The UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit

Where does the Climate Change Summit sit in the context of a Post-2015 Climate Agreement?

When the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, took to the streets of New York with 300,000 climate change demonstrators – in parallel with one hundred protest actions around the world – he was signalling a decisive new phase in the world’s movement towards a post-2015 agreement. This analysis will show how the Secretary-General’s actions on the streets of a global city –  one that has set itself on the road to a low carbon future – help to situate the role of his Climate Summit in the context of the UNFCCC’s negotiating process for a post-2015 climate deal.

The Secretary-General’s Summit was much more than a gathering of the 120 world leaders. It was also a gathering of critical new conversations and participants – a gathering of a new and unique mix of partners at the UN Headquarters from government, business, finance and civil society. The Summit was convened at a critical moment on the road laid out under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action and subsequent decisions under the UNFCCC process that must lead to a new global agreement at COP 21 in 2015. Critically, the Summit was designed to get the measure of political ambition at the highest levels of government given the gap that currently exists between anticipated global emissions by 2020 – following country pledges and commitments – and those that would  ensure that the world remains within the safe operating space of a 1.5-2.0° C temperature rise by the end of the century.


Climate politics and comedy have a lot in common. One of the things they have in common is the importance of timing. The timing of the Climate Summit was significant at a number of levels. It focused the highest levels of political attention in the run-up to the penultimate COP in Lima, Peru, before the decisive COP 21 in Paris, when negotiations are expected to conclude on a new climate deal. As was reflected in a number of statements, including those of US President Obama, the Summit also came just ahead of the closure of a window created by the negotiating process in Warsaw (COP19). That window closes in March 2015 when country parties are expected to put some of their cards, AKA “intended nationally determined contributions” on the negotiating table. The window – an innovative ex ante approach to priming negotiating outcomes – was created to intensify preparations for Paris and, it is hoped, to avoid a re-run of COP 15 in Copenhagen – a fiasco from which the UNFCCC negotiating process has struggled to recover. The logic of the Climate Summit was also driven by a desire to draw a line under the Copenhagen experience and provide world leaders with a positive platform on which to re-engage and move on.

If Graça Machel, widow of the late Nelson Mandela, felt that she had to speak up in the closing minutes of the Climate Summit – like the little boy who saw that the King wasn’t wearing any clothes – and name the “mismatch” between the scale of the climate action challenge and the scale of the undertakings tabled at the Summit, it was perhaps not surprising. With few exceptions, the political leaders reserved their positions for the re-entry into the formal negotiating process. Indeed, observers pointed to a number of “notable absences” including the heads of state from China, India, Canada and Australia. One leader who also earned the right to tell it like it was, President Hollande of France, put it up to the two key players whose positions will be decisive in unlocking a “contributions” and commitments in the months ahead. It will be the Secretary-General and the UNFCCC’s hope that the mood music at the formal negotiations – when they recommence in Lima – has changed unalterably.

Occupy This, Decarbonize That!

The street demonstrations around the world and the Climate Summit itself suggest that the Secretary-General’s hope will no longer be entirely invested in the dynamics of the UNFCCC negotiating process. From the bottom-up, a new climate of public opinion has been observed  mobilizing in ways that echo all the great social movements (from civil rights to the anti-apartheid movement). The diversity of voices and perspectives converging on the call for ‘climate justice’ – suggest that a permissive environment for the political leaders may be emerging. As the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistȍ, commented (paraphrasing Jean-Claude Junker during the financial crisis), it is time to reverse the political truism that “we all know what should be done but if we do it…we don’t know if we’ll be re-elected” so that it reads, “we all know what should be done, and we know if we do it we will be re-elected”. During high-level thematic workshops it was striking that such a reversal is not out of the question – with hints that a groundswell of expert economic and financial opinion – together with a complex of other stakeholder interests – has begun to align with the challenge of long term climate action. There was evidence – for example – at an expert thematic workshop – on Felipe Calderón’s game changing report on ‘The New Climate Economy’ and Jeffrey Sachs’ team work on ‘Strategies for deep decarbonisation of the global energy system’ – that a shift in the background conversation on climate action is penetrating thought leaders in significant positions of influence, including at Angel Gurría’s Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Professor Jintao Xu of Peking University told a Summit session that Chinese society is moving quickly towards more climate awareness and a pro-active, aggressive climate strategy in the wake of huge problems with smog that has – at times – covered a fifth of the national territory. He noted a new ‘historical high’ in levels of environmental awareness in China.

