New York Climate Summit – what did it deliver and what’s next?

Many people gathered and many words were spoken  in New York last month on the topic of climate change but will it change anything? What will all the energy put into the marches, the speeches, the side events and networking actually achieve, particularly for the one hundred Least Developed Countries (LDC), Africa and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) who collectively only produce 5% of global greenhouse gases?

I was in New York and there were some inspiring moments - seeing 310,000 people marching through New York was striking. The United States Secretary of State, John Kerry spoke brilliantly on the challenge, the frustrations and the opportunities: referring to the latest alarming emissions data for 2013, he was direct in saying we are heading for a 4oC hotter world. He highlighted the importance of the US and China in leading the way, but also the benefits that new, low-carbon growth will bring. Like Kerry, the humanitarian Graca Machel spoke in the closing session of the Summit of the mismatch between the magnitude of the problem of climate change and the response, and also of the obligation to act.

She called for brave leadership, which might not be popular with all. Leaders spoke in ways that were careful not to offend their constituents but they did come in large numbers: some 100 Heads of State and 800 business, finance and NGO leaders. In the climate finance session, governments and private sector representatives came together and made impressive commitments. Progress was made in capitalising the Green Climate Fund with the announcement of €1bn euros by France, the reconfirmation of a similar amount from Germany and other contributions, raising a total of $2.3bn.  This is a good start but still way short of the $15bn hoped for by many LDCs to be raised before the Lima Climate Change conference in December.

More significant was what the private sector said: banks, insurers and pension funds announced their mobilisation of at least $200 bn for low-carbon and climate-resilient investment, and decarbonising of additional investments and funds (such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s divestment  from fossil fuels). The other significant boost for climate action was the intention to reinvigorate carbon markets when 73 governments and 1,000 businesses and investors agreed to support carbon pricing.

An event with SIDS leaders reaffirmed the shift in narrative of these and other vulnerable states from that of victims to progressive advocates. Their commitment to move to renewable energy is catching the attention of all, such that the Marshall Islands are now a regular participant in the Major Economies Forum. Leadership, as well as allocations of significant domestic resources by many developing nations for both adaptation and mitigation, are showing the way that all countries will have to follow sooner or later.

A big, emerging shift in language was the reference to net zero carbon or climate neutrality. The UN Secretary General’s summary statement spoke of “climate neutrality in the second half of the century”. As the New Climate Economy report has showed, taking steps to get to ‘net zero’ will lead to increased prosperity and the invigoration of economies. So, in summary, the reasons to come away from New York re-energised and hopeful are:

  • Public engagement, supported by effective social media, is starting to re-emerge on climate change and there is now a momentum that activists will want to sustain through to the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris in 2015, where a new global climate deal is due to be agreed.
  • Many leaders, both of governments and private sector, have spoken of or committed themselves to action, and new funds are being committed. They will be held to account by the newfound activism.
  • A new narrative on climate neutrality is emerging which will be bedded into economic growth and poverty reduction.

There is still a very long way to go and little time to achieve it. For the most part, leaders realise that climate change needs to be addressed, but whether they will drive the rapid transformation required will depend on the quality of work done by many of those who were gathered in New York.

A version of this blog was first posted on the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.


Sam Bickersteth | Director
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