World’s largest emitters stop short of sweeping climate commitments at U.N.

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, September 24, 2019


Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the Climate Summit in the United Nations General Assembly. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

All eyes were on activist Greta Thunberg when she bluntly told world leaders: “You are failing us.”

But what mattered most at Monday’s U.N. climate summit was what China, India and the U.S. actually said — and what the three biggest emitters of greenhouse gases did not say.

Countries “once again stopped short of committing to the sort of far-reaching new goals scientists say are needed to rein in emissions,” as The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report from the summit.

“Greta Thunberg laid down a clear line in the sand, separating those countries and leaders who are united behind the science from those who continue to place the profits of fossil fuel polluters above the safety of their citizens,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Sadly, most leaders from the world’s largest emitting countries failed this litmus test, dodging their responsibility to step up action as is essential to address the climate emergency we now face.”

Altogether, the top three emitters account for nearly half of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. Their national policies are what will have the biggest impact on whether the world can hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which is the goal of the 2015 Paris agreement.

The aim of the Paris accord was for nations to ratchet up their emissions cuts over time. But it relied on voluntary pledges. The Obama administration, which brokered the agreement in 2015, hoped that over time the United States could wield its soft power to press other nations to cut emissions.

President Trump’s election upended that plan. And this week’s climate summit brought into stark relief how countries are still grappling with the fallout of Trump’s promise to withdraw from the climate accord:

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

China: China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a veiled swing at Trump. He sought to reassure other countries that the promised U.S. withdrawal won’t affect China’s goals under the international accord.

  • What he said: “China will faithfully fulfill its obligations … The withdrawal of certain parties will not shake the international community,” per the New York Times.
  • What it means: The rub here is China, the world’s top emitter, made no new promises to further cut emissions as worries there grow about its slowing economy. And China’s original commitment for its emissions to peak no later than 2030 is not enough to begin with. Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of scientists that compares global climate pledges, has rated China’s goal as “highly insufficient” for keeping warming below 2 degrees.

India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed to more than doubling India’s renewable energy capacity by 2030.

  • What he said: “India today has come not just to talk about the seriousness of this issue, but to present a practical approach and a road map. We believe an ounce of practice is worth more than a tonne of preaching,” per the Indian newspaper the Hindu.
  • What it means: India’s original Paris goals are compatible with keeping warming under 2 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. Still, Modi made no promise to cut its use of coal-fired power generation as some hoped. India is looking to build out all the electricity generation it can as it tries to lift millions out of poverty.

United States: After initially deciding to forgo the climate summit, Trump made a surprise, 14-minute appearance, listening to Modi’s and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks, according to The Post’s Seung Min Kim and Anne Gearan.

  • What he said:  “I believe in clean air and clean water, very simple,” Trump said when asked why he decided to participate. “We have the cleanest air; we have the cleanest water.”
  • What it means: The Trump administration’s efforts to walk back regulations on coal plants and automobiles means the United States is set to fall far short of what it needs to do to meet the Paris temperature goal. Other than those off-the-cuff remarks, the United States was virtually invisible during the day.