UN Climate Action Summit: How many countries will step up on the world stage Monday?

Janet Wilson, USA TODAY

The hottest ticket in New York on Monday is at the United Nations, where world leaders will hold a Climate Action Summit to address climate change. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres bluntly told nations to "come with concrete plans" to ramp up commitments to slash greenhouse gases and achieve net zero carbon emissions. 

President Donald Trump, who wants to pull the United States out of the ratified 2015 Paris agreement to cut emissions, won't participate, but United Nations officials and observers say China and about 70 other countries could make big announcements. At least another 40 countries are expected to attend, and might — or might not — end up on stage making new pledges.

"Monday is the big show, with heads of states from around the world (meeting) in order for them to collectively raise ambition on the climate agenda," Cassie Flynn, U.N. Development Programme strategic advisor on climate change, said at a U.N. Foundation briefing.

On Sunday, 130 banks holding $47 trillion in assets committed to climate action and sustainability, according to U.N. environment officials. Coalitions of cities and states as well as industry groups are expected to make pledges during the summit as well.

A new U.N. science report released Sunday shows that emissions into the Earth's atmosphere continue to surge, G-20 nations responsible for 80% of emissions are failing to meet their already low targets, and countries overall must triple their 2015 pledges to keep global warming well below 2°C (3.6° F) by 2100, or increase them fivefold to hold it to 1.5°C, a threshold seen as critical to the survival of small, low-lying countries. Researchers predict fiercer hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, floods and related food scarcity and health impacts if significant action isn't taken.

The summit comes on the heels of a worldwide Youth Climate Strike on Friday, during which millions of young people demanded faster action to address the climate crisis, and a Saturday Youth Climate Action Summit at the United Nations.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 26: People walk past the United Nations headquarters on September 26, 2018 in New York City. World leaders gathered for the 73rd annual meeting at the UN headquarters in Manhattan. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

In case you missed it: Global Climate Strike draws out hundreds of thousands of protesters in New York, DC.

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Flynn said there could be headline announcements throughout day on Monday, as representatives from each country that sent the secretary-general a plan will take the podium for two minutes to reveal their new initiatives. But it wasn't clear Sunday how successful Guterres had been in his efforts to wrangle nations to make deep emissions cuts and other serious pledges.

"China is the one to watch," said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.

In terms of the finance industry, on Sunday the banks "commit(ted) to strategically align their business with the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals, and massively scale up their contribution to the achievement of both," a U.N. statement said.

At a Sunday launch event attended by the 130 founding signatories, including more than 45 CEOs, the secretary-general  said at that “the U.N. Principles for Responsible Banking are a guide for the global banking industry to respond to, drive and benefit from a sustainable development economy.” He said a strong implementation framework requires each bank to set, publish and work toward ambitious sustainable targets, designed to help banks grow their businesses while reducing risks."

The jury was still out on whether and how nations would respond to the U.N.'s urgent call, experts said over the weekend. While tremendous momentum has built in the past year, they noted emissions are still rising.

"Best of times, worst of times," quipped Waskow of the World Resources Institute. He said teenager Greta Thunberg's "Future Friday" protests, combined with a chilling new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report last fall saying nations had just 12 years to make systemic changes, have created real urgency.

"The public is aware of this now and they are putting pressure on politicians to respond," he said. "China and India are on track to meet their goals," he noted, but the problem is the goals are too low. In China's case, Beijing committed in 2015 to reduce the rate of growth of emissions, otherwise known as lowering their carbon intensity. But to truly abate global warming, they need to make actual cuts.

"Even if all the Paris agreements are met, we're still not on track for 1.5 degrees," he said. If temperatures rise above that, he noted, all the world's coral will be gone.

He praised Secretary-General Guterres for convening the summit, but said the real action would come next year, when nations that ratified the Paris treaty agreed to step up their efforts.

"The expectation always has been that countries would ramp up their goals by 2020," he explained. "It's written into the Paris agreement."

But based on the latest scientific findings, a crucial change needs to take place, many experts concur. Rather than committing to reach net zero emissions in the second half of the century, as the Paris agreement currently reads, countries must reach that tough target by 2050 to forestall the worst damage, Waskow said. 

Flynn, of the U.N. Development Programme, agreed that 2020 was always intended as an important milestone, and said Monday's gathering is meant to establish global unity and lay down strong pledges heading into next year.

"We know the solutions exist," she said. "We need to scale them up."

Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun and authors USA TODAY's Climate Point. She can be reached at @janetwilson66 or jwilson@palmspri.gannett.com

Janet Wilson

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