Global Climate Action Summit Delivers Raft of Pledges, Calls for Leaders to Step up Efforts

20 September 2018

An international climate summit convened by California’s Governor Jerry Brown from 12-14 September saw a wave of ambitious new climate announcements from sub-national actors from around the world, including officials from US states, regions, cities, businesses, investors, and civil society. Over 4000 participants attended the San Francisco gathering in an effort to ramp up the collective response to climate change, providing a parallel forum to existing intergovernmental frameworks with the same objective. 

Taking place only three days after a UN climate meet in Bangkok, Thailand, made little headway on developing the practical guidelines for implementing the 2015 landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change, proponents said that the Global Climate Action Summit provided a much-needed impetus for delivering an ambitious Paris “rulebook” by the year-end deadline. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 September 2018

Sub-national and non-state actors are an increasingly important piece in the climate action puzzle, especially as pledges by national governments under the UN climate accord, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), fall significantly short of what is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

A 2017 report by UN Environment warns that current NDCs would only deliver one third of the emissions cuts needed to limit the rise in global average temperatures to well below two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels – the upper end of the temperature goal set at the Paris climate conference in 2015.

Countries’ commitments to deliver on those pledges are facing further scrutiny, as US President Donald Trump intends to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement by late 2020 and other countries are falling short of meeting their climate targets. Australia, for example, is on track to miss its Paris goal by a long way as emissions reach record highs, according to the consultancy NDEVR Environmental. The Oceanic nation has committed to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Bottom-up climate action brings US Paris pledge within reach

Several US governors, mayors, and business leaders are forging ahead with climate measures in an attempt to fill the void left by the federal government.

Their actions alone could bring the US almost halfway towards meeting its 2025 goal, set by the previous administration under President Barack Obama, of slashing emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels, according to a report launched at the summit by the initiative “America’s Pledge.”

The initiative was set up by Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2017, following Trump’s announcement of his plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Bloomberg is also the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action.

Counting over 3000 cities, states, businesses, and other groups among its members, the group forms the equivalent of the world’s third-largest economy, with the populations of these communities covering more than half of the overall US population, which has a sum total of 325 million.

Existing bottom-up commitments across the US will help achieve cuts of 17 percent by 2025, or around two-thirds of the NDC, the report notes, outlining strategies to raise this further. The proposed solutions include, among other things, more stringent renewable energy policies, a roll-out of carbon pricing, an accelerated uptake of electric vehicles, a faster phase-out of highly-polluting refrigerant gases, and addressing methane leaks from natural gas pipelines.

“Today, we announce that this ‘bottom up’ movement will put us within striking distance of the US commitment to the Paris Agreement, even with zero support from our federal government,” Bloomberg said, according to comments reported by The Nation.

Transformative climate initiatives

Analysts say that the pledges made at last week’s summit will play an important role in bringing the US closer to its Paris NDC and narrowing the global emissions gap left by the sum of existing national pledges under the Paris Agreement.

Sub-national governments, businesses, investors, and civil society organisations put forward over 500 commitments across five priority areas, which include healthy energy systems; inclusive economic growth; sustainable communities; land and ocean stewardship; and transformative climate investments.

For example, over 100 cities, states, and businesses have committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest. This includes over 70 big cities such as Accra, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Mexico City, which are home to 425 million citizens in total. The action by these cities will cut global emissions by 2.5 percent annually, avoiding 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.

Moreover, the number of companies committing to science-based emission reduction targets witnessed an increase to 488 – up by almost 40 percent from last year. Together, these companies account for US$10 trillion of the global economy.

The summit also launched the “Investor Agenda” to align financial flows with climate objectives. The coalition brings together nearly 400 investors managing US$32 trillion of assets – just over a third larger than the US economy, which has a GDP of US$19.4 trillion. Their members’ commitments range from pledges to increase low-carbon investments to goals for lowering the carbon intensity of their portfolios or ending coal-related investments.

In a move to push sustainable investments, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the New York pension fund would double its climate investments to US$4 billion within three years. This follows his announcement earlier in the year to divest the fund from fossil fuels. Together with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, de Blasio had recently called on other cities to follow their lead in divesting from fossil fuels.

