UN climate summit marks the divide between climate leaders and laggards

Andrew Higham
Sep 24 · 6 min read

The summit drew disappointing commitments from countries, but it did create a new norm for acceptable action on climate change

The world is now indisputably split between climate leaders and laggards.

That is what the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit today accomplished. It set a new bar on what can be deemed necessary and acceptable efforts to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and challenged leaders around the world and economy to step up.

Unfortunately, the club of leaders is too small and sparse to keep the world from plummeting further into the climate crisis already underway. Not a single high-emitting economy heeded the call from UN Secretary-General António Guterres, backed by youth around the world, to put a definitive end to new coal-fired power generation by 2020 and financial support for fossil fuels.

China, India and the European Union spoke, but said nothing new. The US, Canada and Australia didn’t show. These are the economies that will make or break this planet.

Without naming names, Greta Thunberg, the world’s 16-year-old reluctant climate champion, called them out.

“You say you ‘hear’ us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that. Because if you fully understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And I refuse to believe that,” she said at the summit’s opening, eyes welling up. It was difficult to watch; impossible to look away.


Here are my takeaways from the day, and the difficult, but conquerable, road between now and December 2020.

1. ‘You are failing us’

The Fridays for Future movement was a shot in the arm that catapulted the threat of global warming to the forefront of public concerns and demands.

In less than a year, it has accomplished what we in the climate campaign community, from NGOs to scientists to civil servants, have been trying to do for decades: injecting urgency, personal responsibility and opportunity into the discussion of how and why we must decarbonise the economy.

“For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight,” Thunberg said.

Alexandria Villaseñor, the 14-year-old who has braved extreme cold and heat to strike outside the UN headquarters every Friday since December 14, was equally steadfast in her commitment to keep up the pressure. “They can listen to us now, or they can listen to us later,” she said of leaders last week. “Because our voice is going to continue getting louder as the climate crisis gets more urgent.”

Greta’s piercing stare as US President Donald Trump walked by, making a short but unexpected appearance to hear Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech, captures the youth movement’s resolve in a single GIF.


2. Climate action is smart politics

The youth’s message is underpinned by gloom, doom and outrage. But it’s laced with opportunity, too.

We all win from low-carbon innovation, investment and policy aimed firmly at the 1.5-degree limit. The science tells us nothing less will suffice, and the economics concur.

“It’s a huge business opportunity, and also an economic imperative,” Allianz Chief Executive Oliver Bäte said during the summit, announcing a first-of-its-kind commitment by 12 financial giants to drive emissions from their portfolios to net zero by 2050. He urged sovereign wealth funds, governments and other asset owners to join in.

The pension funds and investors in this UN-backed Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance are responsible for over $2.4 trillion in assets, and they will now encourage the companies in their portfolios to follow the same 1.5-degree path — meaning it will ripple across the economy. They also set interim targets for 2025, 2030 and 2040 to publicly report on their progress.


Similarly, representatives from the maritime, energy, infrastructure and finance sectors launched the Getting to Zero Coalition to decarbonise the international maritime sector by 2030. And 87 companies across 28 sectors, with $2.3 trillion in market capitalisation and direct annual emissions annual direct emissions equivalent to 73 coal-fired power plants, joined the UN Global Compact to align their businesses with a 1.5-degree limit by 2050.

This is the kind of transformation we need, only much bigger.

“Like virtually everything else in the response to climate change, it’s not moving fast enough for the world to reach net zero emissions,” Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said at the summit, referring to the finance sector’s movement. Disclosure of climate risks needs to become mandatory and sustainable investment must go mainstream to push a definitive shift from brown to green, he said.

3. Small, poor, vulnerable countries are leading the charge

They forced the world to add a 1.5-degree goal to the Paris Agreement in 2015, arguing that a 2-degree limit was tantamount to a death sentence for their low-lying shores. Now, the small island states of the world, already being battered by record storms and rising sea levels, are leading the charge to make that Paris goal a reality.

“Two degrees needs to be taken off the table once and for all,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said in a speech. “The world finds it possible to apply resources to get rid of male baldness, while it cannot find resources to cure malaria.” Ignoring the moderator’s prods to wrap up, she added: “I will finish soon. I really will. But I’m speaking on behalf of 20 percent of nations in this body.”

Vulnerable countries including the Marshall Islands, Belize, Grenada, Saint Lucia and Vanuatu teamed up with developed economies including Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden in a pledge to raise their 2030 emissions reduction targets by March 2020. By the end of 2020, they will set strategies to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The 15 countries don’t mention the 1.5-degree target, but say their new 2030 goals will be in line with the science. That inherently requires 1.5-degree alignment.

4. Diplomats, put your elbow to the wheel

Today’s UN summit was low on the types of commitments demanded by Guterres and the youth movement. But it wasn’t a failure. It kicked off a new era in climate action, building on decades of an unacceptably slow-but-steady ramp-up.

Greta has shamed the establishment and inspired the public’s demand. Guterres has given political leaders three simple steps for fulfilling those obligations: Stop building coal-fired power plants by 2020, cut fossil fuel subsidies, and tax polluters rather than people.

We’re nowhere near the track to a 1.5-degree limit. But if countries just follow the Paris Agreement’s roadmap, we can correct our course between now and the end of 2020, when we meet at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

This is a call to diplomatic arms. The political leaders who understand the imperative need to put their diplomatic machinery to work — combine their efforts with activist communities and the business and investor radicals, and bring the rest of the world on board.

Leaders, like Japan’s Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, are beginning to get it. Change is coming for a government that continues to support coal power in Japan and overseas, Koizumi told journalists on Sunday, 10 days into his new position.


Glasgow will be the first test of the Paris Agreement. We need enough commitments in place to ensure greenhouse gas emissions begin their decline by 2020. Then, as Paris dictates, countries need to revise and raise their targets every five years so that emissions are halved between now and 2030, and again by 2040, and again to net zero by 2050.

The club of climate laggards still far outweighs the group of leaders. If we capsize that balance between now and Glasgow, we will give the world the chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of global warming.

Andrew Higham

Written by

CEO of Mission 2020, seasoned political strategist, lead drafter of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade