, the nations and groups below voiced no definite commitments, only partial ones, or dates for future announcements:

  • USA
  • China
  • Japan
  • Brazil
  • Iceland
  • MENA
  • Africa

Meanwhile, some large emitters were not present: notably, Russia. And then there were the silent nations and interest groups. I am sure I have left someone out and hope you will forgive me.

Like national participation, greenhouse gas discussion itself suffered a huge omission at the meeting. Here, methane was the elephant.

Methane emissions estimates by source (IPCC AR5 WG1data interpreted by Sam Carana for

All in all, according to USEPA, the world’s net GHG emissions increased 35% from 1990 to 2010. Anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide (about 75% of total emissions) increased by 42% during the same period. Methane, however, is rapidly being recognized as a very dangerous carbon dioxide equivalent in terms of immediate, enormous  greenhouse effect (21 times per ton than that of carbon dioxide within the first 100 years), as well as its significant collateral damage.

And while most of the world’s CO2 emissions derive from electricity generation, transportation, and other forms of energy use, the combination of human-caused and “natural” methane spikes (agriculture, drowned tropical forests, permafrost breakdown, methane hydrates, and so on) is formidable.

Mr. Ban announced a number of coalitions that had been formed at the UN climate summit. His grasp of these far exceeded that of the news media, which tended to pick and choose from among many important groups. Ban singled out the fact that leaders of the oil and gas industry, along with national governments and civil organizations, made a historic commitment to identify and reduce methane emissions by 2020. That is, the oil and gas industry sans ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell, to say nothing of Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, and a few other cartels and national companies.

The most significant coalition Mr. Ban listed was probably the forest initiative taken by Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Other nations had already expressed commitments to the REDD+ process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in the past, but these three European nations, among the largest supporters of forest conservation, came to the fore again at the September summit meeting.

Important supporters of woodland conservation joined in the The New York Declaration on Forests to pledge continued financial support to protecting the world’s forests. Over 100 governments, companies, civil, and indigenous peoples’ organizations supported this continuing forest incentive. The participants stated that their goals to slow, halt, and reverse deforestation could reduce related emissions by 4.5-8.8 billion tons per year by 2030.

The Secretary-General also mentioned concerted effort at the UN climate summit in the areas of energy efficiency and transportation. These and other coalitions, like the most important financial commitments, will come up later in our discussion.

Financial mechanisms

Second, on finance, Mr. Ban felt that public and private sources “showed the way forward for mobilizing the finance we need.” Indeed they did. Although their contributions lacked a few major players, overall the participants singled out important sectors for investment. Each area had its champions, and the numbers provided a strong start for many initiatives.

In my mind, Ban’s analysis stretched the point, if not misled, about summit leaders expressing strong support for the Green Climate Fund. Most of the developed countries are dragging their feet on the fund’s initial capitalization, whether by not attending the summit, not going into specifics, or not mentioning money at all.

Pledges to UN Green Climate Fund, as of September 2014 (Oxfam Germany)

In all, six nations pledged an estimated $2.3 billion at the summit toward the Fund’s initial capitalization—only a quarter of the $10 billion amount called for. Six others committed to contribute within the next two months. Many affirmed that they would submit their national contributions for the new agreement in the first quarter of 2015.  Certainly large commitments need to come in between the Lima meeting in December, the March draft pledge deadline, and at the latest, Paris next December, or we will all suffer serious consequences from the delay.

The silver lining, as far as funding goes, came from the pockets of multinationals, corporate entities, nongovernmental organizations, and individual states, cities, and generous persons. Ban praised a new coalition of governments, business, finance, multilateral development banks,  and civil society leaders at the UN climate summit for agreeing to mobilize about $200 billion to finance low-carbon and climate-resilient development.

Private banks announced they would issue $20 billion of green bonds and that they would double the market to $50 billion by 2015, next year.  The insurance industry committed to double its green investments to $82 billion by the same date, by next year.  A coalition of institutional investors committed to decarbonize $100 billion by December 2015 and to measure and disclose the carbon footprint of at least $500 billion in investments — all of this by next year.

Carbon pricing and trade at the UN Climate Summit

Now to the third—and perhaps the single most important—issue: carbon pricing.  As Ban pointed out, “this is one of the most powerful tools available for reducing emissions and generating sustainable development and growth.”  Leaders of about 70 governments and some important business representatives supported putting a price on carbon through various instruments to enable truly deep decarbonization. Many also called more strongly than in previous years for intensified efforts to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

Most notably, the World Bank Group has bluntly spoken on the topic at hand: “Climate change is a fundamental threat to sustainable development and the fight against poverty.” (See the billiard ball model below.)

