US, UK and other major polluters sidelined at ‘no-nonsense’ UN climate ambition summit

‘Humanity has opened the gates to hell,’ said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent in New York
Thursday 21 September 2023 17:31 BST
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Sadiq Khan hits out at 'dithering' Sunak as UK 'backtracks' on climate commitments

The list was notable for those who were not invited to speak at the UN Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday – an event championing the “movers and doers” taking accelerated action to cut greenhouse gas emissions boiling the planet.

The leaders of China and the United States, the world’s largest polluters, were absent. President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, was in the room but relegated to the sidelines.

Also missing was the United Kingdom with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak preferring to stay in London to announce rollbacks on net zero policies on Wednesday, a move that was met with widespread dismay and disgust at the New York gathering.

The summit, on the sidelines of the General Assembly, was to be “no-nonsense”, according to UN chief Antonio Guterres after another year of catastrophic disasters.

There would also be “no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters, or repackaging of announcements from previous years”.

A recent global report card on emissions cuts surprised next to no one with the news that the world is failing to move fast enough to limit warming to a somewhat safe 1.5C. Emissions need to be slashed nearly in half by 2030 if this target is to be met.

“Humanity has opened the gates to hell,” Mr Guterres said in his opening remarks on Wednesday.

The leaders who spoke were largely from countries accounting for only a fraction of global emissions but facing the worst impacts, or those who have laid out concrete plans to reach net zero. Still, many of the speeches were light on new plans that could be put into action.

Also on the list were state and local leaders, notably California Governor Gavin Newsom, who excoriated the fossil fuel industry for its decades of deception; and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who touted the British capital as a beacon of green hope to those who felt “let down” by Mr Sunak backing down on net-zero commitments.

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry attended but did not speak at the Climate Ambition Summit at the UN Headquarters on September 20, 2023 in New York City

The first to speak was Kenyan President William Ruto, who hosted the first African climate summit in Nairobi earlier this month, culminating in a historic declaration by African leaders on the climate crisis and how to address it.

He spoke of Africa’s “young, highly-skilled workforce, hungry for opportunity” and highlighted how the continent’s minimal carbon footprint means it has the potential to “leapfrog” to a green economy with the right investments, debt relief and borrowing conditions.

“Africa does not need handouts – what we need is fairness,” Mr Ruto said.

Leaders from small island states were also given platforms, including Prime Minister of Samoa, Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, who reminded the world that in Tuvalu, communities are already being forced to relocate because of sea level rise while in the Marshall Islands, people struggle to access drinking water because of saltwater intrusion.

There will be no extra time in this match. We are in the final stages of what actions are needed to preserve this planet and regrettably, I’m not sure that everyone is getting it.

Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados

“[Small Islands and Developing States] are less than one per cent of emissions,” she said. “While the G20 is 80 per cent.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed with developing countries that rich nations needed to go faster in reducing emissions, even as she touted the EU’s pledge to cut carbon by 55 per cent over the next seven years.

She also called on wealthy countries to contribute in full to a $100bn fund which was pledged more than a decade ago to help poorer nations deal with the climate crisis as “a matter of trust”.

Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, laid out detailed plans of international financial reforms needed to fund a global clean energy transition, and to level the playing field for those already suffering extreme impacts and requiring stronger resilience and adaptation plans.

“There will be no extra time in this match,” she said. “We are in the final stages of what actions are needed to preserve this planet and regrettably, I’m not sure that everyone is getting it.”

Barbados has committed to reaching net-zero by 2035, she said, admitting that it was “going to be a stretch for us” as many leaders balanced the need to contribute to a safe planet with citizens’ struggles with cost of living.

Ms Mottley was one of a number of leaders who laid responsibility at the door of the fossil fuel industry which had benefited from $7 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies last year.

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks as he attends the Climate Ambition Summit at the United Nations Headquarters on September 20, 2023 in New York City.

“If you don’t take corrective action now, you will have to tell us where you’re keeping all your scientific research to relocate you and your families to the planet Mars or Pluto,” Ms Mottley said.

Other leaders joined in breaking the taboo and spoke of the role of oil and gas, and other financial and business entities, in creating – and continuing – the crisis.

"The climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis, so we have to leave fossil fuels behind. And we also have to react to the greenwashing by major businesses,” said President Gabriel Boric of Chile.

Petro Gustavo, president of major fossil fuel exporter Colombia, gave a stark assessment.

“The real goal that all countries should have is aiming for zero in terms of production and supply of coal, gas and oil. If we keep as we are on our current track, it will be suicide,” he said.

Mr Newsom, whose state recently sued major oil companies, made no bones about it.

“It’s time for us to be a lot more clear. This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” he said, to applause and cheers in the chamber.

“For decades and decades, the oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools. They have been buying off politicians. They’ve been denying and delaying science and fundamental information that they were privy to that they didn’t share or they manipulated. Their deceit and denial going back decades, have created the conditions that persist here today.”

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