UNITED NATIONS — Days after millions of young people took to the streets around the globe to protest for more aggressive action on climate change, dozens of world leaders arrived Monday at the United Nations facing a simple question: What’s your plan?
“You are failing us,” teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg told heads of state as she spoke onstage, her face flushed with anger. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you.”
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres had insisted that countries show up to the much-anticipated “climate action summit” not with lofty rhetoric but with concrete promises, such as vowing to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, cut fossil fuel subsidies and cease construction of coal-fired power plants.
“Dear friends, there is a cost to everything. But the biggest cost is doing nothing,” Guterres told the gathering Monday morning. “The biggest cost is subsidizing a dying fossil fuel industry, building more and more coal power plants, and denying what is plain as day: that we are in a deep climate hole, and to get out, we must first stop digging.”
Promises flowed one after another throughout the day, in three-minute speech after three-minute speech, as leaders from France, Germany, India and other countries detailed plans to increase their use of renewable energy and curb fossil fuel burning linked to climate change. Overall, at least 65 countries have indicated that they intend to strengthen the commitments they made under the 2015 Paris agreement by the end of next year.
“We cannot let our youth spend every Friday demonstrating for the climate and simply answer, ‘Everything is fine, we are doing everything right,’ ” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “We are still far from the account.”
As the day wore on, there was a growing sense that Monday’s summit would not by itself offer the jolt organizers had once hoped. Businesses and private investors announced ambitious climate plans; almost 300 multinational corporations with $5.5 trillion in revenue pledged to continue to expand renewable energy and electric transportation around the world. Numerous small nations already feeling the effects of climate change vowed their own aggressive targets. But the world’s largest emitters once again stopped short of committing to the sort of far-reaching new goals scientists say are needed to rein in emissions.
On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed his nation to more than doubling its renewable energy capacity by 2030, though the growing country still relies heavily on coal-fired power generation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel detailed a recently passed package of measures to invest billions in electric vehicles, ramp up renewable energy and phase out coal, though green groups have called the efforts too modest.
“Most of the major economies fell woefully short. Their lack of ambition stands in sharp contrast with the growing demand for action around the world,” Andrew Steer, head of the World Resources Institute, said in a statement. “We need far greater national leadership on climate action — and we need it now.”
It remains unclear whether the world can ultimately muster the collective political will to make the kind of shift away from fossil fuels in transportation, energy and agriculture that scientists say is necessary to limit global warming. The planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
In Paris in late 2015, leaders from 195 nations banded together in an unprecedented agreement to collectively cut carbon emissions and hold the world’s warming to “well below” 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). Four years later, the euphoria of that moment has faded into a sober realism about the scale of the challenge and the obstacles that exist.
Global carbon emissions hit a record in 2018. Many countries are failing to live up to the pledges they made in Paris — promises that leaders acknowledge were not ambitious enough to begin with — even as leaders have been asked to devise more ambitious plans by the end of 2020. Scientists have continued to issue ever more dire warnings about melting permafrost, retreating glaciers, rising seas, more extreme weather, and the impacts such changes are having on societies.
In addition, the United States under President Trump has retreated from its role as a global leader on climate action. On Monday, Trump swept through the halls of the United Nations on his way to a meeting, as Thunberg looked on sternly, but he played no role in the proceedings.
Asked later in the day why he swung by the climate summit, Trump replied, “Because I believe in clean air and clean water, very simple. We have the cleanest air, we have the cleanest water.”
The Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of scientists that compares global climate pledges and policies to future temperature projections, issued an analysis last week that found if current policies remain in place, the world will warm at least 1.5 degrees Celsius by around 2035, 2 degrees by around 2053, and 3.2 degrees by the end of the century. Even if national governments achieve the emissions cuts they have committed to, it noted, the average global temperature is likely to rise nearly 3 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Niklas Höhne, a German climatologist and founding partner of NewClimate Institute, which created the Climate Action Tracker, said in an interview that the announcements made Monday are unlikely to change the long-term projections for global temperature rise because many of those nations are not large carbon emitters.
“It has to be a large player, with a large amount of emissions, to change the temperature,” he said.
Höhne added that while the actions of many individual states and cities, as well as U.S. companies, have kept overall U.S. carbon emissions from changing course significantly under Trump, the administration’s promotion of natural gas exports to countries such as India could ultimately lead to higher emissions overseas. During Modi’s recent visit to Houston, India’s state-owned Petronet LNG announced that it would invest in Tellurian Inc.’s liquefied natural gas project on the Gulf Coast.
“We need less fossil fuel infrastructure, not more,” Höhne said.
Some smaller, low-lying countries that are already wrestling with the impacts of climate change took the opportunity Monday to chide the world’s largest economies for not doing more to address climate change.
“My appeal is that powerful countries must chip in and take this seriously,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as he said his nation would try to plant 10 billion trees over the next five years.
In the private sector and elsewhere, high-profile figures announced this week they were taking steps to mobilize steeper cuts in carbon emissions.
At a conference hosted by the Climate Group, an international organization that promotes climate action, former secretary of state John F. Kerry announced a new initiative called “World War Zero” aimed at holding carbon polluters accountable. Kerry is hoping to enlist the help of Trump’s former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who said in a phone interview, “I’m considering it. I’ve not made the decision.”
Monday’s much-anticipated summit comes amid growing pressure on world leaders to act more aggressively — and swiftly — to combat climate change.
On Friday, in one of the largest youth-led demonstrations ever, millions of people across more than 150 countries and every continent took to the streets to protests for climate action.
At the United Nations on Monday, Thunberg and 15 other young people filed a legal complaint with the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, arguing that major countries have known about the risks of climate change for decades but have failed to take sufficient action.
“Right here, right now, is where we draw the line,” Thunberg said. “The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.”
And in Washington, D.C., protesters blocked 15 intersections downtown during the morning commute to draw attention to their cause. Police made 32 arrests after some chained themselves to sailboats, while another blocked the road with an 80-foot-long inflatable pipeline.
Guterres reminded world leaders Monday that the world’s current trajectory is unsustainable, and he reminded them of the very human stakes of failing to craft a more sustainable future.
“I will not be there, but my granddaughters will. And your grandchildren, too,” he said. “I refuse to be an accomplice in the destruction of their one and only home.”
He added, “It is my obligation — our obligation — to do everything to stop the climate crisis before it stops us. Time is running out. But it is not too late.”
Steven Mufson, Trish Wilson and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.