8 October 2014
UN Climate Summit Resets Course for High-Level Climate Debate
Photo by IISD/ENB
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When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took to the streets of New York on the eve of the Climate Summit, he was endeavoring to signal a decisive new phase in the world's movement towards an ambitious post-2015 agreement on climate action under the UNFCCC.

“dear matafele peinam… they’re marching for you, baby they’re marching for us because we deserve to do more than just survive we deserve to thrive.” (Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Marshallese poet, writer, performance artist and journalist speaking at the opening of the 2014 Climate Summit)

When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took to the streets of New York with, by some estimates, 400,000 demonstrators on the eve of the 2014 Climate Summit, he was endeavoring to signal a decisive new phase in the world’s movement towards an ambitious post-2015 agreement on climate action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Summit brought together over one hundred Heads of State and Government, along with other high-level representatives, to announce new commitments. The event was timed to generate momentum in the negotiating process, 15 months in advance of the anticipated agreement in Paris at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 21), in December 2015. The Summit’s high-level participants gave an almost universal endorsement of a commitment to limit warming below 2˚C compared to pre-industrial levels, underscoring the central challenge that the formal UNFCCC process has set itself in the run-up to COP 21 in Paris 2015.

The Summit did not attract new country commitments to reduce emissions and close the ambition gap between what has been tabled in the UNFCCC negotiating rooms and the level of action that is required to limit warming to 2˚C below pre-industrial levels – such “concessions” this far ahead of the December 2015 deadline would not have been realistic outside the formal negotiating process. However, although fresh numerical commitments in terms of emissions reductions were in short supply, the other side of the Paris equation was addressed up front.

Taking the lead in this regard, France matched an earlier German pledge of US$1 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The GCF was boosted by a total of US$1.3 billion following additional contributions from Switzerland, Denmark and Norway, and smaller sums from Luxembourg and the Czech Republic. Pledges were also made by South Korea and Mexico. High-level statements expressed strong support for the GCF, with reaffirmation of support for the US$100 billion capitalization by 2020, and an initial funding of US$10 billion. In all, US$2.3 billion has now been pledged to the GCF, with six other countries committing to declare their contributions by the end of 2014. Other significant financial pledges were tabled by the EU, the US and Japan.

While these financing pledges were certainly welcomed and encouraged, they were not the sole objective of the Summit. The one-day event also aimed to catalyze actions by a unique mix of partners, from government to cities, business, finance and civil society – a global coalition that moves beyond the politics of the UNFCCC with a mix of unilateral action, and partnerships that span governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. A coalition that must now convert a myriad of Summit headlines into a tipping point for the shift away from fossil fuels to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy.

Among the initiatives announced in New York, the UNEP-led Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC) launched five sectoral partnerships, including a major initiative to cut methane emissions. These initiatives represent a paradigmatic shift in the appreciation of the early opportunities to align climate action with efforts to bring about significant contributions to human health and other co-benefits.

A series of business- and finance-led initiatives demonstrate the ways in which partnerships have begun to complement and drive the logic of low- and zero-carbon economies. Governments, business, finance, multilateral development banks and civil society leaders pledged to mobilize US$200 billion for financing low-carbon and climate resilient-development. A Global Divest-Invest coalition will take US$50 billion out of fossil fuels and re-invest in climate friendly activity. Leading commercial banks will scale up Green Bonds issues to US$30 billion by 2015, and institutional investors committed to decarbonizing US$100 billion by December 2015. Seventy-three governments, 11 regional governments, and more than 1000 businesses and investors supported pricing carbon. While the UNFCCC process has, according to some observers, suffered a temporary hangover since Copenhagen, the Summit demonstrated that the world of new clean technologies, scalable systems and decarbonized finance has accelerated.

Another outcome of the Summit was the adoption of the New York Declaration on Forests, in which over 130 governments, companies, civil society and indigenous peoples’ organizations pledge to cut the loss of forests by half by 2020, and to end the loss of forests altogether by 2030. The non-legally binding declaration aims to accelerate action by companies, in the context of the run-up to the Paris COP, to eliminate deforestation from supply chains and contribute to the restoration of 350 million hectares of forests and croplands.

In the run-up to COP 15 in Copenhagen, while the world placed its hope in the UNFCCC process, the negotiations foundered in the absence of preparation and political will at the highest levels of government. By the time world leaders arrived at the 11th hour, there was little to be salvaged and trust in the ability of the UNFCCC process to deliver a global agreement on climate change was damaged. In the aftermath, the debate shifted as those deeply concerned by the lack of agreement at the global level looked to other avenues to address climate change.

The Climate Summit reflected this shift. On the one hand, it brought together world leaders 15 months in advance of COP 21 in Paris in an attempt to inject early high-level momentum and authority ahead of the formal UNFCCC negotiating process in Bonn, in October, and at COP 20 in Lima, Peru. On the other, the Summit mobilized significant financial pledges from countries and commitments from the private sector and innovative cross-sector coalitions. In addition, the Summit reinvigorated civil society action on climate change, which had flagged after the failure in Copenhagen. In this light, the achievements of the Summit were a series of alignments between grassroots concern about climate change and governments’ handling of the formal UNFCCC process, between the objectives of the UNFCCC process and first-hand experience of climate impacts on domestic populations, and between the emerging opportunities presented by climate action and a recognition of those opportunities across industry, business and finance sectors.

The success of the 2014 Climate Summit in mobilizing high-level ambition must be viewed in the context of its position as one of the way-stops on the road to a post-2015 climate agreement under the UNFCCC and the road towards a decarbonized economy. Many observers have highlighted that the Summit, in some ways, is a pivotal point in the history of climate action, with some pointing to the momentum generated by private sector commitments and emphasizing that the bottom-up actions taking place will drive agreement within the UNFCCC process as governments “catch up.”

At the opening and the close of the Summit, voices that spanned generations broke through the high rhetoric. Former First Lady of South Africa Graça Machel closed the Summit questioning whether leaders had genuinely responded to the demands of the march that preceded the Summit, and called on participants to “step up the ambition, increase the momentum and ensure that from now until Paris each of us has matched the momentousness of the challenge with our actions.” But for many participants the most memorable speech at the Summit came in the form of a pledge to a new-born, a child of the Marshall Islands, Matafele Peinam. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a civil society activist and poet, delivered a stirring pledge to her daughter that her life in the Marshall Islands would remain viable.

Read the Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary of the 2014 Climate Summit for a review of all statements during the event.

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