Upping the ambition in New York

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice AND co-chair of the Ambition Advisory Group for the Climate Action Summit 2019.

© WWF Intl. / Greg Marinovich / The Stand

Will the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit be all talk and no action? António Guterres has called for governments to bring “plans, not speeches” to the event, which culminates on 23 September, and the advance billing is optimistic. The UN says the summit will “showcase a leap in collective national political ambition and … demonstrate massive movements in the real economy in support of the [climate] agenda.”

We are hopeful that governments and key stakeholders will deliver. Certainly, the summit takes place amid stark evidence that we are already in the midst of a climate emergency: Hurricane Dorian is merely the latest in an apparently unending series of extreme weather events.

It is also taking place amid rising public concern: it is likely that marches in New York to coincide with the event could see even more people take to the streets than at the last climate summit, in 2014, when more than 300,000 marched to call for climate action.

Certainly, the scientific evidence of the need to act to reduce emissions is only becoming more compelling. The last year has seen the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produce authoritative reports on the impacts of 1.5˚C of warming, and what climate change will mean for land, food and terrestrial ecosystems. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has raised the alarm about biodiversity loss — which is partly driven by climate change — while, just last month, the Global Commission on Adaptation set out the challenge we face adapting to the effects of climate change.

© Andre Dib / WWF Brazil

Never has the need been greater — nor the case clearer — to firmly base our political decisions on what scientists are telling us about climate, biodiversity and the threats to the natural systems on which we rely.

The summit could represent a tipping point in terms of climate action and of raising ambition. We need to recognise that, while enormous progress has been made in terms of domestic implementation of Paris Agreement commitments, this is not sufficient to hold warming below 1.5°C or reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This summit should see countries announce enhanced nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and unveil long-term 2050 strategies that could begin to re-orientate us towards those goals.

The meeting comes at a crucial point in the global response to the climate emergency and to related sustainability challenges, with 2020 set to be a milestone year. Governments are due by the end of next year to submit new NDCs: the summit provides an opportunity to inject momentum into the Paris Agreement commitment process, for the COP later this year in Chile, and for the crucial COP 26 in the UK and Italy.

The Climate Action Summit also promises to broaden the climate agenda, bringing in new sectors and giving more prominence to a wider range of stakeholders. It involves nine action areas, covering not only traditional areas such as the energy transition and carbon pricing, but also youth and public mobilisation, the role of industry and cities, and what nature-based solutions could deliver.

© Shutterstock / foxbat / WWF

It also promises wider participation. Unlike usual UN summits, where every member state gets to grandstand, Guterres is only giving the floor to governments with concrete proposals to announce. In addition, non-state actors will be invited to contribute, demonstrating the need for the broadest possible involvement in the response to the climate crisis.

Certainly, we cannot afford to fail. Governments, supported by civil society, the private sector, sub-national governments and indigenous people, need to use the summit to reinject momentum into the international effort to reduce emissions. Without greater ambition, the extreme weather, degradation of ecosystems, and the threats to human health and wellbeing posed by climate change will rapidly worsen.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.