In Brief

UN Climate Summit: What to Know

Plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reach carbon neutrality, to be announced during the 2019 summit, could be an important milestone in the global fight against climate change.

Why is a climate summit happening now? 

The 2019 UN Climate Action Summit will convene on September 23 in New York and is aimed at regaining political momentum to combat climate change. The summit comes ahead of a 2020 deadline for signatories of the Paris Agreement to strengthen their national commitments to shrink greenhouse gas emissions.

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The last time the United Nations organized a similar event was in 2014. That summit, organized by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, laid the groundwork for countries to reach the Paris Agreement the following year.

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The current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has called on leaders to come to this year’s summit with plans to achieve net-zero emissions, or carbon neutrality, by 2050, aligned with a goal to cap the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. Guterres also seeks an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a ban on new coal plants after 2020. 

Who’s attending (and who’s not)? 

The European Union has indicated that it is working to create an ambitious carbon-neutrality plan. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson are all expected to play leading roles in deliberations, along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Greta Thunberg holds a sign amid a crowd of people during a climate protest.
Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in the Global Climate Strike in New York on September 20. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

U.S. President Donald J. Trump will not attend. Since cooperation between the United States and China was critical to the Paris accord’s success, the absence of U.S. leadership from the summit will make negotiations on broader 2020 commitments more difficult. China will not be represented by its head of state, Xi Jinping, at the summit, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are also skipping it.

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During the summit, many cities and corporations are expected to unveil their own initiatives to address climate change. The gathering will be complemented by a youth summit over the weekend, ahead of the UN meeting.  

What kind of plans need to be announced to make meaningful progress on combating climate change?

There’s no single answer when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some countries and cities have announced plans for permanent bans on sales of internal combustion vehicles that run on gasoline or diesel fuel, to start in the next decade or two. Many countries have set a price on carbon, and a majority of signatories to the Paris accord are increasingly using low-carbon sources for electricity generation.

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But existing policies are not ambitious enough, in terms of both the scale and speed that is needed. That is why the Climate Action Summit will be an important milestone for galvanizing greater political will. 

Guterres has called for an end to the construction of new coal-fired power plants after 2020. Do you expect this to happen?

That remains unclear. Many countries face difficulties ensuring their most disadvantaged citizens have adequate access to electricity without relying on coal. Nonetheless, a critical aspect of a successful global pact on greenhouse gas emissions will have to include an end to significant coal use in countries such as China and India. Improvements in cost-efficient, small-scale solar energy and battery storage are helping, but the political environment required to create policies that achieve rapid decarbonization has still not materialized in many countries.

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