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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

U.N. Climate Summit Pledges Global Commitment and Action

Air Date: Week of

More than 100 world leaders, government officials and heads of state gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 23rd, 2014 for the UN Climate Summit to reaffirm their dedication to climate action and gearing up for climate negotiations in Paris next year. (Photo: Palazzo Chigi; Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On September 23rd, over 125 heads of state, as well as officials, CEOs, and NGOs gathered at the United Nation’s Climate Summit to reaffirm their commitment to curtailing climate change and their global plans for action. Jennifer Morgan, Director of the Climate and Energy Program with the World Resources Institute, discusses the Summit’s outcomes with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Two days after the biggest public demonstration in history to call for climate protection, more than 125 heads of state and government gathered in New York for the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The U.N. set aside September 23rd for an informal climate summit and President Obama set the tone:

[OBAMA: Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow leaders: for all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week -- terrorism, instability, inequality, disease; there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.]

CURWOOD: The President and other world leaders pledged action ahead of a formal climate treaty session in Paris next year. Long time global warming negotiator Jennifer Morgan is the Director of the Climate and Energy Program for the World Resources Institute and she joins us now from New York. Welcome back to Living on Earth!
MORGAN: Thanks! Good to be here.

President Barack Obama speaks at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City on September 23rd, 2014. (Photo: U.S. Department of State; Flickr Public Domain)

CURWOOD: So tell me about the kinds of people and groups who attended this U.N. summit.

MORGAN: It was a broad range of people. There was a strong business community, and within the business community you had insurers, private banks, oil and gas companies, you had paper and pulp companies, so you had a private sector part of the summit. You also, of course, had lots of government delegations that were there with their leaders, and you had civil society representation which also was a broad spectrum—from faith to environment NGOs, development NGOs. It's just an everyone problem and therefore it needs to be an everyone solution.

CURWOOD: So during the summit, leaders from those countries and those sectors stated goals and commitments towards addressing climate change. Give me a highlight of the kinds of pledges that were made and reaffirmed.

Heads of State and Government participate in the UN Summit on climate in New York on September 23rd, 2014. During the summit, Italian Prime Minister and President of the European Council, Matteo Renzi, chairs the thematic session on "Cities". (Photo: Palazzo Chigi; Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

MORGAN: So I think some of the really interesting highlights were things from the finance sector. You had the Swedish pension fund agree to commit to completely decarbonize their assets, which would shift $100 billion next year. You had insurers come in and commit also to be decarbonizing their investments moving forward and scaling that up if there's a global agreement next year. You had mayors there, committing to reducing their emissions in their cities more, countries coming forward and committing to restore degraded lands, to build forests. And then you had, kind of more political commitments from the heads of state, about delivering the agreement in Paris next year, about making sure their country puts forward its offer for what they’ll do in the future, and a few of them put real money on the table for this Green Climate Fund to support poor, developing countries.

CURWOOD: What about the Green Climate Fund, the pledge back in Copenhagen that eventually by 2020 to be what, $100 billion a year, that would go to support less-developed countries to address the climate? What emerged at this summit to support that pledge?

Agreeing with the marchers, many country leaders expressed a desire to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050. (Photo: Emmett FitzGerald)

MORGAN: Well, at this the summit you had some pledges coming in: Germany reconfirmed its billion dollars. France put a new billion dollars on the table. You had, actually, countries like Mexico pledge, which was very important from a more developing country, and a number of countries said that they would deliver their pledges by November, which is the deadline. So there was a down payment of about $2.3 billion. I think there is a goal to get that to $10 billion by the end of this year, but clearly there's a lot more that needs to be done on leveraging and capitalizing that Green Climate Fund.

CURWOOD: What about the United States? Where is the U.S. government on these pledges?

MORGAN: Well, my understanding is that they are working hard right now to get their pledge together, and that they will meet that November deadline, so wait and see.

CURWOOD: I'm hearing that the U.S. is looking to the private sector as well as public money to help meet this pledge. What do you hear along these lines?

MORGAN: Yes, I think that's true. I think that there is a real recognition and these pension fund commitments that I mentioned go along these lines, that we not only need the public funding, but we also need to shift the trillions of private funding into infrastructure, into energy, and so I think there's a mix—you think about it almost like an ecosystem of different financial approaches where you need everything to be shifting with public leveraging much greater private finance.

CURWOOD: What about divestment? There was much made of some foundations saying that they're going to divest their portfolios of fossil fuel investments. How big a deal was this at the Summit?

David Cameron gives a speech on climate change at the United Nations General Assembly. (Photo: Arron Hoare/Number 10; Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: Well, the Rockefeller Brothers fund came out and made a major announcement that they are shifting their portfolio out of fossil fuel into clean [energy]. I think that sends a very big signal because of the background of that family in the oil industry. So I think you see those types of big announcements coupled with announcements from pension funds and insurance companies that are shifting into the clean solutions that are needed. It's a very clear signal into that finance sector.

