The United Nations' special Climate Action Summit notched up a win even before the first speaker took the microphone and Greta Thunberg issued a passionate broadside.
On the evening before, the UN announced that Gabon would become the first African country to receive international funding to preserve its forests. The 10-year commitment of $150 million will come from Norway under the UN’s Central African Forest Initiative. The pledge rewards Gabon’s own efforts to preserve the world's second-largest tropical rainforest. It also aims to bolster those exertions as part of the international fight to promote carbon dioxide absorption by pristine forests such as the ones that thickly cover Gabon.
In a sense, the support for Gabon fell in the action-not-words category urged by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres ahead of the summit. “Don’t come to the summit with beautiful speeches,” Mr Guterres had previously warned the leaders of the more than 50 countries invited to speak. “Come with concrete plans and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050.”
To mean anything, those concrete plans and strategies had to cover three key areas. First, rich-world funding for poorer countries to mitigate climate change. Second, forward thinking by China and India, respectively the world's largest and third-largest greenhouse gas emitters. Both said they would do better but did not give details. (No one was watching for commitments from the US, the second-largest emitter. Donald Trump never sought – nor received – a speaking slot at the summit, and has made climate change denial a feature of his presidency.) Third, an update on the seriousness with which individual countries view their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement. On Monday, 66 countries said they would work towards net-zero emissions targets.
This was no Paris climate summit – historic in the strength and scale of political commitment to a huge task.
Unsurprisingly, much of the anticipation ahead of the summit was about new net-zero emissions targets, clean energy financing and enhanced climate change goals. In advance, however, just 23 of the 196 countries that signed the Paris agreement had signalled the intention to be more ambitious about lowering their carbon footprint.
The state of play as of Sunday, according to the 2020 Tracker that monitors nationally determined contributions of emissions, was somewhat dispiriting. The tracker, devised by Washington think tank World Resources Institute, showed that Nigeria – whose share of global greenhouse gas emissions is a mere 1.01 per cent – was the largest emitter on that golden list of countries determined to do more. Many of the others prepared to fight the good fight – not least Antigua and Barbuda, Fiji, Micronesia, Nauru, Seychelles, Tonga and Vanuatu – already boast a zero per cent share of emissions. Chile, which also intends to scale up its climate change action, is at -0.02 per cent. Altogether, the 23-member climate action group of committed countries represents a minuscule 2.3 per cent of global emissions.
That said, in June, the UK did become the largest economy in the world to pass a law committing to net-zero emissions by 2050. Mr Guterres also expressed optimism before the summit that the European Union would also commit to carbon neutrality in 31 years' time. Commitments are mere words, a plan for action, not a guarantee of delivery. But as a signifier of intent, they are important.
Overall though, it is hard to deny the impression of a world split on emissions policies. Countries are manifestly reluctant to increase their own obligations when others, indeed some of the biggest offenders, do little. But then the decision to address global warming by means of voluntary emissions policies was always a leap of faith. That is what was agreed in Paris four years ago, even though the strategy does not cover bad actors or bad faith. And it does not penalise inaction, or even willful sabotage of climate-friendly policy.
Mr Trump’s America, for instance, faces no consequences for the president’s rollback of environmentally sound measures and mendacious, point-blank refusal to assist the global climate change agenda. In 2017, Mr Trump moved to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement and its commitment to reduce emissions. He has also lifted restrictions on coal plant emissions and rolled back his predecessor Barack Obama’s vehicle pollution standards.
This was always the problem with assuming that collective action would be enough. For, climate risk does not change for a country whether or not it individually reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Climate laggards and deniers benefit from global action even if they themselves hold out. Everyone on the planet sinks or swims together, no matter the extent – or lack – of individual action.
This raises a key question about the Climate Action summit and the youth-led global strikes that preceded it. Both got attention but only for one news cycle. This is not the way to build a sustainable plan for action. Four years on from Paris, we need to go beyond the voluntary nature of the efforts to tackle global warming. It is important to cover global adaptation to the realities of climate change – with help for those least able to afford it, a la Gabon via Norway.
Most importantly, there has to be some method of making it unviable for individual countries to assume a hold-out position. Whether by economic boycott or the global cold shoulder, the censure has to be cutting enough to matter even to a hegemonic power.
Some might say that this is unrealistic. But it would have been equally unrealistic a year ago for anyone to suggest that a teenager’s solitary “school strike” outside the Swedish parliament would result in four million people marching in 150 countries.