The UN Climate Summit: Best wishes, but no checks

The UN Climate Summit on September 23rd will once again fail in delivering concrete finance commitments. Social Movements called for a week of protests.

American President Barack Obama will make the short city hop from Washington, DC – as will the actor Leonardo di Capri in his new role as a prominent UN Special Envoy of Peace for Climate Issues (the association with the Titanic is actually quite suitable). However, the heads of state from China, Russia, India, Australia, Canada and regrettably also from Germany will not follow the call of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to attend an extraordinary global climate summit on September 23rd in the UN headquarters. Too much work at home, some of them murmured more or less sheepishly. Too little to offer in terms of political will and leadership to advance international climate talks with ambitious actions at home and globally, probably rings closer to the truth.

True, the Ban Ki-moon Climate Summit with the expected participation of more than 120 heads of states and high-ranking government officials from over 160 countries is not part of the official UN climate negotiations process. Nevertheless, when the UN Secretary General announced the special summit more than a year ago, he did so certainly in hopes that government heads – in a sort of competitive world exhibition of national strengths and leadership – would strive to proclaim decisive actions and announce ambitious emissions reduction goals to grease the path to a new global climate deal post-2020. Such a new agreement will have to be negotiated in detail by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, France, next year, although its broad outlines will already have to be set in COP 20 in Lima, Peru in just 10 short weeks by mid-December.

Not surprisingly, the program of the one-day summit in New York is centered around almost four hours of announcements of national actions and ambitions on climate protection in three parallel plenary rooms in the morning. The ambition of this litany – and its aggregate impact in addressing the existing gigaton gap in emissions reductions commitments to limit global warming to less than 2 degree centigrade – will most certainly miss the mark and underwhelm, especially since the heads of states of some of the biggest polluter nations (numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 13 in a country ranking of CO2 emitters) will not grace the summit with their appearance.


Likewise, the urgently needed significant new pledges for international climate finance will likely not materialize in the context of the summit – at least not in the hoped-for scale. Climate finance justifiably takes up a good chunk of time in the New York summit with a 90 minute plenary session devoted to multilateral and multi-stakeholder commitments in the afternoon – as much time as is scheduled for dealing with forests and agriculture together.

Generous finance commitments before and at the COP in Lima are considered by many observers of the negotiations as the key to solve the seemingly impenetrable Gordian knot of how to structure a new global climate treaty that would take effect in 2020. Concrete climate finance commitments by UNFCCC parties were made already 2009 in Copenhagen and confirmed in Cancun in 2010 - and are still largely unfulfilled, even though they never even came close to real financial needs but constituted only the lowest common politically feasible climate finance denominator at the time.

Even after the Fast Start Finance efforts succeeded in mobilizing a bit more than the promised US$ 30 billion in public finance from developed countries over three years until the end of 2012 (with a lot of huffing and puffing and the help of some creative re-labeling of traditional development assistance), five years after the Copenhagen pledge it is still unclear if and how the committed US$ 100 billion per year by 2020 in „new and additional“ climate finance will be reached. Parties currently don’t even share a common definition of what constitutes climate finance, nor do they agree on how much of the US$ 100 billion has to come from public coffers or how much should be contributed by private finance or alternative financing instruments such as levies on financial transactions or international air traffic and shipping. A plan on how to scale up long-term climate finance from current levels (hovering ever so slightly above Fast Start Finance levels) in the only six years remaining until 2020 with is likewise missing.

Gender-sensitive funding

And then there is also the new Green Climate Fund (GCF): when the New York Summit was planned more than a year ago, it was expected that some significant finance pledges by governments for the new Fund could be the highlight and the most tangible outcome of the day. The GCF, which is part of the financial mechanism of the UNFCCC and moved closer toward full operationalization, is considered the most important channel for the global community’s long-term climate finance pledges, especially for adaptation finance, traditionally the step child of international climate financing efforts. The GCF is also the first multilateral climate fund with a mandate for a gender-sensitive approach to its funding in developing countries.