CURWOOD: Now, half of world emissions now are between U.S. and China. Specifically, what did the U.S. say? What did China say at this summit?

MORGAN: Well, there were very powerful speeches by both the U.S. and Chinese leader, one after the other. It was like a one-two punch. President Obama committed himself personally to work together and said that the U.S. understands its responsibility. It is acting domestically, but it needs a global approach with all countries coming together or else it just doesn't work - nobody gets left off the hook. And he pledged to put their number on the table early next year and also to support developing countries with more resiliency or helping them adapt.

The Chinese leader also recognizes the Chinese responsibility to act, and his big announcement was that they will work to peak their CO2 emissions as soon as possible. China is the world's largest polluter right now, so when they peak, at what level they peak, is really very fundamental. And finally, I think both leaders and many others actually gave a very clear message that they do not see a choice between tackling climate change and growing their economy. They actually know that they have to pursue a different economic pathway and they are up for figuring that out.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) and Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Climate Change Envoy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), hold up signs that read, "I'm for Climate Action", in English and Arabic, at their joint press conference in Abu Dhabi. The UAE hosted on 4-5 May the Abu Dhabi Ascent, a high-level meeting to generate momentum for the 23 September Climate Summit being convened by the UN Secretary-General. (Photo: United Nations Photo; Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: Let's talk about some of the different declarations that were made. Tell me about the New York Declaration on Forests that came out of this.

MORGAN: So the New York Declaration on Forests is a declaration that includes many countries and different players. It's aimed at ending deforestation by 2030, and really trying to drive that goal home.

CURWOOD: And what's the goal of the We Mean Business Coalition?

MORGAN: The We Mean Business Coalition is an interesting new, large group of companies and organizations that work with companies. They released a statement noting their support for a phase-out agreement of greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. They want a clear signal from government. They support pricing carbon. I think it's a real attempt to try and show that there's support in business for action on climate.

Jennifer Morgan is the Director of the Climate and Energy Program with the World Resources Institute and was present during the People’s Climate March and UN Climate Summit 2014 in New York. (Photo: Courtesy of the World Resources Institute)

CURWOOD: In efforts to reduce the global carbon footprint, there are a number of proposals for greener transportation. What kinds of projects are being discussed?

MORGAN: Well, you know, transportation, I think, often gets forgotten, but it's really fundamental in this debate. We know there were a number of transportation initiatives for global alliances launched—initiatives to scale up sustainable mass public transport solutions. The International Union of Railways launched a low-carbon sustainable rail transport challenge and they're looking to reduce emissions by 75 percent by 2050. You had 110 public transport groups make commitments leading up to the summit and are really looking to double the market share of public transport around the world by 2025. This brings mega-savings in carbon: one gigaton of carbon by 2050, and it really puts transport on the map as far as a solution to climate change.

CURWOOD: And what's it worth to people and the economy to have this kind of shift?

MORGAN: Well, it actually could save governments, companies and individuals $70 trillion. I mean it's just a mega-winner for people getting to work, government saving money and cities to be much more clean, lower air pollution as well.

CURWOOD: So even though what's on the table is really sort of an amped up voluntary approach to restricting carbon, this is progress from your perspective?

MORGAN: Well, the New York summit was really not about the negotiations, it was about building momentum for the binding international agreement that is being negotiated in parallel, so it was meant to bring leaders back into the debate, to put it on their table. They have to engage with this issue, and so from that perspective, I think it really succeeded.

CURWOOD: What, if any, were the big surprises for you about what's going on during climate week there in New York in the U.N.?

MORGAN: Well, I think the biggest surprise was the size of the march. I think the organizers were hopeful that they could get 100,000 or so out and getting 400,000 people on the streets in New York and, you know, up to 700,000 around the world I think was just a big surprise and a big shot in the arm. I think the other surprises were these very clear financial sector commitments about insurance companies ready to shift their investments. That's big. And I think the other thing that came out was the need and the desire for a long-term goal to go to zero-carbon by mid-century. That was stated by a number of companies and by countries, and it just really shows there's a collective vision that's building.

CURWOOD: How did you feel about the demonstration, Jennifer, on the 21st [of September], people marching in New York? I imagine you were marching with them as well.

MORGAN: I was there, and I have to say I think it was one of the most exciting, dynamic things I've ever been part of. I think it was an outpouring from just so many different people: young, old, business, government, city, labor. Everyone was there, and I think it really gave a boost to the Summit because it showed that the people do want climate action and now the politicians have to respond.

CURWOOD: Jennifer Morgan is Director of the Climate and Energy Program for the World Resources Institute. Thanks so much for taking the time today.

MORGAN: Thank you.



Jennifer Morgan’s analyzes outcomes from the U.N. Climate Summit on WRI’s blog

Read Ban Ki-Moon’s Opening Speech at the U.N. Climate Summit

WRI’s Live Blog of the Climate Summit

Pictures, videos and tweets from The People’s Climate March—the largest climate march to date. The energy carried over from the March into the Summit.


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