Climate week 2019: leaders gather ahead of UN summit

World leaders are gathering in New York ahead of Monday’s UN climate summit, when about 60 countries are expected to make new climate commitments. The biggest climate demonstrations ever took place on Friday in more than 150 countries, as multinationals also pledged to drastically cut emissions. This blog brings you the latest news from our reporters on an important week for environmental issues.

Millions of demonstrators join largest climate protest in history

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, speaks as she takes part during the Climate Strike, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019 in New York. Tens of thousands of protesters joined rallies on Friday as a day of worldwide demonstrations calling for action against climate change began ahead of a U.N. summit in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, speaks during the Climate Strike last Friday in New York © AP

Millions of demonstrators took to the streets of the world’s biggest cities on Friday for the largest climate protest in history, ahead of a UN summit at which about 60 countries are expected to make new climate commitments.

The protest movement that began last year when the teenager Greta Thunberg went on a solo “school strike” in Stockholm, has now swelled to cover more than 150 countries. Demonstrations took place in almost all the world’s big cities, from Sydney to New Delhi and Boston.

In New York, students were granted leave to participate in the protest with parental permission. Ms Thunberg has said she wants the protest to be “another tipping point” and hopes that “there will be so many people that we cannot look away any more”. Ms Thunberg marched with the protesters in New York, to where she travelled by boat during the summer.

Speaking in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park to some 250,000 people, Ms Thunberg said: “We are a wave of change. Together and united, we are unstoppable. This is what people power looks like. We will rise to the challenge. We will hold those who are most responsible for this crisis accountable. We can and we will.

“If you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us then we have some very bad news for you, because this is only the beginning. Change is coming whether they like it or not.”

The demonstrations come at a time of rising public concern over climate change — and a time when the climate agenda has been under threat, as trade wars and tensions in the Middle East undermine the impetus for global co-operation that was part of the Paris climate pact in 2015.

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The scale of Friday’s protests could give a boost to UN secretary-general António Guterres’s efforts to get countries to fall in line with efforts that would limit the worst effects of global warming. Ahead of Monday’s UN climate summit, he called for countries to stop building coal power stations after 2020, reduce fossil fuel subsidies, and commit to reaching net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

“We are losing the fight against climate change,” he said. “Young people are leading the debate and they are absolutely right to press us to do better.” Leslie Hook in New York

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Large group of multinationals sign UN climate pact

Mandatory Credit: Photo by FAZRY ISMAIL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10420120a) An environmental activist wears a mask with the words 'STOP BURNING STUFF' during a rally part of the international Global Climate Strike in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21 September 2019. The strikes are happening in cities across the world just days before United Nations' Climate Action Summit on 21 September in New York, where nations will ramp up their ambitions to curb greenhouse gases under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. A second worldwide climate strike is planned for 27 September. Global Climate Strike Rally in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur - 21 Sep 2019
People in cities around the world took part in the international Global Climate Strike on Friday © FAZRY ISMAIL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

As world leaders begin gathering in New York for Monday’s UN Climate Action Summit, a large group of multinational companies including Swiss Re, Danone, Ikea, Salesforce and L’Oréal have pledged to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

With the announcement of 59 new signatories, the UN Global Compact now has 87 companies, with a combined market cap of $2.3tn, on board with its campaign to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade. The initiative launched earlier this year with 28 companies signing up in July, including Levi Strauss, AstraZeneca and Unilever. 

Companies signing on with the UNGC pledge have agreed to set independently verified “science-based” targets and create decarbonisation plans within 24 months to start bringing their emissions down to keep warming below 1.5C. Signatories also have the option to publicly commit to reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. 

More than 600 companies had already pledged to do their part in limiting global warming to 2C as set out in the 2016 Paris climate accord, but their progress on hitting those goals has been patchy. Only 15 per cent of the world’s largest 500 companies are on track.

Nonetheless, the rapidly rising number of companies taking action on climate change is evidence of a “massive intellectual revolution” in the world of business, said Andrew Steer, a board member at the Science Based Targets Initiative — a coalition between the UNGC and various environmental research and activist groups in charge of vetting the companies signing the pledge. 

