Why the UN Climate Summit MattersDamian Ryan
International gatherings of the good and great can be an easy target for caricature. Diplomats, heads of government and CEOs flying in to exotic locations to say fine things and exchange polite pleasantries over canapés is the stereotype image for many. Taken at face value, next week’s UN Climate Summit in New York could well fit this description.
Such a conclusion would be wrong, however. Very wrong.
Called by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the summit will see over 125 heads of government along with leaders from business and civil society gather to discuss action on climate change. Governments and businesses have also been asked to announce new climate pledges. These could include new emission reduction or renewable energy targets, climate finance commitments to support poorer developing countries, or relevant domestic policies and measures.
On the face of it, these objectives seem fairly anodyne and hardly ground breaking given the scale of the climate challenge. A collection of political pledges, for example, doesn’t provide any legal certainty that the rhetoric we will see in New York next week will be converted into hard action when leaders return home.
This interpretation, however, misses the point. The Climate Summit is not about a display of climate “hard power”. No one expects the US or China, for example, to come to New York with climate action guns blazing, attempting to out-do each other with the level of their climate policy ambition. Obviously, such a turn out would be transformational, but it’s also not a realistic expectation of where the world is right now.
Instead, the New York summit is really a “soft power” process, aimed at building the political confidence for more substantive action at the UN Climate Conference in Paris in December 2015. At this meeting in a little over a year’s time, countries are meant to agree a new global climate treaty that will take effect from 2020. They are also working to put in place other, non-treaty measures to increase ambition in the intervening five years.
New York then, is about injecting political confidence into this broader process, which has been bedevilled for years by a focus on the costs of tackling climate change and the “burden sharing” this implied. This depressing narrative dominated debate at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 and was a key factor in that meeting’s failure to agree a new climate treaty.
As The Climate Group’s CEO Mark Kenber has remarked, the essential problem was that leaders at the time simply didn’t believe in the solutions that were available. Without this belief they couldn’t provide the political confidence and leadership that was so needed for success.
Much, however, has changed in the last five years. Although it is true that the opportunity (and risk) narrative around climate change is still not embedded in decision and policymaking processes in both businesses and governments, it is the case that it has moved from the fringes to the mainstream of climate change discussions.
This shift is due to a number of factors, including: the falling costs of low carbon technologies, combined, crucially, with their embrace by the public, such as solar PV; the global expansion in scope and ambition of climate and energy policy, not least in China; and a recognition among leading business and political figures that climate impacts are no longer a distant possibility but an increasingly immediate threat.
In other words, a new low carbon opportunity and risk paradigm is becoming self-evident to mainstream decision-makers in the way that it simply wasn’t in the lead up to Copenhagen.
The UN Climate Summit therefore presents an enormous opportunity in terms of creating a tipping-point around this new paradigm. The challenge for those leaders in business and government, who have already embraced the opportunities of bold climate action, is to harness and communicate this growing momentum for change to those who have yet to shift.
The impact of these efforts in New York may not be immediately discernible. But if among those polite pleasantries and canapé fuelled conversations, a new enthusiasm and sense of possibility for bold climate action is created among the majority of the world’s political and business leaders, then a quiet but powerful clean revolution will have been ignited.
This is the legacy that next week’s summit must leave. The world deserves and needs no less.
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