Friday, September 20, 2019 saw the largest ever public mobilisation for climate action with an estimated 4 million participants across 163 nations demanding and increased sense of urgency from world leaders in dealing with the climate crisis | Photo:

The UN CAS: A summit of great expectations

The clock is ticking. Climate change is destroying our lands and oceans. While the acceptance of this fact led to the signing of the historic Paris agreement in 2015, the subsequent inaction, especially by richer countries, to ensure warming is limited to 1.5°C, has given us a little more than a decade to save the planet from further destruction. Will the United Nations Climate Action Summit (UNCAS), which begins today on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, get us any closer to achieving this target? Expectations are high. But before we look to the future, it is important to assess where we are currently.   

Earth has already warmed by up by 1.2°C since pre-industrial levels, and we now live in a world where extreme weather events such as floods, wildfires and rising sea levels make for routine headlines. But if world leaders don’t act now, the effects of warming by another 0.5°C will only lead to worse catastrophes.

School children in New Delhi join global climate protests on September 20, 2019 | Photo:

Our current situation is dire. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published three reports since last year to prove that. The message in its 2018 special report on 1.5°C was loud and clear: Warming above 1.5°C is inevitable if the world doesn’t bring down its net CO2 emissions to zero. This year, the IPCC presented a grim picture of what climate inaction is doing to our land. The report noted that humans affect over 70% of ice-free land on Earth, a third of which has suffered degradation because of human activity – worst hit being low-lying coastal areas, river deltas, drylands and in permafrost areas that are being damaged by unrelenting precipitation, drought, and record heatwaves brought on by climate change.

Our oceans are suffering, too. According to the IPCC, if unchecked, climate change will severely affect water security, especially in Asia, triggering a chain of impacts that will include risks to food security and production, increased pressure on coastal and marine systems and, of course, more extreme weather events. While coral bleaching in Australia has caught the attention of the global media, the IPCC has highlighted the climate-related damage caused to reefs in the Indian seas, such as the Gulf of Mannar, the Gulf of Kachchh, Palk Bay, the Andaman Seas, and Lakshadweep Seas, which are under huge pressure from warming seawater and ocean acidification. The report highlights how since 1989, Indian coral reefs have experienced 29 widespread bleaching events, and between 1991 and 2011, the mean ocean pH of the Indian Ocean had the largest decline globally. And this has a direct impact on marine fisheries, which are an important component of our nutritional security, income and employment of at least 4 million people.

With all that being known, UN chief António Guterres has urged world leaders to not come to the summit with “beautiful speeches… come with concrete plans … and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050.” He has made four major demands to world leaders – no new coal, no fossil fuel subsidies, make polluters pay and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

As far as current emission levels go, countries such as India are leading the way in the renewable energy sector, but its plans are still only 2°C compatible. According to Climate Action Tracker, since its last update in December 2018, there has only been ‘tiny improvement in the total effect of Paris Agreement commitments and of national policies on warming by the end of the century”. Even under the optimistic scenario described by Climate Action Tracker, temperature increases by 2100 would be close to 3°C. This was also the conclusion made by UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2018, which stated that the commitments expressed in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) won’t bridge the emissions gap by 2030. “Technically, it is still possible to bridge the gap to ensure global warming stays well below 2°C and 1.5°C, but if NDC ambitions are not increased before 2030, exceeding the 1.5°C goal can no longer be avoided,” the report predicts.

The problem uneven financial resources and operational lethargy extend beyond mitigating actions to adaptation as well despite ample evidence pointing to the fact that investment in adaptation interventions could yield rich economic dividends through co-benefits. A report published by the Global Commission on Adaptation released earlier this month found that investments on resilience could yield a cost-benefit ration of up to 1:10. According to the commission, investments of US$1.8 trillion globally in five areas from 2020 to 2030 could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.

Actual funds for adaptation though paint a sobering picture. According to the UN’s 2016 Adaptation Finance Gap report, published in 2016, the annual costs of adaptation could range from US$140 billion to US$300 billion by 2030 and from US$280 billion to US$500 billion by 2050. But according to its 2018 report, these estimates will increase significantly in the coming years. A review of NDCs included in the 2018 Adaptation Gap Report suggests that the cumulative cost of adaptation in 50 developing countries which included adaptation in their NDCs would run up to US$ 500 billion just for the decade between 2020 and 2030.

The report notes that while middle-and low-income countries are showing consistent progress in their adaptive capacities, in the form of basic sanitation, clean water and electricity, the pace is slow they still have decades to go before they can bridge the gap with richer countries. In response, global annual expenditure on adaptation has been a relatively measly US$23 billion in 2016, down from US$26 billion in 2014, and a far cry from the US$100 billion per year committed towards adaptation by developed countries in 2009 and reaffirmed in 2015.

What we should expect from the UNCAS are bold commitments and scaling up of climate action. A similar summit in 2014 paved the way for the Paris Agreement but the situation has changed considerably since then and the stakes have only gotten higher. It is becoming acutely clear that climate action is swiftly moving from damage control towards becoming an existential necessity. One would hope that world leaders congregating in New York today would pay heed to the rapidly unraveling situation. What we get, however, will only be known over the next couple of days.