Dozens of world leaders touted their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday, but they were largely upstaged by youth activists angry at officials for not doing enough to prevent a catastrophic heating of the planet.
The summit failed to produce new commitments from the world’s largest countries to cut carbon pollution. As it got underway, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg delivered a blunt and emotional speech excoriating leaders for their “empty words” and insufficient steps to drive down emissions while temperatures continue to rise.
“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you. If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”Thunberg added.
The gathering came at a critical time, as climate change accelerates and its impacts hit harder than expected with deadly heat waves, rising seas and more intense and destructive fires, ranging from the Amazon to California. At the same time, President Trump and other world leaders have backed away from climate action and also worked to encourage more oil and gas extraction, coal mining, clearing of tropical forests and looser pollution limits for automobiles.
Some 70 small and medium-sized countries, a minority of the nearly 200 that are part of the Paris agreement, pledged to boost their pollution reduction targets beyond what they agreed to under the landmark 2015 pact. Dozens more promised to slash emissions to carbon-neutral levels over the long term.
Other leaders pledged to set aside billions in climate funding for developing countries. There were commitments to shift away from coal and to get to net-zero emissions from shipping, cement production and other heavy industries.
But none of the major economies most responsible for global warming delivered new plans to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
India Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to ramp up his nation’s adoption of renewable energy, but did not mention any changes in India’s reliance on coal, the overwhelming contributor to its carbon emissions.
The country currently emitting the most greenhouse gases, China, also disappointed many at the summit by sending a representative who said the country would meet its Paris pledge but detailed no plans to update it with more ambitious targets next year.
“The withdrawal of certain parties will not shake the will of the international community,” said Wang Yi, state councilor and special representative of President Xi Jinping, alluding to Trump’s intention to pull out of the Paris agreement.
Guterres had asked leaders “not to come with fancy speeches, but with concrete commitments,” and had offered speaking time only to those countries taking the most ambitious actions in line with the science, which dictates a 45% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by midcentury to stave off catastrophe.
“It is my obligation, our obligation to do everything to stop the climate crisis before it stops us,”Guterres told world leaders at the opening of the summit.
By the end of the day, he had declared the summit a success, at least in showing signs of momentum.
Trump made a brief, unexpected appearance at the summit. He did not speak, but listened to remarks from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and and India’s Modi.
Former New York Mayor and U.N. special envoy for climate action Michael R. Bloomberg thanked Trump for his attendance.
“Hopefully, our discussions here will be useful for you when you formulate climate policy,” he said, prompting laughter and applause.
Trump quickly departed to host a smaller event focused on religious freedom. Asked during another meeting later in the day why he had stopped by the climate summit, he gave a puzzling explanation.
“I believe in clean air and clean water. Very simple,” he said. “We have the cleanest air, we have the cleanest water, cleaner than it’s ever been before in our country.”