Expert and high-level economic debates with business and industry at the Climate Summit, at fora such as the World Economic Forum and on the margins of the G-20, provide a significant and enabling decision-making environment. In isolation they will not be decisive. As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out, climate action decisions will not happen on their own and there is an emerging view that the decisions can no longer be left to markets. A back-handed tribute was paid to the faultless hydro-carbon industry and lobby, which has been the most successful in the history of the world. Participants heard that the lobby’s influence is such that ‘in Washington it is dangerous to think straight’. In China too, effective climate action was linked to the attempts to tackle entrenched interests and even local corruption.

What the Climate Summit illustrated was the way in which a series of potentially transformative constituencies – on the streets, in think tanks, in the elder circles of senior and former heads of government – are emerging. Each needs the other in order to realise their own pathway to a new climate economy and society – where the stated aspirations of government might once again reconnect around a realisation that future economic ‘growth’ does not have to copy the high-carbon, unevenly distributed model of the past; and that many low carbon policies deliver many of the benefits that populations expect from enlightened public policy in any case. What’s more, this shift – if intelligently pursued, signalled and innovated – can be aligned with deep structural changes that are already underway in the global economy.

This key message from the Commission on the Economy and Climate – amplified and in many ways embodied by the forms of participation and contributions convened at the Climate Summit – helps to re-situate the formal UNFCCC negotiating process in a wider set of conversations….conversations that just might help prepare a safer ‘landing strip’ for agreement in Paris than was possible in Copenhagen. As the work of UNEP’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) – with its far reaching partnerships and initiatives based on the compelling logic of pursuing the “co-benefits” of designing climate forcers out of the economy, the costs of a high carbon trajectory are becoming all too apparent. In the 15 countries with the highest GHG emissions, the damage to health from poor air quality, largely associated with the burning of fossil fuels, is valued at an average of  3-4 per cent of annual GDP, including China where the costs of pollution over the next four years are estimated at some $176 billion.  The Vice Premier of China told the US climate negotiator, Todd Stern, on the margins of the Summit that China’s aim is for a peak in GHG emissions after 2020.

The Greatest Show in Town

The Summit was promoted as a “bold, new course of action” for climate action. Leaders were asked to come armed with “bold announcements and actions that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015.”

The high-level statements certainly talked up the need for a new global agreement in Paris 2015. This would seem to indicate that there is political buy-in for an agreement of some sort at the highest level in many cases. But, these statements were made in a non-negotiation setting and it was never likely that the levels of ambition – and the prospects for closing the 2020 emissions gap – would emerge from the New York spectacle.

Framed by both the formal UNFCCC negotiating process and ongoing discussions on the post-2015 development agenda led by the UN, however, the Summit helped to cash in an important shift in the development conversation: embedding a defining limit of a 1.5-2.0°C temperature constraint by the end of the century in our very understanding of development. The liberating possibilities of limits have finally moved centre stage at the dawn of the Age of the Anthropocene. The expert opinion is coming slowly but surely down on the side of ‘green growth’ and a recognition that the safe operating space of the climate is not – in the long term – an absolute limit on wellbeing if we understand human and planetary wellbeing as a continuum. This point was well made during discussions on health co-benefits and climate action.

History Makers In Chief

So did the meeting change the playing field? Did the major announcements signal any shifts in country or group positions and was that the point?

With 126 world leaders in attendance the Summit can claim its place in the annals of global environmental politics. Significant too was the high-level representation from the private sector and other thought leaders from civil society.

One view is that the Summit was designed to engineer the beginnings of a high-level political mandate for negotiators in the formal process that re-commences at COP 20 in Lima later this year, when greater clarity will be required of the political mandate and subsequent direction of travel up to COP 21. A more sceptical view, based on the frustrations and experience of the history of recent negotiations, is dismissive of the spectacle. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines suggested that: “The fact that such a summit is needed or that many people had to take to the streets on Sunday is testament to the political inefficacy thus far. This summit could be just another stage for politicians to play to the gallery.”

