5 Things to Watch Following the U.N. Climate Summit

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Talks among world leaders have wrapped up, but the story is far from over.

On September 23, heads of state attended the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit, bringing with them ideas, commitments and ambitions to mitigate the progress and effects of climate change. 

These meetings generate a lot of news when they happen, but the work continues even after the summit concludes. Here are five takeaways that the outdoor community, climate experts and the general public alike will be paying attention to in the months to come.

All eyes are on whether the biggest countries will step up their ambitions.

One  cornerstone of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is the idea that every five years, countries will come together to present increasingly ambitious goals toward combating climate change. The U.N. Climate Action Summit offered a chance for governments to do so before the five-year anniversary at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2020. Although dozens of countries indicated they’d step up their efforts to reduce emissions on or ahead of the September 23 talks, several of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, including the United States, India and China, were seen as lax in their commitments.

For instance, China presented promising progress reports, announcing that they’d achieved their 2020 carbon reduction targets ahead of schedule and increased their share of non-fossil fuel energy. However, they did not announce the more ambitious reduction targets some, like the World Resources Institute, were hoping for. And The New York Times reported the United States was effectively absent from the talks at the national level altogether. 

“What we've seen so far is really not the kind of climate leadership that we need from the major economies,” said Helen Mountford, a vice president at the World Resources Institute, on a call with reporters during the summit. “All eyes are going to be very firmly fixed on them over the next couple of months, looking at whether they're going to be able to step up and deliver what is needed.”

That said, more than 60 countries have now indicated they would enhance their commitments to climate action by the end of 2020. Seventeen countries came forward either at or before the summit with promises to contribute or increase contributions to the Green Climate Fund. And a number of states, companies and nations committed to ending their usage of coal.

The big polluters are still a major focus, however. In 2017, China, the U.S. and India produced roughly 27.2%, 14.6% and 6.8% of that year’s global carbon dioxide emissions, respectively, according to Our World in Data. That’s roughly half of all global annual CO2 emissions. 

Following the countries’ actions, and whether international and public pressure changes their ambitions and commitment to the Paris Agreement, will be an important part of the run-up to the next international meetings and that five-year mark in 2020.

Cities, private businesses and other small entities are taking action.

Although countries were the major players at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, smaller entities like states and cities presented ambitious goals as well. Following September 23, the U.N. reported that a total of 2,000 cities worldwide have committed to putting climate risk at the heart of their decision-making.

In the U.S., though President Trump announced in 2017 his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, many states and cities have made similar pledges. The U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of 25 governors committed to reducing greenhouse gases in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement, for example, say they represent a constituency equal to 55% of the U.S. population. 

“I think it's important to note that the problem is global, but there's lots that we can do locally,” said Lynn Scarlett, a vice president at The Nature Conservancy.

Meanwhile, companies and investment agencies are signaling that they see sustainability as good for business. The U.N. also reported that since an independent call to action in June, 87 major companies, including global brands such as IKEA and Nestlé, committed to setting climate targets across their operations. REI has made similar commitments; since 2006, the co-op has doubled its business without increasing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its operations. And a number of large pension funds and insurers formed the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, which represents more than $2 trillion in assets and has committed to moving portfolios to carbon-neutral investments by 2050.

Young people are a serious force for change.

One of the biggest stories to come out of this year’s talks on climate change was young people’s impact on the conversation. Greta Thunberg’s speech to the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit on September 23 dominated social media, but it wasn’t the only way young people pressed for action.

Just a few days earlier, on September 21, the United Nations invited young activists, inventors, and entrepreneurs to pitch solutions, call for change, and directly address world leaders at what they called the Youth Climate Summit

And António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, nodded to younger generations in his opening remarks. Speaking about our warmer future, Guterres said: “I will not be there, but my granddaughters will. And your grandchildren, too. I refuse to be an accomplice in the destruction of their home and only home.” 

