NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres promised to showcase an “acceleration agenda” on climate change.
Instead, the summit he held this week exposed gaps among global leaders in phasing out fossil fuels. It also emphasized a massive lack of international climate financing and a slow response to the dangers of climate change punctuated by a summer of fire, floods and heat waves.
Yet despite the protests and the absence of presidents, the event offered hints of potential progress. There was a change of tone — if not actual commitments — around shifting away from oil, gas and coal. Some countries promised to save forests. Civil society groups launched programs to reduce emissions in developing countries. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry teamed with the World Bank to advance a proposed carbon crediting project.
Here are some of the most important outcomes that resulted from the U.N. summit — and the events surrounding Climate Week.
Did countries make new commitments?
Some did, but none of them were the world’s biggest polluters.
Brazil strengthened its climate targets to reverse changes made under former President Jair Bolsonaro. Canada announced plans to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector by the end of this year, and Spain pledged €225 million (about $240 million) to the Green Climate Fund, which supports developing countries’ response to climate impacts.
There was also a major push to phase out fossil fuels — an issue that promises to be a sticking point at the global climate talks starting in November. Foreshadowing that debate, Germany and Colombia, two large coal producers, joined climate-vulnerable countries this week in urging world leaders to shift away from oil, gas and coal.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who leads one of the world’s largest economies, albeit a state one, squarely called out fossil fuels as the main source of the climate problem. “For decades and decades, the fossil fuel industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools,” he said.
But heads of the world’s biggest emitters weren’t allowed to attend the summit — because they didn’t offer strengthened climate plans or because they didn’t even RSVP. President Joe Biden was among those who missed it.
Does it matter?
Yes and no.
The summit is an important marker ahead of the climate talks in the United Arab Emirates, and it offers a hint at what leaders might be willing to accept when it begins in two months.
If anything, it showed that “there are first movers and doers,” said Selwin Hart, Guterres’ special adviser on climate ambition.
The summit also put a fresh target on fossil fuels.
“I did feel this shift around the ability to say fossil fuel, and say it again and again and again, as opposed to just being one very vulnerable or one very activist-oriented organization who would say it, but you didn’t hear a chorus,” said Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands.
Still, some observers described the steps as small, incremental and misaligned with the enormity of the action needed. “They’re like trying to put out an inferno with a leaking hose,” said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s international climate initiative.
Many countries — such as the United States, Norway and Australia — are still expanding fossil fuel drilling. The leaders of those countries did not attend. Neither did India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, even though his country is expected to see some of the world’s greatest demand for energy as its population grows and industrializes.
Why was the summit held now?
It was on the lips of leader after leader: We’re running out of time.
The summit came on the heels of a summer scarred by catastrophes worldwide and the remarkable record of being the hottest three months ever documented by humans.
Global emissions are at their highest level in history, and they continue to rise amid expanding fossil fuel investment and output. The president of this year’s global climate talks, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber of the UAE, has called for a course correction, but Hart says that’s the wrong framing because “we’ve never been on course.”
This summer broke a critical temperature threshold — exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming for the first time in the industrial era. That’s the level of temperature rise the Paris climate agreement aims to prevent in the long term. That doesn’t mean the Paris Agreement is “busted,” but it is a strong warning, said Bill Hare, a senior scientist and founder of Climate Analytics.
“Everything that has happened this year has really reinforced the wisdom, strength and potency of that goal,” he said.
What else happened during Climate Week?
It was a whirlwind, with hundreds of events around New York. Talk of money was everywhere. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, committed another $500 million toward a campaign to close down coal plants, slash gas plant capacity and increase renewable energy.
The Rockefeller Foundation announced a five-year, $1-billion strategy focused on efforts to lower emissions in agriculture, transportation and energy. It also announced, through its partnership with the Bezos Earth Fund and Kerry, that it was bringing in the World Bank to help drum up more potential finance for an initiative to help countries shift from fossil fuels to clean energy.
Across the Atlantic, King Charles III of England called climate change the world’s most existential challenge and urged action to tackle it. His comments, delivered during a visit to France, came on the heels of an announcement by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that he was scaling back several policies aimed at helping the country meet its 2050 net-zero target.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced new principles for climate finance that received mixed reviews. And developing country leaders warned of what could happen if investment doesn’t start flowing.
“I would love somebody to pay me to keep our natural gas in the ground,” Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, said during a New York Times event Thursday. “But if they don’t, how am I going to finance my way to zero, and how am I going to ensure that my country has access to a critical supply of energy?”
And there were protests — lots and lots of protests. Tens of thousands of people flooded New York streets on Sunday demanding an end to fossil fuel drilling, followed by smaller side rallies and disruptions at events with high-profile speakers.
Up next are the global climate talks in the United Arab Emirates — a major oil and gas producer and exporter.
The push for a fossil fuel phase-out emerged at last year’s COP27 summit in Egypt, but major polluters and petrostates such as Saudi Arabia helped undermine it, with the consent of the host country. This year, the call for consensus on a phase-out has grown louder, but even if it were to be achieved — and that’s highly questionable — there are far harder questions around how to deliver on it.
Three years after countries agreed at U.N. climate talks in Scotland to phase down the use of coal, for example, some countries have continued investing in it.