Is this the end or the beginning for global action on climate change?

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Will the private sector finally be given a substantive role in formulating a global accord to limit carbon emissions? 

GLOBE-Net, September 9, 2014 – Is this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning for global climate negotiations?

The paraphrasing of Churchill’s famous oratory is testament to the enormity of the challenge world leaders will address when they gather in New York on September 23rd for UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s one day climate summit.

Billed as a chance to develop a common approach on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the New York summit is a key milestone leading to the separate official UN Climate Summits in Lima in December and Paris, France in December 2015, where the now-expired Kyoto Protocol will be extended or replaced.

Citing a sense of change in the air, the Secretary-General has asked world leaders to bring bold announcements and actions to the summit that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015.

He believes the climate summit provides “a unique opportunity for leaders to champion an ambitious vision, anchored in action that will enable a meaningful, global agreement in Paris in 2015.”

Finance, cities, farming and energy will be part of the super –crammed agenda set out by the Secretary General’s office, which will feature simultaneous statements by over 100 world leaders in separate rooms, which the Secretary General hopes will signal positive actions by all governments on measures to curb carbon emissions.

Clearly for an event this brief, the best that could be hoped for are some telling signals from the key players in the climate agenda – most notably China and the United States – that change is possible.

US president Barack Obama is expected at the event, along with leaders from the European Union, and developing nations in Asia and Africa. Chinese premier Xi Jinping was scheduled to attend, but indications are he will not be present.

Why is the summit important?

There is a sense of weariness in many quarters over the seemingly endless series of UN- led climate negotiations that have failed to deliver substantive progress towards a universal and enforceable global accord for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The only significant point of agreement that has emerged in recent years is a consensus of sorts that indeed much of the acceleration in global warming is due to human activity and that collective action is needed to avoid exceeding a critical two degree Centigrade threshold beyond which economic and social collapse appears inevitable.

Even there, however, the debate gets mired in who pays for what, and the UN-led emphasis on poverty reduction as the cornerstone of action to deal with global warming has emerged as a key obstacle to progress.

The division between industrialized countries such as the US and the European Union and many countries in the developing world remain. Leaders of the more developed economies have argued that all nations should commit to legally binding emissions reduction obligations. Developing nations, led by India, have strongly resisted such measures. Significantly, newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not be attending the New York Summit.

More recently negotiations over the much vaunted Green Climate Fund have dominated the debate. The $100 billion per annum fund paid for by developed nations was to underwrite climate change mitigation and adaptation measures in emerging economies. So far, commitments to the fund have not materialized.

A new role for the private sector

While governments collectively and the network of multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF appear deadlocked on progress, many nations have acted separately to deal with their own carbon emissions.

The United States recently announced a suite of policies and incentive programs that will stimulate the deployment of energy saving technologies and phase out carbon intensive sources of energy production.

As well many private sector companies are taking positive steps to reign in their carbon footprints. Indeed the private sector appears better able to deliver the innovative technologies and investment capital needed to contain or even reduce carbon emissions.

A private sector forum lasting less than two hours will allow business leaders to discuss their climate initiatives and government and financial sector bankers will have roughly the same time to deal with the financial dimensions of the challenge.

This month’s unofficial climate summit won’t be the ‘make or break’ turning point in the international debate over climate change, but it will be an opportunity for clear statements by the key players involved that the time for talk is over and the time for action is at hand.

Failing such, individual nation states and key industries will act alone to contain the risks associated with unchecked climate change.

As noted in an earlier GLOBE-Net article, providing  businesses, investors, households and policymakers with critical information about the risks they face from unmitigated climate change will stimulate action to avoid potentially catastrophic losses due to weather related incidents and rising sea levels.

The ‘Risky Business Report’, largely the product of The Risky Business Project, a joint, non-partisan initiative of former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr., Michael R. Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City, and Thomas P. Steyer, former Senior Managing Member of Farallon Capital Management, shows that early investments in resilience and immediate action to reduce the causes of global warming can avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Members of the Risk Committee will be present at this month’s summit in New York. It may well turn out that the most promising signal that will emerge from the summit is that progress can be made without the United Nations at the helm.

Time will tell.

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