United nations “climate week”: ice age in the hot age

Monday marks the start of "Climate Week" at the UN General Assembly. Climate is just barely a priority for most governments right now.

As big as Paris: the recent ice break at the glacier Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden in Greenland Photo: ESA/ap

The weather at least provides the right backdrop: The U.S. West Coast is on fire, in the southeastern U.S. there is just another hurricane alert. Huge forest areas are burning in the Amazon, in the Brazilian swamp area Pantanal and in Siberia.

In Greenland, an iceberg the size of Paris is breaking off the glacier ice, which is now melting inexorably; the "Gulf Stream" in the Atlantic continues to weaken; floods are plaguing Bangladesh, India and West Africa; even in the Mediterranean, a rare hurricane – a Medicane – is forming over the exceptionally warm waters.

With these reports, a United Nations "Climate Week" at its annual General Assembly should make headlines. For the catastrophes fit well into the climate models’ predictions of an atmosphere that is rapidly heating up worldwide.

But reports of dramatic reactions in New York will be absent. When the U.N. "Climate Week" begins Monday as an online event, many heads of state and government are likely to be absent, and not just physically.

UN chief is in despair

Despite all the protestations, the climate issue has been displaced and hampered by the corona pandemic. An increasingly powerless UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will speak on the issue again and again in New York, but he must primarily watch as the world’s major polluter states walk away from treaties, break their word and subordinate the burning issue.

"The well-rehearsed rules for global attention that generates political pressure no longer work in the Corona crisis," says Susanne Droge, an expert on international climate policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Guterres has hardly any leverage to make a difference."

Just a year ago, things were very different. Guterres had summoned country leaders to New York for a climate report; they were to present plans on how their countries would bring CO2 emissions to zero by 2050. Many countries made an effort, Germany brought the "climate package".

And climate icon Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to lead a huge climate demo in New York, glaring angrily at U.S. President Donald Trump and hurling her now-famous "How dare you!" at the powers that be.

Many countries don’t even follow the formalities

2020 should be an important step forward for climate protection – despite Trump. By the end of the year, all of the nearly 200 signatory states to the Paris Agreement must report new and improved climate plans to the UN; the deadline for this actually expired in the spring.

Then came Corona, and governments had other worries – or used the pandemic "as part of delaying tactics," according to UN sources. Currently, nine countries have submitted new plans, according to an analysis by the think tank Climate Action Tracker. Chief among them: Norway, Chile and Vietnam.

The UN Climate Change Secretariat UNFCCC expects many developing countries to submit new plans in New York. By the end of the year, that number could probably rise to about 80. In the summer, UNFCCC head Patricia Espinosa urged all governments to stick to the timetable. This has not had a visible effect.

Nothing will come from the heavyweights like China, the USA, Japan, Australia or Russia. If the EU has its new climate target for 2030 – a 55 percent reduction in emissions compared to 1990 – in place by the end of the year, that would be a big plus.

International climate policy is deadlocked – not only because of Corona

The world climate conference in Glasgow, where the brakemen would have had to justify themselves to the global public, has been postponed by a year from November. And the next alarm report of the climate council IPCC will also be delayed because of Corona, so that there will be less pressure on politicians.

Yet the climate crisis is taking no time off. Around the UN General Assembly, many new studies point to well-known but aggravated problems: A UN report, "United in Science," warned that the 1.5-degree threshold of global warming will be exceeded again and again in the short term in the next few years.

Responsibility for the climate crisis is also clear: A new report by the aid organization Oxfam makes it clear that the richest 10 percent of the world’s population was responsible for 52 percent of all CO2 emissions from 1990 to 2015, while the poorest 50 percent were responsible for only 7 percent.

Climate change overshadowed by other issues

International climate policy is deadlocked for many reasons. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under Trump is slowing the process, and its trade war with China is also pushing back the climate issue. Emerging economies like India and Brazil are suffering from Corona, and there is a diplomatic ice age between Russia and the West.

The clubs of the powerful were no help in 2020 either, because they are led by the climate opponents USA (G7) and Saudi Arabia (G20). And Corona is hitting the poorest countries the hardest; an additional 2.5 trillion US dollars would be needed, warns the UN economic organization UNCTAD.

In addition, the UN’s Green Climate Fund for climate aid has come under fire for lack of funds and controversial financing. Desperate, Guterres boarded a plane in late August to exhort coal countries: In India, Japan and China, he warned that the coal industry would "go up in smoke" and was not a good investment.

The debate about the delayed climate plans shows how powerless the UN is. The climate secretariat plans to produce a report in the spring on old and new plans and the gaps to the climate goal. Everyone knows what it will say; that’s what the Unep environmental agency’s "Emissions Gaps Report" is for every year. Legal consequences from the Paris treaty breach? "Not that I know of," says a UN spokesman.

Instead, the international community is hoping for the non-governmental sector: The UN has proclaimed the "Race to Zero," in which more than 1,100 companies, 450 cities, 22 regions and 45 major investors with a total of a quarter share of global CO2 emissions commit to zero emissions before 2050.

The "Powering past Coal Alliance" to phase out coal quickly, preferably before 2030, introduces new members including Peru, Seoul and Baden-Wurttemberg. More and more global corporations such as Nestle, Volkswagen and ThyssenKrupp are committing to making their production and products climate-neutral by 2050. This has become so fashionable that the U.S. think tank "World Resources Institute" offers information on how to check such calculations to see if they are serious.

Many climate activists placed their greatest hope in the promised "green recovery," that is, the total of about $12 trillion worldwide that will be pumped into the recovery of the economy after the corona pandemic. The opportunity must now be seized to "rebuild better," UN chief Guterres keeps saying.

However, initial calculations on this are sobering: in 13 of 17 countries surveyed, more money went into destroying nature than into green programs. "That’s not enough at the back and front," says the climate secretariat. The meeting in New York, the UN hopes, will bring positive news and continue to build pressure on governments.

The climate scene looks to the USA

For there is also a positive scenario. Everything depends on Joe Biden being elected US president on November 3. He has declared that, as president, he will invite a climate conference of the most important countries to Washington in the spring of 2021. It could reach an agreement with China, which has already hinted at targeting climate neutrality by 2060 with its new five-year plan.

The EU would enter a competition with the U.S. and China for the cleanest economy with a minus 55 percent climate target and a protective tariff against eco-dumping.

Momentum could continue if Brazil and Indonesia were persuaded to protect forests with a mix of carrots (money) and sticks (trade agreements) – and the British government targeted a much-needed diplomatic success with concrete post-Brexit climate outcomes at the climate conference in Glasgow.

There is only one thing that no one in the climate scene wants to imagine: What happens if Donald Trump runs for a second term?