UNITED NATIONS -- President Obama and Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli told a landmark global warming summit yesterday that their countries stand ready to make serious new commitments to tackling climate change.
The separate statements fell well short of the joint U.S.-China announcement many hoped to see from the world's largest greenhouse gas polluters, which for decades have been adversaries in international climate negotiations. Each also was short on specifics and peppered with demands for what must be included in a new global deal.
Yet Obama's declaration that "I'm here personally, as the leader of the world's largest economy and its second-largest emitter, to say that we have begun to do something" and Zhang's pledge that "China is ready to work with other countries to shoulder responsibilities" and peak emissions "as early as possible" were the first solid signals from the two top economies that an ambitious agreement may actually emerge next year.
"As the two largest economies and emitters in the world, we have a special responsibility to lead. That's what big nations have to do," Obama said.
The first-of-its-kind summit drew more than 120 heads of state, along with hundreds of business leaders, activists and celebrities, to focus the world's attention on climate change ahead of nations' self-imposed December 2015 deadline for striking a global deal. Like in many a climate meeting, leaders set the tone by painting stark images of island homelands underwater and millions stricken by hunger, disease and displacement.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet who traveled from the Marshall Islands, brought delegates in the General Assembly hall to a standing ovation when she said countries like hers "are drawing the line here." Kiribati President Anote Tong said he shouted himself hoarse trying to wake people up to the plight of his nation. And actor Leonardo DiCaprio told leaders, "I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe that mankind has looked at climate change in that same way, as if pretending that climate change wasn't real would somehow make it go away."
More specific new pledges
Unlike many climate gatherings, though, this one saw some concrete measures, at least on paper. Countries pledged $2.3 billion to the Green Climate Fund -- about half of that from France and none from the United States -- and a new coalition of businesses, development banks and governments pledged to mobilize $200 billion in financing for low-carbon development.
The day saw major agreements in the oil and gas industry to identify and reduce methane emissions by 2020; a group of institutional investors said they will divest $100 billion in carbon emissions-related equities by December of 2015 and disclose the carbon footprint of at least $500 billion in investments; the insurance industry committed to doubling "green" investments to $82 billion over the coming decades; and more than 1,000 businesses embraced carbon pricing as a key climate tool.
Meanwhile, an alliance of 30 countries, including the United States, and companies like General Mills Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. set a goal of halving forest losses by 2020 and ending forest losses by 2030 -- keeping up to 8.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually out of the atmosphere.
"I think the forest agreement was one of the biggest things that happened here," said former U.S. climate negotiator Nigel Purvis, now president of the consulting firm Climate Advisers. He said agreements like the ones on land use and the new widespread business support for carbon pricing will be "helpful in reframing the debate" among government leaders.
National governments were, on the whole, far more vague about their plans for carbon cuts and aid, but most observers said they didn't expect heads of state to talk turkey quite yet.
"I think it's a major step forward," Rajendra Pachauri, head of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told ClimateWire. "To get so many heads of state at an event like this is significant, and even to listen to the language that's been spoken ... there was a spirit of determination."
Said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, agreed.
"All we wanted them to do was A, turn up and B, be positive. They've all been positive that they would like to see an agreement," Huq said. "Now it has to channel into the negotiations."
Obama threw his unequivocal support behind a 2015 agreement that demands emissions cuts from all nations. The United States will be ready to announce new targets by early next year, he said, and other big emitters should do the same.
"The United States of America is stepping up to the plate. We recognize our role in creating this problem. We embrace our responsibility to combat it. We will do our part, and we will help developing nations do theirs," Obama said. But, he added, "We can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation, developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass."
He also announced a new executive order directing all federal agencies to consider how their projects and investments affect communities' ability to withstand climate change and launched a new technical partnership to help vulnerable nations develop tools like carbon measuring and early warning systems.
"No matter what we do, some populations will still be at risk," Obama said. "The nations that contribute the least to climate change often stand to lose the most."
Building the Green Climate Fund
Few expected Obama to announce a pledge to the Green Climate Fund just two months before the midterm elections, and he didn't. But the president did say the United States is working "shoulder to shoulder" with other countries to build the new climate-financing fund.
For some, even that passing mention counted as a win. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, several noted, snubbed the new climate fund entirely.
"It's pathetic. Cameron not even mentioning the Green Climate Fund is bad," said Liane Schalatek, associate director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America.
In addition to France, South Korea and Switzerland pledged $100 million each, Denmark $70 million, Norway $33.5 million and Mexico $10 million. Germany earlier this year pledged $1 billion to the fund.
China's Zhang called on wealthy countries to beef up aid and technology for vulnerable countries but also said China will double its annual aid to a South-South Cooperation fund on climate change. The government, he said, will announce its post-2020 targets "as soon as we can."
Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, called China's pledge to peak emissions significant, even without a specific year.
"That's the first time a senior official has ever said as clearly as he did that that is their goal," Meyer said. "In terms of emissions, that's pretty big."