“Just five or 10 years ago, the vast majority of CEOs, boards and governments believed it would be nice to do something about climate change but it would require a trade off,” Mr Steer said. “Now, their view is that smart policies on climate change encourage more resource efficiency and [the development of] new technology . . . which can lead to more, rather than less, competitiveness.” Billy Nauman in New York

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Germany unveils sweeping measures to fight climate change

German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (R) shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead a climate cabinet meeting on September 20, 2019 in Berlin. - Chancellor Angela Merkel's government struggles to secure a deal on a broad climate plan for Germany despite overnight talks dragging over 16 hours, as protesters rally in the streets demanding change. (Photo by AXEL SCHMIDT / AFP)AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Environment minister Svenja Schulze, right, shakes hands with German chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of the climate cabinet meeting on Friday in Berlin © AFP

The German government has unveiled sweeping measures to combat climate change in Europe’s largest economy, including the introduction of a carbon price for key sectors such as transport and a €54bn spending package to encourage companies and households to reduce their carbon emissions.

The deal — agreed on Friday after a 15-hour negotiation that lasted into the early hours — is intended to send a strong political signal ahead of next week’s UN climate summit in New York. Political leaders in Berlin hope the measures and commitments will burnish Germany’s increasingly tarnished credentials as a global leader in the fight against climate change — and bolster Angela Merkel’s environmental record in the twilight years of her chancellorship. 

Ms Merkel and her colleagues hailed the agreement as a breakthrough, with environment minister Svenja Schulze describing it as a “new beginning for Germany’s climate policy”.

But there was sharp criticism from environmental groups and economists, who took aim in particular at the relatively low carbon price imposed by the government. 

Under the German proposal, companies that produce and sell petrol, coal, heating oil and similar fuels will have to buy certificates to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from their products. Such a system already exists at the European level, though only for heavy industry, aviation and the energy sector. The German carbon price, however, will be significantly lower than the current EU price, at least initially — starting at €10 per tonne in 2021 and rising to €35 by 2025. Tobias Buck in Berlin

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FT View: leaders have yet to grasp the enormity of the climate task

20 September 2019, Hamburg, Dusseldorf: Activists attend a protest calling for more action to help stop climate change. Photo: Federico Gambarini/dpa
A climate change protest in Hamburg, Germany. Despite more than 30 years of international efforts to stem the greenhouse gases driving global warming, emissions have accelerated © DPA

World leaders gather in New York on Monday for a UN climate change summit with little precedent. It comes amid a conspicuous shift in public sentiment that was plain to see on Friday, when vast numbers of students were joined by adults in dozens of countries worldwide in a global climate strike.

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The protesters make a serious point: despite more than 30 years of international efforts to stem the greenhouse gases driving global warming, emissions have accelerated. Signs of a political response have begun to emerge in the form of climate emergency declarations and targets to cut the net emission of greenhouse gases to zero. Yet leaders are only beginning to understand the sweeping, economy-wide policies required to meet these bolder goals. They need to grasp the enormity of the climate change challenge — and put it at the centre of all policymaking.

Decades have passed since countries first began to acknowledge the need for action. At least 147 have policies to support renewable energy. More than 50 have electric car incentives. More than 40 have a price on carbon emissions.

Yet too many have also supported the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels that have helped drive the average global temperature up by about 1C since the industrial revolution. Leaders regularly make stirring speeches at climate summits. Then, like drunks at an Alcoholics Anonymous convention who vow abstinence then visit a bar on the way home, they go back and implement energy, taxation, transport and economic policies that amount to business as usual on emissions.

This must end. Fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — have brought remarkable prosperity and underpin the livelihoods of millions of workers worldwide. The task of gradually removing them in a fair and financially sustainable manner is Herculean.

The good news is that the cost of cleaner energy sources has plummeted. Investors have been rewarded for backing companies that have started to meet a powerful consumer appetite for plant-based burgers and milk substitutes. Polls show public support for concerted action is rising in many countries. This time last year, Greta Thunberg was an obscure Swedish schoolgirl. Last week the young climate activist who inspired the global school strike movement spoke at a US congressional committee and met former US president Barack Obama. The Editorial Board

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