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Christian Hunt

10.09.2014 | 1:33pm
International policySix things to know about the climate change summit happening in New York this month
INTERNATIONAL POLICY | September 10. 2014. 13:33
Six things to know about the climate change summit happening in New York this month

“There is a sense that change is in the air.” That’s the pitch for the UN secretary general’s summit on climate change, taking place two weeks from now at the UN headquarters in New York. With international climate politics approaching a critical point, the UN wants to bolster the world’s resolve to do something about climate change.

So what’s planned, who is going, and what’s the significance? We consider six things you might want to know about the summit.

This is a one-off summit, called by the UN secretary general

The summit seeks to “advance climate change action and ambition”, and on the 23rd September it will bring together more world leaders to discuss climate change than at any moment since the ill-fated climate meeting in Copenhagen, five years ago.

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UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon | Shutterstock

There’s already a UN process to address climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This summit is something different. Secretary general Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to “bring bold announcements and actions to the summit that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will” to address climate change.

In practice, that means it’s going to be a talking shop, albeit a pretty high-level one. Responding to Climate Change reports that  half the summit will be taken up by speeches from heads of state, designed to help create the right mood music for the climate politics to come in 2015.

The meeting kicks off a busy time for international climate politics – and science

Speaking of the climate politics to come, the New York meeting aims to set the stage for UNFCCC ‘Conference of the Parties’ meetings in Lima this December, and Bonn and Paris next year.

These meetings are the nuts and bolts of international climate politics, where UN members attempt to negotiate the details of a global agreement that can cut carbon emissions. Next year will see a crescendo in the process, with Lima and Bonn supposed to pave the way for the world to agree a ‘global deal’ on climate change in Paris 2015.

This is the crescendo the New York summit is geared towards supporting. If world leaders can come together and make positive noises about dealing with climate change, it improves the chances of securing a meaningful agreement next year. Or at least that’s the theory.

Expect speeches at the summit to reference the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), even if the main thrust is more political than scientific. The final part of the IPCC’s latest report summarising the science of climate change will be published in Copenhagen this October.

Many world leaders are planning to attend – but some big names aren’t

In terms of raw geopolitical power, Ban’s bid to bring the world together is a bit of a mixed bag. The biggest draw will be the attendance of US president Barack Obama, who has pledged to cut US emissions 83 per cent by 2050. His speech will be scrutinised for clues of what stance the US will take in Paris next year.

There will be some gaps in the audience. China’s president Xi Jinping had been tipped to attend the summit, but it now seems that he won’t – sending “another senior Chinese politician in his place”, according to ChinaDialogue.

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Xi Jingping – won’t be there. | Shutterstock

India’s new Premier Narendra Modi will also not attend, despite being scheduled to meet Obama and address the UN general assembly later in the week. His decision is likely to be seen as a snub – although India says it’s because the NY summit isn’t actually a venue for agreeing policy, and Modi doesn’t want to be hanging around New York with nothing to do.

Despite UN protestations, the absence of the Chinese and Indian premiers will undoubtedly be a blow to the credibility of a summit that is supposed to be about demonstrating exceptional commitment by world leaders to the climate change agenda.

Another notable absence will be Germany’s Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has said that she expects over 125 world leaders to attend. Our own David Cameron has confirmed he will go, despite it being just five days after the vote on Scottish independence. If Scotland were to vote yes, though, the smart money is on Cameron changing his travel plans.

The summit offers the opportunity to pledge action on climate – as well as some specifics

The morning session is given over to opportunities for UN member states to offer their climate-related announcements. This is supposed to be the meat of the summit – where countries make bold pledges and help raise the slow tide of global ambition. With so many bold pledges to get through, the session runs in three parallel tracks.

The afternoon session is a series of topic-specific discussions. Most prominent is a meeting on climate finance, the tricky question of who will pay for mitigation and adaptation. This is a key issue in international climate diplomacy.

Ban Ki-moon wants UN members to announce their initial contributions to the Green Climate Fund at the summit. This is the mechanism for promoting low carbon and climate-resilient sustainable development and aims to deliver $100 billion of money a year by 2020, mainly from developed to less developed nations.

There’s a load of other things happening in New York at the same time

The week before the climate summit New York will see the launch of the New Climate Economy report, a high level project which follows in the footsteps of the influential Stern report to explore the economic case for acting on climate change. And the week of the summit New York plays host to Climate Week, a series of climate-related events from business and civil society.

Screenshot 2014-09-10 13.19.02

Two days before the summit is the People’s Climate March, an effort to create the biggest ever march on climate change. Organisers say they expect hundreds of thousands of people to take part at various events across the world – including one in the UK, taking place in London.

We won’t know if the summit is a success until Paris 2015

It’s not exactly a quiet time in the geopolitical space the summit is hoping to briefly occupy. Ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine threaten to keep attention diverted from more intangible issues like climate change. With some prominent world leaders staying away, it might even seem like the summit risks being a damp squib.

But that would probably be the wrong conclusion to draw. Years of bitter experience have shown that there are few issues more intractable in international politics than the question of how to get agreement on a global climate deal. Given this context, any ‘soft power’ measures that aim to build confidence in the UNFCCC process and trust between different member states are pretty important.

If the summit does improve the chances of a global deal on climate, it’s likely that much of the progress will be made in backroom conversations and bilateral meetings between senior diplomats, rather than presidents and prime ministers. That’s particularly true given that many countries will already have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to offer in negotiations over a global climate deal.

Either way, we probably won’t know if the UN summit has been a success until the closing moments of Paris 2015.


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