Climate strikes have changed the rules of diplomacy at UN Climate Action Summit

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UN is drawing on the strength of youth climate strikes, and the vision of big companies like Atlassian to try and reshape rules of climate diplomacy.

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Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the Youth Climate Strike in Battery Park in New York, New York, USA, 20 September February 2019. EPA/PETER FOLEY
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“I encourage you to keep your initiative, keep your mobilization and more and more to hold my generation to account,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who helped rally millions of kids and adults to the streets last Friday.

One of the most prolific men in the world was asking some of the least powerful to hold him and his generation accountable, because he can’t do his job building a global coalition to avert the climate crisis without them.

In New York for the Climate Action Summit, I’m struck by how different this event is to most of the UN climate negotiations I’ve been involved in. Usually, multilateral diplomacy works when there is a critical mass of countries on board and the rest respond to the peer pressure to join or risk remaining isolated.

This approach worked well when former Prime Minister Tony Abbott skipped the UN Climate Summit in 2014 (supported by most countries including major emitters like the US) and later went on to put forward all the necessary ingredients, such as a Nationally Determined Contribution “squarely in the middle of comparable economies” and a Green Climate Fund pledge, to join the global consensus on the Paris Agreement.

The UNSG knew leaders of some of the largest polluting countries (like the US, Brazil and yes even Australia) would not show up, so he had to go for a much broader approach to the 2019 Climate Action Summit, taking place Monday (US time).

Much like the unprecedented climate strikes on Friday, so too is there an unprecedented effort from the UNSG to revamp diplomatic efforts with a broader coalition of players and inputs.

  1. Build grassroots momentum

The UNSG hosted a special Youth Climate Summit on 21 September, which follows the unprecedented global school strike 4 climate on Friday. The process was aimed at energising  the underwhelming UN climate discussions and sending a powerful message to the leaders at the Climate Action Summit (and those skipping it): hundreds of thousands of their youth demand climate action now.

In all the UN climate events I’ve attended, non-government representatives, including the token youth rep, speak at the end of the event while government officials pack up, have a yarn or leave early to catch their planes.

By asking Greta to open the Climate Action Summit on Monday, ahead of the 60 leaders armed with new climate pledges, the UNSG is sending a clear instruction – draw strength and leadership from your youth.

Greta’s speech is being billed as her strongest yet – directed at world leaders in the vein of ‘how dare you let us down.’ And after her speech, Greta and fellow youth activists will lodge an official human rights complaint on the climate crisis to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

  1. Inform with latest science

The UNSG commissioned a landmark new report to inform the Climate Action Summit, highlighting the severity of current climate impacts and the growing gap between agreed emission reduction targets and the reality of where the world is headed.

The impacts are grim and most Australians know it (81% of Australians are concerned that climate change is resulting in more droughts and floods according to the Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2019 benchmark report).

The United in Science report went further to note that nationally determined targets must triple to hit the high-end of the global warming limit of 2 degrees, and to hit the low-end of 1.5 degrees would require a fivefold increase.

United in Science

By contrast, Australia’s target of 26-28% by 2030 from 2005 levels is weak by any measure, is not aligned to the Paris goals and even the government’s own independent Climate Change Authority suggested a target closer to double the size.

And even then, Australia is not on track to meet its target according to the 2018 emissions projections. This is including the 367 Mt of controversial Kyoto Protocol carryover credits that would extinguish half the effort required to hit the 2030 target.

  1. Bring business and sub-national governments on board

The UNSG has called on businesses to back in the Paris Agreement targets. The cost competitiveness of renewable electricity has made the switch away from fossil fuel power far more attractive.

Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes is in town to bind his company to a net-zero emissions target by 2050. Similar ambition is seen at a sub-national level in Australia, with every state and territory putting forward a net-zero emission by 2050 target (if not better, like net-zero by 2045 in the ACT).

It is not controversial – almost two thirds of Australians want to a national target of net-zero emission by 2050, according to the Climate of the Nation 2019.

Beyond Australia, another 85 major companies with market caps of over US$2.3 trillion and annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants have just announced new business plans aligned with the Paris goals (1.5 degrees).

The UN Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance of 12 asset owners, including Allianz, Zurich, Swiss RE, Nordea and others, and US$2.4 trillion in assets under management, are committing to net zero emissions by 2050, with interim targets in 2025, 2030 and 2040, as well as a commitment to work with the companies they have invested in to get them to shift to net zero. There is no doubt this will include several Australian assets.

In addition, the harder to reach sectors, such as shipping, steel (noteworthy given Angus Taylor’s defence of coking coal exports) and cement are revealing zero emission plans, headlined by Dalmia (major Indian cement company) and SSAB (major Noridc-US steel company).

On the flipside, there is talk of Wanted posters of major oil CEOs sprouting up across New York on Monday.

  1. Limit event to the willing and isolate the unwilling

The UNSG set clear instructions for what to bring to the Climate Action Summit.

“I told leaders not to come with fancy speeches, but with concrete commitments. People want solutions, commitments and action. I expect there will be an announcement and unveiling of a number of meaningful plans on dramatically reducing emissions during the next decade, and on reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.”

There are about 60 countries ready to announce further plans, including many from our region (New Zealand, Marshall Islands, Fiji, Palau and Tonga).  Around 75 countries, including China, will boost their climate plans in 2020, according to a recent UN Development Program report—in time to meet the Paris Agreement requirement to communicate or update national targets by the end of 2020.

The German cabinet went to great lengths to agree on a new climate plan on Friday (yes, the same day Prime Minister Morrison spent with President Trump discussing anything but climate change).

The German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said that a set of resolutions agreed to by Germany’s coalition government proved that the country was “officially” committed to ending its dependency on coal. Germany also joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which includes the ACT, City of Sydney and City of Melbourne.

As for the recent reports that Australia, Japan and South Africa were barred from the Summit, that was clarified by the UNSG, that “no country was turned down… some countries just did not turn up.”

No country likes being excluded and Japan’s Environment Minister was quick to clarify that Japan got an invite but couldn’t send its leader. He also agreed here in New York that climate change should be framed as ‘fun’, ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’.

Not sure how sexy the blimp of Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe in a bucket of coal will be as it takes off at 9am on Monday outside the UN Headquarters.

As for Australia, Prime Minister Morrison at least had the foresight to send Foreign Minister Marise Payne to the Climate Action Summit (and leave the Minister for Emissions Reductions Angus Taylor at home to front up to Insiders).

Minister Payne has been more, well, diplomatic at addressing the interests of other countries for more climate action – as was visible at the 2018 Pacific Island Forum. That was certainly the case compared to the train wreck at the 2019 Pacific Island Forum in Tuvalu, personally mishandled by the Prime Minister.

Minister Payne, like Minister Bishop in 2014 when she attended the last Climate Summit in lieu of a Prime Minister, can report back on the growing diplomatic pressure for more action.  While the Prime Minister might not be at the table, he will certainly get an earful of what is going on at this unprecedented event.

Richie Merzian is Climate & Energy Program Director at independent think-tank the Australia Institute. Richie is a former Australian Government negotiator to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and helped coordinate the Green Climate Fund Board during Australia’s tenure as Chair. @RichieMerzian.

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