"Thank you for having decided, collectively, not to accept defeat," stated French president Emmanuel Macron to an audience of global political and business leaders gathered in Paris for his One Planet Summit.
Organised on December 12, the second anniversary of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, Mr Macron’s summit had two goals. One was to ratchet up commitments to take action and invest in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience to climate shocks. The other was to fill the climate leadership vacuum created by US president Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June 2017. How did he fare?
Media and environmental groups were quick to declare the summit outcomes as insufficient on both counts. However, this interpretation ignores the bigger picture.
In this competition, it is not who wins the sprint but who gets the whole team across the finishing line. No one could realistically expect one event to fill the substantial gaps that still remain either in terms of the science of emission reductions or in addressing the challenges of financing.
The Paris Agreement was fundamentally based on a mutual agreement on emissions by the US and China, which collectively account for more than 40 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.
With Washington's withdrawal in June and its actions to dismantle domestic policies that underpin the current US emission policies there are fears other major emitters could scale back their efforts.
Developing countries attending November's UN Climate Change Conference resolutely called for more action before 2020. The Paris Agreement’s rules and obligations will in practice only apply after 2020. Before this, rules under the UN climate convention put tighter obligations on developed countries to reduce emissions and provide finance to developing countries.
Yet developing countries have long stressed that industrialised countries are not doing their fair share and criticised attempts to postpone action to the post-2020 era where all countries are expected to take action.
Many interpreted these calls as a symptom of the power vacuum the US has left behind. In the past, the US was the lead advocate for major emerging economies like China and India to also mitigate their emissions.
In this light, Mr Macron’s summit was a stroke of genius. The UN climate change negotiations are burdened by a history of tensions between the global North and South, a lack of voice for non-state actors in decision-making, and an anachronistic format for high-level participation that takes the form of an endless stream of speeches to half-empty plenaries.
The French summit sought to overcome these hindrances. The One Planet Summit was convened by the French president himself, flanked by UN secretary-general António Guterres and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim as co-organisers. It targeted governments, multilateral development banks, major investors, businesses, cities, states and civil society. Everyone willing to take action or to provide funds was invited. Only announcements of new commitments were welcomed.
The result? It worked. The summit positioned France and Mr Macron firmly as one of the global climate leaders. It brought into the conversation those with the money and those making decisions at a local level — most prominently in the US. It also effectively steered away from the thorny question of the allocation of responsibility between countries.
The One Planet Summit delivered an impressive list of new announcements in twelve different areas, which will be tracked through a dedicated website. These range from businesses addressing climate risk, through governments expanding carbon pricing, to sovereign wealth funds divesting from fossil fuels, and mobilising youth to take action.
Chinese vice-premier Ma Kai announced the country would launch its long-awaited national carbon trading system in the coming days. Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto issued a declaration of commitments to carbon pricing by five governments and seven sub-national entities in North and Latin America.
The World Bank announced it would end funding to upstream oil and gas projects by 2019. The EU stated it would mobilise €9 billion in investments in Africa and its neighbourhood. A coalition of investors with more than US$26 trillion in assets under management launched an initiative to engage with the world’s major corporate greenhouse gas emitters to improve their climate performance.
Although the Macron summit served to demonstrate that the world has, in his words, “begun to recapture the ground” in the battlefield, much more is still needed. The message from climate science is bleak. The UN Environment Programme recently announced that countries’ current emission pledges amount to only one third of what is required by 2030 to avoid dangerous climate change.
Next year will be crucial. In 2018, the UN will take stock of progress towards the Paris Agreement’s goals, which will give countries inputs for revising their national pledges upward ahead of 2020.
A number of high-level events taking place in 2018 will provide opportunities for strengthening this momentum. The Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, which takes place in the UAE every January, will be the first major gathering of policymakers and businesses in 2018 and will have an important role in both carrying the relay baton of the climate change marathon and demonstrating how this region is supporting this vital battle.
Mari Luomi, Senior Research Fellow at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, will be a speaker at the World Future Energy Summit during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (January 13-20, 2018)