The Italian Climate Network directly followed the events of the high-level week of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, particularly the SDG Summit: the midway assessment of the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 13, the fight against climate change, is one of the central objectives, as it has repercussions on all other goals.

The centrality of climate action in the Agenda is also demonstrated by the choice of António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to convene the Climate Ambition Summit (September 20) during the General Assembly week. To participate in the summit, the leaders of countries, local governments, and financial institutions were expected to demonstrate concrete progress in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The hope was to encourage an increase in ambition and new commitments, such as updating national climate targets (NDC [1]) for 2030 or 2050, deadlines for the definitive abandonment of fossil fuels, and new contributions to the UN Green Climate Fund.

Known for his impassioned appeals, Guterres inaugurated the summit with a warning to the attending leaders: “Humanity has opened the doors of hell.” Once again, the UN Secretary-General did not spare criticism of current progress, which is far from sufficient in the face of the challenge we must confront. The poorest countries have the “right to be angry,” he said, due to the lack of ambition among the wealthier nations, the shortage of climate funding, and the increasingly high costs of coping with the impacts of climate change.

Guterres then recalled his Acceleration Agenda presented earlier this year, which includes concrete intervention points to drastically reduce emissions, ensure climate justice, and protect human lives and livelihoods. These include:

  • phasing out coal-powered energy: by 2030 for OECD countries, and by 2040 for the rest of the world;
  • eliminating all subsidies for fossil fuels;
  • reforming multilateral development banks to support climate action;
  • allocating new funding to the Green Climate Fund and honouring the commitment to disburse $100 billion annually by 2020;
  • making the Loss and Damage Fund operational at COP28, the next United Nations Climate Conference.

Despite the commendable initiative to convene a summit aimed at spurring greater progress, the initiative already seemed like an uphill battle and, unfortunately, overall confirmed the most pessimistic predictions. As was the case with the SDG Summit on September 18-19, very few leaders announced new commitments, and the most ambitious ones once again turned out to be developing countries. Indeed, many of these already have NDCs in line with the goal of keeping the increase in global average temperatures compared to the pre-industrial era below 1.5°C, as evidenced by the analyses of the Climate Action Tracker. Although many of these countries are responsible for only a small fraction of global emissions, they show a level of ambition far superior to that of the major emitters. However, due to their limited financial resources, they often depend on the economic support of wealthier nations.

Consider Tuvalu, the small island state among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which has announced that it is working with other Pacific countries, the European Parliament, and the World Health Organization on a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty that would complement the Paris Agreement.

Another example is the now famous Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, who with her Bridgetown Agenda has managed to kick-start the long-awaited debate on the need to reform the international financial system. Mottley herself intervened at the Summit to strongly condemn the fossil fuel industry.

Among the few Western leaders invited to the Climate Ambition Summit, a sign of concrete commitment to accelerating progress, was the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The EU is indeed one of the few entities to have an NDC enshrined in law, and its commitments to emissions reduction and international finance are among the most ambitious, albeit still insufficient. As von der Leyen recalled, the EU is part of a coalition (along with COP28 President, Mia Mottley, and President of Kenya, William Ruto) that aims to agree, at COP28 in Dubai, to triple the target for renewable energy production and double energy efficiency by 2030. On the occasion of the summit, the EU also pledged to increase its climate finance contribution for 2023, which should grow by 2 billion euros compared to 2022.

New commitments have also come from Spain, which has allocated 225 million euros for the upcoming replenishment of the Climate Fund, and from Canada, which has promised $700 million in special drawing rights for developing countries [2].

The absence of the major greenhouse gas emitters attracted attention: despite the progress made by Joe Biden, the United States’ commitments are still considered insufficient compared to their historical responsibility, which is why they did not “qualify” for the summit. China and India were also excluded.

Among the G20 countries, only Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, South Africa, and the EU were admitted. Guterres himself expressed disappointment at the lack of leadership from the group of major world economies, which also emerged at the last summit in India: geopolitical divisions still prevent reaching a compromise.

However, the ambition of some participants suggests that all is not lost. As the Secretary-General concluded, “This summit started as the summit of ambition, and I believe it ends as the summit of hope.”

It is still possible to reduce emissions to meet the limit of +1.5°C. The next major event of the year, COP28, with the first Global Stocktake of the progress of the Paris Agreement, is an opportunity to finally address the root problem and agree to the abandonment of all fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the premises are not promising at the moment: the Emirati COP presidency reiterated, precisely at the summit desired by Guterres, its strategy focused on the expansion of renewable energies and the abandonment of uncompensated fossils, which leaves room for greenwashing and experimental solutions such as carbon sequestration. But hope remains.

Article by Teresa Giuffrè, Italian Climate Network Volunteer

[1] Nationally determined contributions

[2] Special Drawing Rights (SDR) = A currency used by the International Monetary Fund, which allows a central bank of a country in crisis to access foreign exchange reserves by exchanging its SDRs with a central bank that has a surplus of foreign exchange. SDR allocations are distributed based on the quota paid to the IMF, and therefore countries that need them the most have a smaller amount.

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