A Climate Summit With Some Hot Air

Philip Bump argues that yesterday’s UN summit amounts to something new under the sun:

For decades, the United Nations has tried to put together a binding commitment from its members aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions – particularly carbon dioxide. … What’s happening right now in New York, in the wake of the largest climate rally in history, is something different. Instead of parties coming together to develop a binding agreement, it’s an attempt to self-regulate, to encourage countries and companies to establish individual goals for reduction that, in the aggregate, will hopefully have a global effect. Mashable is tracking those commitments: a European Union pledge to reduce emissions up to 95 percent by 2050, financial commitments from France and Switzerland, Costa Rica’s switch to clean energy. All of these things could have an effect, and particularly that E.U. pledge. But none will have a huge impact in the absence of other efforts.

Indeed, Ben Adler suggests the conference confirmed all the worst stereotypes about the UN:

A procession of heads of state spoke – so many that they had to be split into three simultaneous sessions — but even the largest session, in the General Assembly Hall, was largely empty during most of the speeches. The few delegates there seemed distracted, mostly talking to each other. The speeches from heads of state and other representatives were billed grandly as “national action and ambition announcements.” Mostly, though, they consisted of familiar talking points, platitudes, and boasts about preexisting national energy policies. …  Speakers were eager to talk about the need for action and the general principles of energy conservation and renewable energy, but they avoided mention of specific emissions targets or even precise amounts of funding they want from rich countries for climate-mitigation efforts.

The focus was largely on the United States and China. Ronald Bailey was not impressed by their actions:

The world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, both held off on making any specific additional pledges regarding their future emissions. In 2012, humanity emitted 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, of which 10 billion came from China and 5.2 billion from the United States. Convened by General-Secretary Ban Ki Moon, the Summit is supposed to “catalyze action” in advance of the big U.N. climate change conference at Paris in 2015. At the Paris conference, the nations of the world are supposed to make pledges to cut their emissions sufficient to keep future warming below the internationally agreed upon threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. It is not at all clear that today’s Summit catalyzed much more than pious clichés.

Matt McGrath describes Obama’s speech to the General Assembly as “notable for the absence of big pledges and for its realistic tone”:

Every time the president used the word “carbon”, he tagged the word “pollution” on the end. His goal was to underline that carbon dioxide is damaging to humans in the same way as air pollution, and in the US it should be regulated by executive power rather than by through legislation in a very divided Congress. The president also acknowledged the scale of opposition to his attempts to cut carbon. The most substantial pledge he made was an announcement that early next year he would publish a post-2020 plan to cut emissions.

He appealed to China, saying that together with the US the two countries had a special responsibility to lead. But everyone had to contribute. “No one gets a pass,” he said. The president wants to bind in the Chinese with an ambitious, inclusive – and most critically – a flexible deal that he can sign without recourse to the Senate.

Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli said the country expects emissions to peak “as soon as possible.” Andrew Freedman analyzes the announcement:

On the one hand, as far as environmentalists and the Obama administration are concerned, the mere mention of a peak in China’s carbon dioxide emissions was new and ambitious, considering how quickly the Chinese economy has grown in recent years and how fast emissions have risen as well. During the past decade, for example, China saw about 10% per year increases in carbon dioxide emissions, although that slowed in 2013, according to a report from the European Commission. China has a goal to reduce its carbon intensity, which is a way of measuring the carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product, by up to 45% by 2020. Zhang said that China will reveal its goals for reducing emissions post-2020 during the first quarter of 2015, as the United States also intends to do. …

On the other hand, China signaled its continued support for a long-running source of tension between industrialized countries and developing nations regarding the U.N. climate treaty process. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was negotiated in 1992, well before China’s emissions overtook U.S. emissions, mandates that developing countries and industrialized nations have “common but differentiated responsibilities” in addressing the problem. In 2009, for the first time, China and other developing countries committed to taking action to reduce their emissions along with industrialized countries, but it remains to be seen how far they are willing to go when the next treaty is negotiated in 2015. That treaty is due to go into effect by 2020.

Rebecca Leber argues that addressing climate change “will require steps Obama couldn’t promise on Tuesday – perhaps because, though he would happily support them, his political opposition would not”:

Consider what the President did announce – an executive order directing federal agencies to plan for climate change impacts in all of their investments and decisions on international development. The idea is to help make sure these investments are durable and effective in a world where it’s becoming impossible to consider funding parts of the world without considering impacts like extreme weather. The executive order is less about the climate negotiations process than a broader signal to the world that the U.S. takes climate change seriously (even if congressional Republicans don’t).

Obama also declined to pledge any money to the Green Climate Fund, which supports developing countries coping with the effects of climate change: France committed $1 billion, which Suzanne Goldenberg describes as “the first significant contribution since Germany threw in $1 billion last July.” She adds:

The Green Climate Fund was founded in 2010 to help poor countries cope with climate change. UN officials and developing country diplomats have said repeatedly it will not be possible to reach a climate deal in Paris without a significant fund for those countries which did the least to cause climate change but will bear the brunt.

South Korea and Switzerland went on to pledge $100 million each, Denmark pledged $70 million, Norway pledged $33 million and Mexico said it would give $10 million. But the total of $2.3 billion pledged for the Green Climate Fund so far fell short of the $10 billion to $15 billion that UN officials and developing country said was needed to show rich countries were committed to acting on climate change. It also was unclear whether Tuesday’s pledges represented new money.

Meanwhile, Justin Gillis notes that at the summit, “companies are playing a larger role than at any such gathering in the past.” Forty companies signed a pledge to stop tropical deforestation by 2030, and a further 400 voiced their support for putting a price on carbon. Gillis explains:

Several environmental groups said they were optimistic that at least some of these [promises] would be kept, but they warned that corporate action was not enough, and that climate change could not be solved without stronger steps by governments. The corporate promises are the culmination of a trend that has been building for years, with virtually every major company now feeling obliged to make commitments about environmental sustainability, and to report regularly on progress. The companies have found that pursuing such goals can often help them cut costs, particularly for energy.