Driving into a clean transport future

Road transport, which is among the leading sources of emissions, was high on the summit’s agenda. An alliance of more than 60 CEOs, mayors, and state and regional leaders joined forces to pledge to achieve 100 percent zero emission transport by 2030.

This includes a commitment by 12 regions, representing over 80 million people and accounting for over five percent of global GDP, to transition completely to zero emission public fleets, as well as a commitment by 26 cities, representing 140 million people, to purchase only zero emission buses from 2025 and establishing emission free areas in 2030.

Enabling trade and investment regimes will play a critical role in driving such large-scale take-ups of electric vehicles, some experts argue. (Editor’s note: the information note linked to here is by ICTSD, the publisher of Bridges.)

Supportive infrastructure will also be indispensable. At the summit, companies therefore committed to install more than 3.5 million additional charging points for electric vehicles by 2025.

Responsible land stewardship

Forests, land, and food systems are not only severely impacted by climate change but can also play a crucial role in mitigation. The summit therefore launched a new alliance of more than 100 civil society organisations, businesses, state and local governments, and indigenous groups to implement climate mitigation strategies across these sectors with the aim of delivering 30 percent of the emissions abatement needed by 2030. 

This includes a pledge by over 100 supply chain actors, managing US$6.5 trillion, to halt deforestation and native vegetation loss in the Cerrado, Brazil, which is known for being the continent’s largest savannah. This pledge also includes additional commitments to end deforestation around the world through more sustainable sourcing of palm oil and paper and pulp. 

To address food-related emissions, a group of states and cities on the US West Coast are joining forces to lower food waste and loss by 50 percent by 2030, which has the potential to save 25 million tonnes of emissions annually.

Growing momentum

Welcoming the commitments from the summit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the economic imperative for stepping up climate action. “We are experiencing huge economic losses due to climate change,” Guterres said, adding that “the Global Climate Action Summit has brought together actors demonstrating the vast opportunity afforded by climate action” who “are betting on green because they understand this is the path to prosperity and peace on a healthy planet.”

The summit’s outcome document, “Call to Global Climate Action,” appeals to national leaders to scale up climate action by 2020, the moment when global emissions have to peak and start declining quickly thereafter. The document specifically calls on governments to put forward net zero mid-century emission plans, submit more ambitious NDCs by the 2020 deadline, and develop strong national climate policies.

California aims to set carbon neutrality example

In the run-up to the Climate Action Summit, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill on 10 September requiring California to decarbonise its electricity system progressively by 31 December 2045, at which point it should derive 100 percent of its power from clean sources.

Passed by the California Senate last year and the State Assembly in late August, the bill will test the feasibility of an unprecedented large-scale energy transition. California is home to almost 40 million people and hosts the world’s fifth largest economy.

The bill follows a similar move by Hawaii, which requires 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. The Pacific island state has no means of connecting to the US mainland power grid and given its limited energy resources must spend heavily on importing crude oil and petroleum to meet demand. It passed the legislation in 2015.

The Californian law, however, opens the door for sources beyond wind and solar, though it is not clear at this stage which ones this may entail. 

In addition to the clean electricity bill, Brown issued an executive order to achieve state-wide carbon neutrality by 2045. Achieving such an ambitious goal will require far-reaching transformation across all areas of the economy and society, particularly transport which is responsible for 40 percent of emissions in the US West Coast state. 

While the executive order does not include any mandates, supporters say that it sets out a clear vision that is an important step in moving towards carbon neutrality. 

ICTSD reporting; “National Governments urged to step up climate action by 2020 at end of landmark summit,” GLOBAL CLIMATE ACTION SUMMIT, 14 September 2018; “Call to Global Climate Action,” GLOBAL CLIMATE ACTION SUMMIT, 14 September; “Thousands of protesters challenge Democratic governor at climate summit,” THE GUARDIAN, 13 September 2018; “Can California Achieve a “Carbon Neutral” Economy?,” SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, 12 September 2018; “US activists launch climate change initiatives in absence of federal leadership,” THE GUARDIAN, 12 September 2018; “California Assembly Passes Historic 100% Carbon-Free Electricity Bill,” GREEN TECH MEDIA, 28 August 2018.

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