Eyeing the Ban Ki-moon Summit, since last October, the GCF Board worked frantically over three meetings to push through some of the most important operational policies and guidelines for the Fund to receive, manage, approve and disburse funding. All this, so that the GCF Trust Fund can finally receive more than the financial crumbs primarily for the Fund’s administrative budget it has collected so far. At its last Board meeting in May in Songdo, South Korea, the GCF Board certified that the Fund fulfilled all essential requirements for its initial resource mobilization efforts which began in early July and are to end in late November, expecting the GCF to fund its first projects and programs in developing countries in the second half of 2015.

At least US$10 billion, and ideally up to US$15 billion in concrete pledges was the initial fundraising goal that the GCF’s Executive Director Hela Cheikhrouhou set publicly in June. However, after two meetings of potential GCF contributors in early July and September, only Germany has come forward with a significant commitment, pledging „up to“ € 750 million over four years – but hinting that payment of the full amount would depend on burden-sharing efforts of other industrialized countries. While some of these nations, such as for example Norway, might pledge in New York, other countries like the United States or Japan will likely only bring their nation’s greetings to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (as well as reports about the efforts by the American President to push US-domestic climate policies via executive orders), but no money for the GCF.

The biggest climate rally in the US

An American check might be written at the earliest in late November, just before the GCF initial resource mobilization period ends with a formal pledging conference, and thus after the mid-term elections, if at all this year. It is therefore increasingly uncertain if the GCF can raise even US$ 10 billion for its first years of operation before Lima and still even unlikelier that a good chunk of this money will be pledged already in New York. This could spell big trouble for the climate negotiations in Peru in a few weeks, as developing countries see significant public climate finance pledges and their quick fulfillment as a litmus test for the seriousness of efforts of developed countries in the climate talks and as an insurance that a global agreement in Paris next year will be a fair and equitable one.

The unwillingness of developed country governments to provide adequate and sustainable public finance in fulfillment of their financing obligations as historic pollutes under the UN climate framework is one of the main points of criticism that representatives from international civil society, social movements and grassroots groups will channel to a global public audience around the summit. Ten thousands stream to New York for a climate week full of activities demanding climate justice and challenging the powerful from politics and business to exhibit international solidarity with those populations groups and poorest countries already acutely and severely affected by climate change. More than 500 environment and social civil society groups and networks have cooperated in staging the People’s Climate March on Sunday, September 21st, which is supported by more than 1,500 partner organizations and the biggest climate rally that at least the United States has ever seen.

A "corporate takeover"?

They denounce what they see as false solutions to the climate crisis, including in climate change financing, such as the self-serving hope of developed countries that carbon markets, new derivative financial products (including unregulated and often green-washed so-called climate bonds) as well as the financialization and commodification of life and nature in a green economy approach will salvage them from having to actually fulfill their climate finance obligations. In this context, it is more than fitting that carbon market proponents regard the UN Climate Summit as the prime pulpit to announce new concerted efforts by industry, international organizations and politics to push for a global carbon price. Publicly financed multilateral development banks, first among them the World Bank, are „cheerleaders-in-chief“ of the development of new carbon markets globally, targeting scarce development finance to support developing countries’ carbon market readiness programs and market pilots.

Access to the UN Climate Summit – and an active role in adding their voices to the official gathering – was only granted to a few select civil society representatives from around the world. However, only in the case of a group of 76 CSO colleagues (which include one Heinrich Böll Foundation partner as well as one Böll staff member), who were nominated by peers and were self-selected by a CSO committee, was there transparency in who got picked and why. Unfortunately, the Summit itself does not have an official CSO segment – in marked contrast to efforts to highlight the involvement of businesses and investors. The UN Global Compact anchored its annual private sector forum centrally in the Summit program with an almost two hour long exclusive luncheon that brings together the captains of international corporations and banking with heads of states and high-ranking UN officials as well as the CEOs of large non-governmental organizations – a gathering closed to the wider Summit audience.

Without doubt, the business opportunities represented by climate-focused public private partnerships (PPPs) will be heavily promoted, which see scarce public money used to leverage and crowd in private sector engagement primarily of large corporations and big banks – often with a lack of transparency and accountability in the name of business proprietary information – and not the local small and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries, which should be on the receiving end of public climate finance support. It is therefore not surprising that many of the climate justice oriented groups, who will push for climate protection and commitments during the monumental and momentous People’s Climate March complain in their public messaging in advance of September 23rd bitterly about what they perceive as a „corporate takeover“ of the UN Climate Summit.