In the wake of the world’s largest global protest on climate change — with some 300,000 people marching in New York City and another 300,000 more marching in 2,000 locations across the world this past weekend, 120 world leaders met at the United Nations in an effort to build political momentum for a legally-binding global agreement on climate change next year in Paris. The meeting was the first large-scale meeting of world leaders on climate change in five years. The meeting occurs amid new reports that carbon dioxide emissions are at their highest levels yet, with 2.3 percent growth in emissions this past year, and the world is at its hottest since global temperatures have been recorded.
The UN summit may have raised pressure on countries to act, particularly China, which has long stated that it will move on climate change once the United States does. Well, the U.S. has acted, with President Obama moving to curtail emissions from coal power plants and taking other measures in order to reduce emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and make “further ambitious cuts by 2050,” reports the The New York Times. In response, a representative from China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, decided not to attend, said China will reduce its carbon intensity by 40 percent by 2050. The Guardian quotes Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who said: “As a responsible major developing country, China will make an even greater effort to address climate change and take on international responsibilities that are commensurate with our national conditions.”
Former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore said the meeting was a “net positive.” “There is no question that a considerable amount of momentum was generated here. I think it was a tremendous boost to the whole movement that is towards the Paris agreement.”
Some European countries agreed to support the efforts of developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. France, which will host the big climate negotiations, announced $1 billion for a global climate change fund. South Korea and Switzerland pledged $100 million and other countries also agreed to contribute $100 million. Last year, Germany committed $1 billion as well. Critics say the $2.3 billion in commitments falls far short of the $15-20 billion needed.
Much of the heavy lifting on climate change will be done at the local levels. News on that front was promising. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new plan to cut his city’s emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Boston, San Francisco, and Stockholm have made similar pledges. If only all the world’s other cities, which account for 70 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions, follow suit. There were also agreements among companies and non-profits to change business as usual. The Guardian reports that “more than 400 companies from 60 countries all signed on to support putting a price on carbon.” Furthermore, in two particularly environmentally damaging sectors — palm oil and paper manufacturing — some of the biggest firms agreed to stop “destructive logging by 2030, and restore an area of forest equivalent to the size of India.”
However, criticism abounded about the lack of concrete commitments among the world leaders. The Elders, a group of esteemed wise men and women from around the world, who even put out a full-page ad in The New York Times to support the global climate marches, were dismissive of the usual talk. One of The Elders, Graça Machel, the widow of Nelson Mandela, said in her speech at the UN: “There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today. The scale is much more than we have achieved.” Of the protesters, she said: “can we genuinely say we are going to preserve their lives, and ensure their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherit a planet which is safe and sustainable?”