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Actions not words: what was promised at the UN’s landmark climate summit?

Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg , speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019.
UN Photo/Cia Pak
Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg , speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019.

Actions not words: what was promised at the UN’s landmark climate summit?

Climate and Environment

UN Secretary-General warned leaders not to come to his landmark Climate Action Summit with beautiful speeches, but to present concrete plans for cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050. So what, exactly, was promised at Monday’s all-day event at UN Headquarters in New York?

Country commitments

Many countries committed to upping their game, announcing emission cuts and other measures to fight climate change. France, for example, announced that it will no longer enter into trade agreements with countries whose policies run counter to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement; Germany committed to carbon neutrality by 2050; and China said that it was launching a partnership that could potentially unlock up to 12 billion tons of global emissions reductions each year, through nature-based solutions.

Several countries signalled a move away from fossil fuels, with pledges to ban oil or gas exploration on their lands or off-shore waters, and the phasing out of coal as an energy source. 

Nations made financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund, the official financial mechanism to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change; and new initiatives were launched to protect 500 million additional people from the impacts of climate change.

Profiting from sustainability

The private sector had a chance to demonstrate how it can bring about real positive change, when 87 major companies - with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion, over 4.2 million employees, and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants - committed to setting climate targets across their operations.

These businesses include well-known brands such as Burberry, Danone, Ericsson, Electrolux, IKEA, and Nestlé. A number of these companies (you can find the full list here), went a step further, by committing to “science-based targets”, which means that their corporate emissions cuts can be independently assessed.

Speaking at the UN Global Compact Private Sector Forum, Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate with over 200,000 employees, said that more and more business leaders are waking up to the fact that sustainability and profit go together, and that climate action represents the biggest business opportunity of the next few decades.

In the finance sector, some of the world’s largest pension funds and insurers, responsible for directing more than $2 trillion in investments, have joined together to form the Asset Owner Alliance, which committed to moving their portfolios to carbon-neutral investments by 2050. The members of the Alliance are already engaging with companies in which they are investing, to ensure that they are decarbonizing their business models.

Unlocking the power of nature

Harrison Ford (Actor and Environmental Activist) on the importance of rainforests during the UN Climate Action Summit 2019, by

Using the power of nature is believed to be one of the most effective and immediate ways to address the climate crisis. Strengthening natural ecosystems such as forests, for example, is one such solution: more forests means more capacity for carbon capture, and replanting mangrove forests provides an effective and cheap natural barrier against coastal floods and shoreline erosion.

Monday saw the launch of several initiatives designed to boost nature-based solutions. These include the Global Campaign for Nature, which plans to conserve around 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030; a High-Level Panel for the Sustainable Ocean Economy, which will build resilience for the ocean and marine-protected areas; and the Central African Forest Initiative promises to protect the region’s forest cover, which provides livelihoods for some 60 million people.

Cleaning up cities

It is now possible to construct buildings that are 100 per cent net-zero carbon emitters, and the Zero Carbon Buildings for All initiative is pledging to make all buildings – new build and existing – net zero carbon by 2050. This could potentially lead to a $1 trillion investment in developing countries, by 2030.

A total of 2000 cities committed to placing climate risk at the centre of their decision-making, planning and investments: this includes launching 1,000 bankable, climate-smart urban projects, and creating innovative financing mechanisms.

Tackling traffic congestion and pollution is the aim of the Action Towards Climate Friendly Transport initiative, which includes actions to plan city development in a way that minimises travel, shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to non-motorized and public transport, and increase the use of zero-emission technologies.

A full list of the many initiatives announced during the Climate Action Summit can be found here.

A nine-track mind

The Climate Action Summit focused on nine interdependent tracks, with the aim of boosting ambition, and accelerating action to implement the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement:

  1. Enhancing climate mitigation of major emitting countries,
  2. Social and political drivers, such as health, gender and security,
  3. Youth and public mobilization, streamlining youth participation across all related topics,
  4. Energy transition, including boosting renewables, energy efficiency, and storage,
  5. Industry transition, creating stronger commitment from emission-heavy sectors such as steel and cement,
  6. Infrastructure, cities and local action, to scale up ambitious commitments on low-emission and climate-resilient infrastructure,
  7. Nature-based solutions, focusing on areas such as forests, smart agriculture and oceans,
  8. Resilience and adaptation, focusing on integrating climate risks into public and private decision-making,
  9. Climate finance and carbon-pricing, directing finance towards climate resilient development, with low greenhouse gas emissions