UN Chief Excludes World’s Top Polluters from Climate Summit
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres sent a clear message to the world’s largest polluters when he excluded them from his Climate Ambition Summit. But will they listen?

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, explicitly excluded the world’s five largest emitters of greenhouse gasses – China, the United States, Russia, India and Japan – from his Climate Ambition Summit, held Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The United Kingdom, another major polluter, was notably absent from the summit, amid reports that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had avoided the UN General Assembly after being warned he would be excluded from the climate discussions.

The summit, announced by Guterres in December 2022, was intended to be a “no-nonsense” showcase of the “first movers and doers” fighting to keep alive the increasingly unrealistic goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

By excluding the world’s largest emitters, Guterres sent a clear message to their leaders: you are not taking the climate threat seriously.

“Humanity has opened the gates of hell,” Guterres said. “We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting, and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels.”

The United Nations kept the final list of world leaders invited to speak at the climate summit under wraps until the eve of the meeting on Tuesday.

In the months leading up to the summit, Secretary-General António Guterres made clear that only countries that had taken significant steps to address climate change would be invited. Invited countries were also required to send a high-level leader to the summit.

Several G20 countries made the final cut, including Brazil, Canada, South Africa, and nine European Union countries, among them Germany, France, and Spain.

“To all those working, marching and championing real climate action, I want you to know that you are on the right side of history and that I am with you,” Guterres told the General Assembly on Tuesday. 

“One summit will not change the world, but today can be a powerful moment to generate momentum,” Guterres said. “We can and we must turn up the tempo.” 

Excluded leaders show few signs of caring 

Rishi Sunak announced a U-turn on net zero targets from London during the Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday.

The lineup at the climate summit on Wednesday stood in sharp contrast to the two previous UN climate action summits in 2014 and 2019.

In 2014, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon hailed the gathering of a record number of heads of state, business leaders and civil society as “a great day for climate action”.  In 2019, 65 countries made pledges to cut carbon emissions, and heads of state from every major nation attended, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former US President Donald Trump.

But this year, the climate summit convened by the UN Secretary-General had not even concluded by the time Guterres received a stark sign that major polluters were not listening.

As the Climate Ambition Summit got underway at UN headquarters in New York, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — the first prime minister to skip the U.N. General Assembly in a decade — announced plans to renege on many of the UK’s existing climate commitments, including ones made by his Conservative predecessors, such as former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who hosted the COP26 Conference in Glasgow in 2021.

The move follows Sunak’s vow to “max out” U.K. fossil fuel reserves in the North Sea in August. Infosys, a six-trillion-dollar company founded by Sunak’s father-in-law, signed a $1.5 billion deal with British Petroleum just two months before Sunak announced the new oil and gas drilling licenses.

Shell CEO Wael Sawan, who called the phase-out of fossil fuels “dangerous and irresponsible” on July 6, 2023, the hottest day ever recorded in human history at the time, is a member of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s business council.

Guterres’s message to the world’s largest polluters at the Climate Ambition Summit was further undermined by the fact that most of the key leaders he barred from the summit — Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — chose not to attend the UN General Assembly in the first place.

Brazil makes ambitious commitment to halve emissions by 2030

Brazilian minister for the environment, Marina Silva, announced at the climate summit that her country aims to cut its carbon emissions by 48% by 2025, and 53% by 2030. Silva made the announcement in place of President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, who missed the summit due to illness.

The ambitious goals mark a significant shift in Brazil’s climate policy under Lula, who has vowed to reverse the environmental damage done by his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro presided over a period of mass deforestation in the Amazon and denied the existence of climate change.

European Union on track to surpass its 55% reduction goal

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the summit the EU is on track to surpass its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. The EU will also continue to contribute its “fair share” of $27 billion to the global climate finance fund, she said. 

Her counterpart, European Council President Charles Michel, told the General Assembly on Tuesday that the EU is committed to ensuring that concessional finance is available to countries that need it.

Michel compared the current global financial architecture to “an old house, built in another time, for another time”. 

