22 Sep 2014

UN climate change summit – Q&A

This weekend saw the world’s biggest march on climate change to date. Will the enthusiasm be replicated at the New York on Tuesday? Channel 4 News takes a look.

What’s happening?

About 120 heads of state and government are meeting in New York to take part in tomorrow’s United Nations summit. They’re expected to announce what they intend to do to reduce emissions, build up resistance to climate change, and talk about how to pay for it all.

â??Broadly, they want to reach an agreement on climate change in 2015, and plan to meet in Paris in 14 months time to reach a global climate agreement. The UN says the New York summit is different to the Paris one, in that it will be about a “long-term vision and immediate actions” for achieving a “low-carbon and resilient world”.

It’s something to build upon ahead of the Paris agreement.

David Cameron and Barack Obama will be there. The leaders of China and India will not.

What do they want?

Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN, said he’s convening the summit bceause “greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels and the effects of climate change are already widespread, costly and consequential”.

In practice, he says that the world’s temperature should not rise more than two degrees Celsius – the level beyond which the world would “suffer the worst impacts of climate change”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change has said that the world is heading towards a temperature rise beyond the magic 2 degrees.

He says he’s “counting on leaders everywhere, from all sectors of society, to lead by example and bring bold actions and ideas and strong political vision and political will to New York”.

It’s hoped that some commitments could include moving towards a price on carbon, restoring land, improving energy effieciency and renewable energy goals.

Haven’t we been here before?

Yes, in Copenhagen, in 2009. That one ended in failure to deliver a way of halting dangerous climate change, and just five nations – the US, Brazil, South Africa, India and China – acknowledged a last-minute backroom deal.

That one led to disappointment mainly because key governments did not want to break a global deal. In practice, the countries did not want to sign a formal agreement, but prefer more informal, non-legally binding, outcomes.

It was also badly organised – Denmark was accused of trying to speed things up to produce a conclusion, and some developing countries felt aggrieved that they weren’t being listened to. Security also barred China’s chief negotiator for the first three days of the meeting – a big diplomatic faux pas that cast a pall over subsequent negotiations.

So what’s different this time?

In Copenhagen, countries did agree to work toward the 2 degree limit. So there is that to begin with.

But both the US and China have already said that no new emissions reduction targets will be proposed at the summit for the years beyond 2020 – the deadline set at Copenhagen.

This time, the delegates – governments, companies and environmental groups – are expected to announce new measures to tackle deforestation, methane leaks from natural gas production, and greening of agriculture and freight.

It’s more about building momentum this time.

So has there been no progress?

There has. US greenhouse gas emissions are down 10 per cent in 2012 from 2005 levels. At Copenhagen, it pledged to make a 17 per cent reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels, and it’s moving towards that target.

But global emmissions from burning fossil fuels and cement productin reached a new record of 36 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2013, and are predicted to grow by 2.5 per cent in 2014 – abut 65 per cent more fossil fuel emission than in 1990, when international negotiations to address climate change began.

However, China has now become the world’s biggest carbon emitter, according to the Global Carbon Project. Global CO2 emissions were dominated by emissions from China in 2013 (28 per cent), followed by the US (14 per cent), the 28 member states of the EU (10 per cent) and India (seven per cent).

Already, it seems unlikely that Paris will involve a country-by-country allocation off a global carbon budget, as politically, it would be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to get countries to agree.

Look out for a voluntary emissions reduction pledge instead.