The UN Secretary General has called his informal climate summit in the backdrop of record carbon dioxide emissions in 2014 and an urgent warning from scientists and citizens. Now it is up to the leaders of governments around the world to take up strong actions to combat climate change

Over 400,000 people turned out for the People's Climate March in New York on Sunday, just days before the UN Climate Summit. (Image by Anirvan Chatterjee)

Over 400,000 people turned out for the People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday, just days before the UN Climate Summit. (Image by Anirvan Chatterjee)

Annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation are set to reach 40 billion tonnes, the largest amount so far, with fossil fuel emissions 2.5% above 2013 levels, says the Global Carbon Project. Total future emissions cannot exceed 1,200 billion tonnes to keep average global warming within two degrees Celsius. At the current rate of emissions, this quota will be used up in around 30 years.

UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon’s informal climate summit is being held on Tuesday in the backdrop of this dire warning from scientists and the largest series of marches held by civil society organizations around the world last weekend to demand action to combat climate change.

Greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – are gathering in the earth’s atmosphere and causing climate change, which is already affecting farm output worldwide, making droughts, floods and storms more frequent and more severe, and raising the sea level. But there is nothing easy about controlling carbon dioxide emissions, since it is the by-product of thermal power generation, mechanised transport and just about every industrial activity.

At Ban’s invitation, over 120 heads of state and government are gathering at the UN headquarters to say what they are going to do about it. The UN Secretary General has called this special summit in an effort to push the negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. With one notable exception in the form of the Kyoto Protocol, those negotiations have been bogged down for over 20 years over who should do more – rich nations that have put most of the extra GHG in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Age, or emerging economies like China and India that are now doing the same at a rapid rate. The urgency has increased due to expectations of a global deal on the subject by December 2015.

A lot of the zing has gone out of the summit due to the non-appearance of China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Still, NGOs seeking strong action held a large march in New Delhi on Saturday, and the South Asian for Climate Justice group took part in a march in New York on Sunday that saw over 300,000 participants.

Large parts of New York went on lockdown from Sunday afternoon for the deluge of VVIPs, as the UN Secretary General sought commitments from his guests for the 2015 deal and for actions to reduce emissions, enhance resistance to climate change and mobilize financing for climate action.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels and the effects of climate change are already widespread, costly and consequential,” said Ban. “I am 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.”

The Secretary General expects announcements in five areas:

  • Cutting emissions: by governments and a wide range of actors in key sectors of the global economy – from energy, cities, industry and transport, to forestry and agriculture.
  • Moving money and markets: both through public and private action
  • Pricing carbon emissions through action by national governments, local governments, companies and investors.
  • Strengthening resilience:  through progress on risk mitigation mechanisms and finance.
  • Getting all hands on deck—all sectors of society have a role to play;

The summit is bringing together leaders from national and local governments, industry, finance, and civil society. The last group has already been out on the streets in full force, with members of the South Asian NGOs carrying placards like “When fossil fuels burn, Kashmir floods.” Sayed Rahman from the Bangladesh Environmental Network said, “While world leaders are dithering, climate refugees in Bangladesh are living with the consequences of catastrophic climate change created by major greenhouse gas polluters like the United States and Europe.”

Barnali Ghosh of Brown and Green: South Asian Americans for Climate Justice, said, “South Asia is climate ground zero, and our actions in the United States can either reduce the risk or further endanger 1.7 billion people.”

Many business leaders are keen to utilize the opportunity provided by the summit. Lisa Jacobson, President of the Business Council on Sustainable Energy, said, “Clean energy industries are at the frontlines of the low-carbon transition and seek policy leadership from governments to send continued market signals for clean energy investments. She sought “continued active dialogue and partnership with the private sector; recognition of market-based mechanisms and a price on carbon as part of the solution; and design of domestic policies that prioritise clean energy and energy efficiency.”

It remains to be seen if these attempts can change business as usual, but scientists warn there is really no option. Close on the heels of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comes the Global Carbon Project (GCP) report, which points out says that emissions keep going up despite all the talk.

The report says global emissions must reduce by more than 5% each year over several decades for a reasonable chance of keeping climate change below two degrees Celsius unless new technologies to keep carbon out of earth’s atmosphere are developed and deployed in large quantities.

China, since 2006 the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, accounts for 28% of 2014 emissions, followed by the US (14%) and Europe (10%).

Sybil Seitzinger, Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme which runs GCP, said, “What is remarkable this year is that China’s per capita emissions outstripped Europe’s for the first time. Moreover, China’s emissions now exceed the US and Europe’s emissions combined. This is an interesting trend and shows the important role China will play in addressing the climate challenge.”

The world’s second largest emitter the US saw emissions grow 2.9% and it is projected they will remain at this level at least until 2019, unless more stringent energy policies to curb emissions are put in place. This bucks a trend of declining emissions since 2008. While improvements have been made to reduce energy consumption and carbon intensity, economic and population growth coupled with a reversion to coal consumption are driving emissions upwards.

Emissions in the European Union fell 1.8% on the back of a weak economy. Deep emissions cuts in some countries offset a return to coal led by Poland, Germany and Finland. While national emissions are falling, Europe exports about one third of its emissions, largely to the emerging economies. When accounting for these ‘consumption’ emissions, EU emissions have only stabilised.

India’s emissions are growing fastest of the big four, and account for 7% of total emissions. Emissions are on course to surpass Europe by 2019.

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