Impact of climate change on development goals (Paris 2015: Getting a Global Agreement....pdf)
Impact of climate change on development goals (Paris 2015: Getting a Global Agreement….pdf)

The World Bank Group provided a total of $6.5 billion in lending with mitigation co-benefits in FY13, and $2.9 billion in adaptation benefits. In May, the organization stated:

“At the Bank, we are stepping up our mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk management work, and will increasingly look at all our business through a climate lens.”

At the UN climate summit, the bank joined the World Economic Forum and We Mean Business Coalition in convening a carbon pricing leadership coalition with business and government leaders. World Bank leaders pointed out these statistics from the summit:

Seventy-four countries and 23 subnational jurisdictions (states and provinces)—together responsible for over 54 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 52 percent of GDP—joined 11 cities and over 1,000 businesses and investors in signaling their support for carbon pricing through a series of initiatives announced at the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Leadership Summit on Tuesday.

Clearly, thanks to seemingly intractable conservative forces in Congress and the business community, the United States lags far behind with respect to carbon pricing and even cap-and-trade. In affirming the need for such economic steps by simple majorities according to both emissions count and GDP, the summit made a crucially important forward step toward economic means of limiting emissions. In this case, lack of unanimity certainly does not represent failure.

Thirty companies announced their alignment with the Caring for Climate Business Leadership Criteria on Carbon Pricing.  And a number of leaders agreed to join a new Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition to drive action aimed at strengthening carbon pricing policies and redirecting investment.

Improving resilience after the UN Climate Summit

Fourth, we heard about the value of strengthening resilience, in terms of both climate and financial approaches. Ban characterized resilience as a smart and essential investment, a point that may have escaped business and some financial leaders until this point.  Adaptation needs are growing, he pointed out, particularly for least developed countries, small island nations, and states emerging into full development. The first two of these carry the highest of risks and need the most urgent international support.

Leaders of the UN climate summit did agree to strengthen and increase risk financing mechanisms for Africa and the Caribbean. The summit recognized the 19 nations of Africa’s Clean Environment Corridor and also launched a comprehensive climate risk resilience initiative to support Pacific small islands. In a welcome business sector initiative, leaders of the insurance industry (representing $30 trillion in assets and investments) committed to creating a Climate Risk Investment Framework. They also pledged to see it through to industry-wide adoption by the end of next year.

Emerging and effective coalitions

Finally, Ban cited more new coalitions that are forming to meet the full scope of the climate challenge. The press reported these developments at the meeting sketchily. Comprehensive coverage was almost totally lacking.

However, almost every news outlet mentioned the historic commitment of leaders of the oil and gas industry, along with national governments and civil organizations, that made a pledge to identify and reduce methane emissions by 2020. Of course, about half of the reports also bemoaned the absence of industry leaders in this group, and no one talked at length about the prospect of major petroleum leaders uniting to limit CO2 emissions.

The first Global Agricultural Alliance was launched at the UN climate summit to enable 500 million farmers worldwide to practice climate-smart agriculture by 2030. Some of the world’s largest retailers of meat and agricultural products joined this coalition. Again, the media mostly let this important development be.

And a crucial local combine, the Compact of Mayors, appeared practically nowhere in media coverage. This union of urban governments represents 200 cities with a combined population of 400 million, over 5% of the population of the world. All told, the mayors pledged new commitments to reduce annual emissions by between 12.4-16.4%.

A very important move by leaders of pension funds—decarbonizing investments worth $100 billion and disclosing the carbon footprint of investments worth five times that much—also went practically unnoticed. Likewise, the corollary contributions of nongovernmental organizations, essential players in forestalling climate change who had an accompanying summit of their own; of the aviation industry, a major petroleum consumer in terms of both manufacture and fuel; and of divestment by important endowment funds such as the Rockefeller Foundation of oil and gas instruments.

UN Climate Summit: Afterwords

Repeating the three most critical elements almost totally ignored by the media, and left out in Ban Ki-moon’s summary: the OCEANS, RUSSIA, and METHANE.

Whopping kudos to France and five other nations who kicked in some much-needed cash; also to Germany for its large initial capitalization; and an honorable mention to the vigorous promises of China, the United States, Japan, and others.

Let’s end with a reminder of mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal’s 17th-century “wager,” then a pragmatic response to religious arguments about belief and the existence of God. Andrew Curry posted this as a climate change wager in thenextwavefutures blog five years ago: “In the face of people who continue to assert that the science is flawed or even the product of conspiracy,” he said, “the wager seems a good model.” Two choices, two outcomes. Choose one.

Pascal's Wager, as applied to climate change by Andrew Curry (thenextwavefutures blog on wordpress)



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