Young people are likely to continue to be in the news. On September 23, for instance, Thunberg and 15 other young people filed a legal complaint against five countries—Brazil, France, Germany, Turkey and Argentina—alleging those governments’ lack of climate action violates young people’s rights as children. 

This is not the first time kids and teenagers have sought change through the legal system. In 2015, a group of kids and teenagers from across the country sued the U.S. government in Juliana v. United States asserting that the government, by burning fossil fuels despite knowing it could cause climate change and harmful effects, violated the constitutional rights and failed to protect public trust resources (the case is not yet resolved). Other cases have been filed in countries such as Colombia and the Netherlands.

“This is potentially a really important mechanism right now to actually get governments to move forward,” Mountford said.

In the meantime, another youth-led climate strike occurred on Friday, September 27.

“This mass mobilization is working,” Kelly Levin, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute said. “Millions are demanding more action from those that make decisions in countries around the world. And the tides are definitely turning, with kids raising adults’ consciousness of the issue.”

Climate change is already affecting the natural world.

As countries discuss the best way to address climate change, communities around the world are already feeling the effects. On September 25, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report detailing how climate change is affecting the ocean, causing sea levels to rise at an accelerating pace, fueling cyclones and other extreme weather events, and threatening biodiversity. On land, the effects are apparent from shrinking glaciers to more extreme weather.

“Increasingly we're seeing that the effects of climate change are not far off on the horizon. They are now and they are everywhere,” Scarlett said. And outdoor recreationists may be especially well-suited to noticing these changes. Scarlett pointed out that climate change is linked to reduced snowfall, which could affect skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers. Reduced snowfall can increase the risk of wildfires, blocking access to parks and lowering the air quality and visibility. And it has been linked to longer droughts, which affect boating and fishing. 

All of these effects were listed by the Fourth National Climate Assessment (a report produced by more than 300 experts under the guidance of a federal committee) as occurring now in the U.S. “The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country,” the report stated. 

“Pretty much everything that people in the recreation community do in some way or another is touched by climate change,” Scarlett added.

The assessment also listed observed changes to biodiversity and ecosystems. Birds, for example, may be impacted. 

Joshua Morris, the Urban Conservation Manager for Seattle Audubon, explained that warmer temperatures have caused spring to arrive earlier in parts of the country (including in approximately three-quarters of our national parks), which can disrupt bird migrations as species time their arrival to coincide with the appearance of spring food sources, like plant growth. This may cause birds to go hungry, impacting adult survival and breeding success.

Fish are at risk too. The assessment pointed out that in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, salmon populations are being affected by decreasing summer streamflows and die-offs from warmer water temperatures. Some researchers blamed a mass die-off this year in Alaska on the heatwave that afflicted the state.

On a global scale, Levin noted she’s also paying attention to changes that could cascade and accelerate the rate of change, like the amount of melting permafrost or the destruction of tropical rainforest. Thousands of fires have burned through the Amazon this year, for example.

Those are the types of cascading impacts that I would keep an eye out on,” Levin said.

Nature-based solutions are coming to the fore.

The summit saw the launch of several initiatives to boost nature-based solutions, including a Global Campaign for Nature, which plans to conserve 30% of the Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030. The World Bank and Germany announced a new partnership called PROGREEN to stop deforestation and restore degraded lands

Nature-based solutions are ways to mitigate climate change by restoring and improve nature’s own abilities. An example might be planting trees, as trees are natural carbon sinks, but restoring wetlands and adding green space in urban areas may also help. Overall, the U.N. reports that changing how we use our land could account for 30% of the reductions we need to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.

“Nature is not only affected by climate change, but nature itself is a solution,” Scarlett said.

Recreationists may be especially well-equipped to notice the effects of climate change on the natural world, but they’re also well-equipped to notice or help implement these solutions being put into practice.

In the coming months and years, more discussions, demonstrations and summits are going to occur, such as December’s 25 Conference of Parties, also known as COP25, in Santiago, Chile. As those events grow closer, the world will be paying attention to how nations, states and people will rise to meet the crisis.


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