Commitments were made to the Global Climate Fund, but there is still an extremely large deficit between what has been pledged and the target of $100 billion per annum by 2020. So yes, France’s commitment of US$ 1 billion, South Korea and Switzerland’s US$ 100 million and others does make a contribution, but it is still insufficient. Additionally, the UK, the US, Japan, Australia, Netherlands and others have not articulated what their contributions will be, if any. So the status of the GCF still remains very unclear at this point. There was a significant emphasis on prospects for more efficient mobilisation of private sector investment, with the prospects for a dramatic expansion of green bonds projected.

The innovation primarily came from sectors and actors outside of the traditional context of the multilateral framework on climate change with the private sector and partnerships moving from the periphery. Many within the international climate change process have looked to civil society, the private sector and smaller more nimble arrangements, such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), to pioneer early change and scale up the transition.  Part of the logic here is that pioneering efforts that can capture and demonstrate the economic, social, and health co-benefits will help to create more “pull” on the formal negotiating process, as the private sector, in particular, begins to seek out investment opportunities and presses for clear policy signals.

These diverse actors came into their own as full fledged players in their own right at this meeting. While civil society has maintained a strong involvement in the UNFCCC, it was the Climate Summit and the presence of more than 100 world leaders, that galvinized the 400,000 strong march in New York, as well as countless others around the globe.

The private sector including insurance and investment sectors, oil and gas industry, large agriculture and others issued a number of announcements:

  • Coalition of governments, business, finance, multilateral development banks and civil society will mobilize $200 billion for low-carbon and climate-resilient developemtn.
  • Commercial banks announced plan to issue $30 billion in Green Bonds by 2015, and increase climate-smart development allocations 10 times the current amount by 2020.
  • Coalition of institutional investors will decarbonize $100 billion by 2015 and measure and disclose carbon footprint of at least $500 billion in investments
  • Insurance industry will double green investments to $84 billion by end of 2015;
  • Three North American and European pension funds will accelerate investment into low-carbon investments up to $31 billion by 2020.
  • More than 30 major companies aligned with Caring for Climate Business Leadership Criteria on Carbon Pricing.
  • Insurance industry, representing $30 trillion in assets and investments will create Climate Risk Investment Framework by Paris in 2015
  • Coalition of 160 institutions and local governments, and more than 500 individuals will divest $50 billion form fossil fuels in next three to five years and reinvest in new energy sources.


It is far from clear how some of the divisions built into the DNA of the UN negotiating process – notably the positions frozen within the coded language of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ – will work out in the course of the mandate. China will be as significant for its role in the new multilateral banking architecture and support for developing country capacity as for its own upfront commitment.

The Climate Summit has picked up on a shift in the nature of leadership. Leadership in the contemporary negotiating environment often comes down to personal chemistry in the corridors of UN chambers, but ultimately, leadership is no longer about individuals per se. Leadership is increasingly a distributed or collective capacity in a system and is not just something that individuals do. In the words of one veteran environmental activist and thought leader, contemporary leadership is about the capacity of the whole system to sense and actualize the future that wants to emerge. The Secretary-General took to the streets of New York….he mobilized elders who have been liberated from the policy silos and disciplines of a passing economic paradigm….and he created a global stage for new conversations that include but go well beyond the immediate concerns of climate change negotiators.

The Secretary-General has demonstrated that he might yet go down in history as a pioneer of the deep future of a decarbonized global economy.

At the frontline during the UN Climate Summit
At the frontline during the UN Climate Summit

I am a lecturer in sustainable development and governance at the School of Law, Queens University Belfast. I also conduct work at United Nations negotiations on the environment for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

My book on the attention economy and mindfulness as commons was published by Routlege in June 2017. See A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge Studies in Sustainability)

My research interests include consumerism, green politics and the economy. I locate myself firmly to the left of the political spectrum. I write in a personal capacity.

Born in Donegal, I was raised in Derry and now reside in Belfast with my family.