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Actions Not Words: What Was Promised at the UN Climate Summit?

Inspiring or Annoying? Love her or hate her, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has made world leaders and citizens sit up and listen. Addressing the United Nations Climate Action Summit on September 23, Thunberg spoke passionately of how the science on climate change is being spoken of but not acted upon.

The UN’s own secretary general told leaders to not come to the summit armed with beautiful speeches, but to present concrete plans for cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050. So what, exactly, was promised at Monday’s all-day event at the UN Headquarters in New York?

  • The private sector had a chance to demonstrate how it can bring about real positive change, when 87 major companies – with a combined market capitalization of over US$2.3 trillion, over 4.2 million employees, and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants – committed to setting climate targets across their operations. These businesses include well-known brands such as Burberry, Danone, Ericsson, Electrolux, IKEA, and Nestlé. A number of these companies (you can find the full list here), went a step further, by committing to “science-based targets”, which means that their corporate emissions cuts can be independently assessed.
  • In the finance sector, some of the world’s largest pension funds and insurers, responsible for directing more than $2 trillion in investments, have joined together to form the Asset Owner Alliance, which committed to moving their portfolios to carbon-neutral investments by 2050. The members of the Alliance are already engaging with companies in which they are investing, to ensure that they are decarbonizing their business models.
  • The summit also saw the launch of several initiatives designed to boost nature-based solutions. These include the Global Campaign for Nature, which plans to conserve around 30 percent of the Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030; a High-Level Panel for the Sustainable Ocean Economy, which will build resilience for the ocean and marine-protected areas; and the Central African Forest Initiative that promises to protect the region’s forest cover, which provides livelihoods for some 60 million people.
  • The Zero Carbon Buildings for All initiative is pledging to make all buildings – new build and existing – net zero carbon by 2050. This could potentially lead to a $1 trillion investment in developing countries, by 2030.
  • A total of 2000 cities committed to placing climate risk at the centre of their decision-making, planning and investments: this includes launching 1,000 bankable, climate-smart urban projects, and creating innovative financing mechanisms.
  • Tackling traffic congestion and pollution is the aim of the Action Towards Climate Friendly Transport initiative, which includes actions to plan city development in a way that minimises travel, shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to non-motorized and public transport, and increase the use of zero-emission technologies.

These are not empty gestures and will go some way to mitigating the harmful effects of climate change. More action and sustained action is still vital. Individuals are increasingly making changes to their everyday lives, but policy and action on a government level – across the world – is still lacking.

Part of the problem is that there is conflicting advice. A leading British barrister is calling for new legislation that would see eating meat become illegal in the future due to the damage caused to the environment by intensive farming.

Michael Mansfield QC said “We know that the top 3,000 companies in the world are responsible for more than £1.5tn worth of damage to the environment with meat and dairy production high on the list. We know that because the UN has told us so. It is time for a new law on ecocide to go alongside genocide and the other crimes against humanity.”

But a report from Carnegie Mellon University says a vegan diet is more harmful for the environment because of the amount of resources used per calorie. For example, the researchers said lettuce is more than three times more harmful than bacon in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. However, the report concluded that a plant-based diet with a little meat would be environmentally beneficial, with sensible choices made based on production and distribution.

Mansfield’s appeal for legislation would hardly be a vote-winning policy in any nation where more than half of the electorate eat meat, and governments can therefore turn to research like that from Carnegie Mellon to counter such arguments.

In August the UN issued a 1200-page report compiled by the world’s leading scientists and experts. Then, ahead of the summit, a new report by the UN World Meteorolgical Organization underlined the growing gap between agreed targets to tackle global warming and the actual reality. It includes details on the state of the climate and presents trends in the emissions and atmospheric concentrations of the main greenhouse gases, and also examines tools to support both mitigation and adaptation.

If all global leaders would see these documents as a “single voice” and a starting point for action on climate change, it would allow them to focus on the most important issues and initiatives, and all sectors would receive a clearer, unified message resulting in real action. Only then could Greta Thunberg and her fellow youth activists return to school safe in the knowledge they have passed the baton of hope to our world leaders.

See the full list of initiatives launched at the summit here

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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