The UN Climate Action Summit in New York, September 2019, showed signs of positive evolution. Land sector actions (‘nature-based solutions’) were prominent and false solutions such as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) seem, rightly, to have fallen off the radar. Yet the result carried a whiff of ‘heard it before’: country commitments fell short of what is so urgently needed, and the summit’s advances often came with a disappointing aftertaste.
In terms of climate resilience and biodiversity, primary forests are without equal. Costa Rica’s environment minister issued a welcome call to end all logging in primary forests. Various countries announced their commitment to the ‘30 x 30’ Initiative, to protect and restore 30 per cent of the earth’s terrestrial surface by 2030. Yet the Indigenous Peoples who are the most vital factor in the preservation and restoration of primary forests were not mentioned.
Pledges to replenish the Green Climate Fund, intended to assist emerging economies in their climate projects, may be on track (although some are earlier pledges re-heated for the occasion). Yet wealthy countries are still falling dramatically short of the US$ 100 billion annually hoped for by 2020.
Countries spoke loudly of tree-planting initiatives: Between Ethiopia, Turkey Kenya, New Zealand and Pakistan, some 11 billion trees will be planted. Yet this is not the same as ending deforestation, or restoring damaged forests, and fails to address monoculture plantations. Calls to protect people, nature and biodiversity heard in the NatureHub were absent in official announcements. A challenge to the market forces that are deforesting the Amazon was made by First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans. During a high-level event assessing the first five unsuccessful years of the New York Declaration on Forests he called for an EU regulation to address deforestation in supply chains.
In the run-up to the summit, UN Secretary General António Guterres commendably insisted that leaders prioritise practical action over rhetoric. Many countries stepped up: 77 committed to reach ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050; 70 pledged to increase their nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reducing emissions by 2020. In addition to Costa Rica’s call to action, Norway promised to double how much they pay Gabon for carbon dioxide reductions from forests – without recourse to offsets. Together, multilateral and national development banks will mobilise US$ 1 trillion for climate action by 2025; however, it is unclear how much will be dedicated to forest restoration and whether the necessary safeguards will be applied.
None of these commitments is insignificant, but the scale and type of action do not challenge the status quo, don’t focus efforts where needed, and aren’t bold enough to alleviate the despair of island nations and the anger of younger generations. In the end, they will not do nearly enough to avoid the 3°C rise of our current trajectory, or to spark more ambitious action to meet the Paris Agreement goals.