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UN secretary-general António Guterres. Picture: ALET PRETORIUS/REUTERS
UN secretary-general António Guterres. Picture: ALET PRETORIUS/REUTERS

New York — With no end in sight to global warming and its dire effects for people and the planet, top UN officials are set to prod major polluters to boost their targets to cut emissions, including a faster transition away from fossil fuels.

The Climate Ambition Summit convened by UN secretary-general António Guterres in New York on Wednesday aims to spotlight trailblazing climate action that goes beyond what countries have already pledged to do in their plans to meet targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“I would of course be very happy if several of the G20 countries will be able to come to the summit and announce a quantum leap in their efforts to reduce emissions,” Guterres said.

He also urged stronger financial support for developing nations facing “enormous difficulties” in designing and implementing programmes to ramp up clean energy and adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas fuelled by a hotter climate.

The UN has so far not publicly announced the roster of participants in the summit taking place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, though Selwin Hart, special adviser to the secretary-general on climate action, noted there had been more than 100 “expressions of interest”.

Hart called the summit an “important political moment” ahead of the COP28 UN climate talks in Dubai which start on November 30, as officials try to showcase so-called “first movers and doers” among both governments and businesses which are accelerating their own climate goals.

“Is this new? Is this ambitious?” Hart asked a briefing of UN member states this week, suggesting efforts to fast-forward timelines to reach net-zero emissions, develop plans to phase out fossil fuels, and make “generous” climate finance pledges.

Guterres has prodded the Group of 20 (G20) rich nations — which are responsible for about 80% of total planet-heating emissions — to strengthen their targets in a bid to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial times, as called for in the Paris Agreement.

A UN progress report released earlier in September warned that the trajectory of global emissions — which are still rising — is “not in line” with meeting that warming goal.

A G20 summit in India this month concluded with a pledge to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030, but lacked a unified statement to phase out the use of all fossil fuels, which climate advocates and some countries had pushed for.

Early warning systems

The UN chief’s summit next week will address topics ranging from accelerating decarbonisation of economies to expanding work on adaptation and early warning systems — which, Hart pointed out, are lagging in developing regions like Africa.

Mindy Lubber, who heads sustainability nonprofit Ceres, said Guterres had consistently pushed for high standards in climate action, while finding ways to call out those who fall short.

Announcing this September’s summit last year, Guterres gave it a clear mandate: only countries and private entities that put meaningful skin in the game would be allowed in.

“There will be no room for backsliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters or repackaging of announcements of previous years,” he told an end-of-year news conference.

But the UN leader’s strong words on climate change, its causes — including berating the fossil fuel industry for thwarting progress — and solutions have yet to catalyse adequate responses in the real world.

Wealthy countries, for example, have to date famously failed to meet a pledge to contribute $100bn annually in climate finance for developing nations starting from 2020.

In the US — the world’s largest historical emitter — advocates have vociferously protested President Joe Biden’s moves to open up more land for oil and gas leasing — even as he shepherded major new green funding through Congress.

“We have a UN secretary-general who is generally in line with the climate movement, but we have world leaders that are continuing to slow-pedal progress on ending fossil fuel usage,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of the Climate Organising Hub, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group.

Fossil fuels

The Climate Ambition Summit is also occurring against the backdrop of Climate Week NYC and will follow a huge march on Sunday where activists will try to spur leaders, including Biden, to move away from fossil fuels more quickly.

The street protest — complemented by others worldwide — is a major opportunity to reinvigorate a climate movement that has struggled to regain momentum over the past few years after the Covid-19 pandemic had curbed such mass public events.

“It’s almost definitely going to be the largest demonstration since the pandemic,” Westin said.

The summit, march and climate-themed events hosted by green groups are a key element of a packed diplomatic agenda — including this month’s Africa Climate Summit in Kenya, the G20 leaders’ meeting in India, and a pledging conference for the Green Climate Fund in Germany next month — intended to build appetite for strong outcomes at COP28 starting in late November.

Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi-based energy think-tank Power Shift Africa, said the UN chief’s summit is “exactly the kind of thing we need” with just a few weeks to go before COP28, to get the world back on track to reach its climate goals.

The summit will help sharpen focus on the most difficult things COP28 needs to deliver, he said: phasing out fossil fuels, adopting renewable energy at scale and mobilising sufficient climate finance for developing countries.

“What Guterres has been doing is not pulling any punches in laying out the stark reality of the climate crisis we are facing,” Adow said, noting the UN chief was also unafraid to shame leaders who show up with “pitiful” climate action offers.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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