Africa: UN Climate Summit Exposes Struggle to Ditch Fossil-Fuel 'Status Quo'

Climate activist Greta Thunberg, on screens and right at stage, Climate Activist, speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. With her on the stage are, from left to right: Secretary-General António Guterres; Anurag Saha Roy, Winner of the Summer of Solutions Pitch Competition; and Paloma Costa Oliveira, Lawyer and Climate Activist.

Barcelona — Closing his climate action summit in New York on Monday, U.N. chief Antonio Guterres told countries they still had "a long way to go" - a judgement echoed by environmental groups and aid agencies, which were generally disappointed with the outcome.

While they pointed to bright spots - including pledges by some small island states to go carbon-neutral and new aid for poor countries - many of the big emitters were absent or glossed over how they would ramp up efforts to tackle global warming.

In 2020, governments have agreed to submit improved national plans to reduce heat-trapping emissions and adapt to a changing climate - and Monday's lacklustre performance hikes the pressure on them to deliver that promise, researchers and analysts said.

"While countries were expected to come to the summit to announce that they would enhance their climate ambition, most of the major economies fell woefully short," said Andrew Steer, head of the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based think thank.

"Their lack of ambition stands in sharp contrast with the growing demand for action around the world," he added.

The U.N. gathering came a few days after some 4 million people hit the streets across the globe, led by students, demanding urgent moves to rein in rising global temperatures that are super-charging wild weather and boosting sea levels.

Yet despite rousing opening comments by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg - where she told leaders young people would not forgive them if they failed to act on the climate crisis - the excitement faded fast.

The leaders of the United States, Brazil and Australia did not speak at the summit, and there were few headline-grabbing announcements by other presidents and prime ministers.

Nonetheless, Guterres said the roughly 60 government leaders who did step up to the podium - alongside CEOs, mayors and other high-profile figures - had "delivered a boost in momentum, cooperation and ambition".

The United Nations noted 77 countries had committed to cut their emissions to "net zero" by 2050 as scientists have advised, while 70 announced they would boost their climate action plans by 2020 or had started the process of doing so.

Climate Action Network (CAN) International, a coalition of green and development groups, said Chile and Britain - hosts of annual U.N. climate talks this year and next - must ensure governments deliver an "adequate response" that puts the world on course to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Current promises to reduce emissions will lead to warming of at least 3 degrees this century, scientists warn.

"Countries should not wait until 2020" to upgrade their plans and step up action, CAN said in a statement.

"They should start now by stopping coal and other fossil fuels, and investing in a just transition to renewable energy and climate resilience."


More positively, many hailed a series of global initiatives launched or expanded at the summit, bringing in governments, businesses, development banks and other organisations.

They ranged from nearly $800 million in funds to bolster the harvests and incomes of 300 million developing-world farmers struggling with unpredictable weather, to efforts to speed up energy efficiency by 3% per year, and make buildings and cities zero-carbon.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, a Delhi-based international partnership that will offer expertise to build safer hospitals, schools, housing and other public utilities.

Nine countries, meanwhile, made fresh pledges to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which channels money to developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate shifts, raising the amount promised so far for its first refill to $7.3 billion, from close to $6 billion before the summit.

"The new climate finance resources announced this week as well as those already made will help GCF provide urgently needed support to the most vulnerable communities facing the climate crisis," said its executive director Yannick Glemarec.

Campaigners are pressing donor countries to double their initial contributions to the GCF - which topped $10 billion - this year, but the United States and Australia are not expected to come up with new money under their current leaders.

Liane Schalatek, associate director at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Washington, who monitors the GCF closely, said few rich countries, with the exception of Sweden and Luxembourg, had provided their fair share of funding to help developing nations tackle climate change.

"More generous public grant financing support, and especially increased financing for adaptation is needed to take responsibility and provide climate justice," she said.


For now, the jury remains very much out on whether growing public calls for governments to double down on global warming will spur a shift away from business as usual.

Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, said politicians and bosses were becoming more aware of the need to respond to demands for climate action coming from millions of young people and citizens.

"But they, and the institutions behind them, have no experience mustering the level of conviction this challenge requires," she added.

"They are used to rolling along with a status quo economy mired in fossil fuel addiction and status quo politics that kowtow to the interests of the fossil fuel industry."

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Zoe Tabary. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, and covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit

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