“We need to make sure everyone has fair access to financing,” Michel said. “It costs eight times more for African economies to borrow than it does the rest of the world.”

“That is simply unfair,” he said.

Only 17 Countries call for a global “phase-out” of fossil fuels 

Carbon capture and storage technologies will play a minimal role in mitigating global emissions, according to Climate Action Tracker.

The heads-of-state of 17 countries, including Kenya, Colombia, a group of small island states, and EU countries such as France, Belgium, Denmark, and Spain, published a letter ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit calling for a global phase-out of fossil fuels.

“There can be no more pretence that anything other than staying within 1.5 degrees is an acceptable limit to pursue,” the letter warned.

The statement by the 17 countries explicitly denounced the idea that carbon capture technologies can be a solution to the climate crisis.

“[Carbon] abatement technologies have a role to play in reducing emissions, but that role in the decarbonization of energy systems is minimal,” the letter said. “Systemic transformations are needed across all economic sectors, driven by a global phase-out of fossil fuels.”

The statement by the 17 countries directly contradicted the position of the United Arab Emirates, host of this year’s upcoming UN Climate Conference COP28, which aims to focus on reducing emissions rather than phasing out fossil fuels.

Critics say that the UAE’s stance, shared by other petrostates such as Saudi Arabia, would place untested carbon capture technologies at the center of global mitigation efforts and disincentivize critical investments in renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels are currently currently subsidized at a rate of $7 trillion every year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Most climate scientists agree that carbon capture and storage technologies can play only a minimal role in decarbonising the economy. A recent report by Carbon Action Tracker found that such technologies will play, “at best, a minor role” in helping the world reach the 1.5°C target set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

“The direction for all fossil gas, whether equipped with carbon capture and storage or without, is the same: It’s one of swift decline,” Neil Grant, one of the Carbon Action Tracker report’s authors, told Semafor.

The high-ambition position statement also called for trillions of dollars in climate financing and financial system reforms to address the climate crisis.

“The mobilization of finance for climate action must reach the trillions, and we must put in place financial system reforms to be responsive to the multitude of crises the world faces today,” the statement said.

“No country should have to choose between fighting poverty and fighting for our planet.”

Money, justice, and global finance reform 

Mia Mottley, Prime Minsiter of Barbados, began campaigning for the Bridgetown Initiative at climate talks in Glasgow in 2021.

Guterres has made climate change the cornerstone of his tenure, and the agenda of the Climate Ambition Summit reflected his flagship issues.

Top of the list is a call for reforms to the global financial system and multilateral banks – which Guterres calls a “new Bretton Woods moment” – and securing climate justice through a surge in climate finance.

Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados and a leader of the movement to reshape the global financial architecture to help countries such as her own adapt to climate change, described the lack of climate finance as “almost a crime of humanity” at the Climate Ambition Summit.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres also called on world leaders to fully operationalize the Climate Loss and Damage Fund, which was agreed to at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in December 2022 after years of resistance by major polluters.

The fund is supposed to support climate adaptation and mitigation in poor nations, which emit a tiny fraction of the world’s greenhouse gases but are suffering a large brunt of climate impacts. However, the mechanisms for financing the fund, prioritising countries’ needs, and delivering money remain poorly defined.

“Make no mistake, the storm is gaining strength,” Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Mata’afa told the summit in a statement on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, which face an imminent and existential threat from climate change. 

“The pursuit of profit over the well-being is not right – it is unjust,” Mata’afa said. “Our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is less than 1%. The G20 is responsible for 80% of the emissions.”

Civil society’s hopes for climate justice now rest on the outcome of the UN Climate Summit set to take place in Dubai in November.

“We the people of the global south are not asking for aid or assistance,” said Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development. “Climate finance is an obligation, and part of reparations for the historical and continuing harms and injustice.” 

“We have a right not just to survive, but to build a better home and future for our children,” Nacpil said. 

Image Credits: UK Foreign Office, Climate Action Tracker, UNCTAD.

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