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Urgent climate action called for at UN summits ahead of COP28

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By Kevin Li

· 9 min read

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement adopted by the UN in 2015 set 2030 as the deadline for commitments. As 2023 marks the halfway point, it is time to take stock of progress. Hence, the UN convened the SDG and Climate Ambition Summits during the 78th UN General Assembly this September, gathering world leaders to assess advances on the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement. What revelations do the two summits hold for global and Hong Kong climate action? This article will conduct an in-depth analysis.

In fact, ahead of COP27 in Egypt last year, the UNFCCC estimated based on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted by governments that if countries only fulfil existing NDC pledges, global temperatures would still rise 2.4-2.6°C above pre-industrial levels by end-century, far exceeding the Paris Agreement's 1.5°C limit. In other words, current climate action remains insufficient to control global warming.

Ahead of the two summits, the G20 also held a leaders' summit in India. The leaders' declaration notably pledged to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency improvements across sectors by 2030, kick-starting new round of global climate action commitments. 

However, while world leaders reaffirmed accelerating climate action at the two UN summits, few new concrete pledges emerged. UN leaders warned progress on the SDGs was already off track, derailed by the pandemic, conflicts and climate change. If targets are missed, hard-won gains could easily unravel. The summits exposed substantial gaps between ambitions and reality on emission cuts, climate finance, fossil fuel phase-down and resilience that must be confronted at COP28 to restore faith in climate action.

Climate change is the biggest threat to advancing the SDGs

At the SDG Summit, leaders from vulnerable developing countries gave impassioned speeches on the severe damage already caused by global warming, criticizing wealthy countries for saddling victims with costs and implications for the SDGs.

Fiji's Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka noted rising frustration over delayed approvals for climate projects amid worsening cyclones, sea level rise and coral bleaching that threaten island communities' sustainable development. Barbados' Prime Minister Mia Mottley asserted that persistent hunger amid global food abundance shows current development models have clearly failed to provide dignity and decent lives for all. Other small island developing state leaders emphasized entire countries now face existential threats to their survival. Meanwhile across Africa and Asia, progress reducing poverty, hunger and biodiversity loss is being undermined by worsening climate disasters.

These leaders pointed out the hypocrisy of poor countries bearing climate impact costs and funding global mitigation and adaptation, while wealthy countries serially fail to deliver on $100 billion annually in finance support as promised. Such duplicity is intolerable. So far, rich countries have also not made further concrete commitments to increase climate finance for poor countries. The SDG Summit sent an important message that climate change poses an existential threat worldwide, threatening global sustainable development.  

Major emitters in the spotlight for condemnation at Climate Ambition Summit

While major emitters have made emission cut pledges, lack of progress on some key issues remains, notably only agreeing to phase down rather than phase out fossil fuels at COP26 in Glasgow two years ago, to great civil society disappointment. During the one-day Climate Ambition Summit, leaders of climate vulnerable countries gave further powerful testimonies on the escalating climate disasters their communities face, while condemning major emitters for shirking responsibility.

Saint Lucia's Prime Minister Philip Pierre condemned major emitters for disregarding the consequences of their actions. Marshall Islands' President David Kabua announced joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, pushing for shipping decarbonisation, proposing a greenhouse gas levy, and inviting countries to join the High Ambition Coalition for 1.5°C. Their voices conveyed the crisis confronting islands and coastal regions worldwide. Barbados' Prime Minister Mia Mottley accused fossil fuel corporations of deliberately accelerating the climate crisis through deception while reaping massive profits. Colombia's President Gustavo Petro urged leaving oil and gas unexploited, compensating affected countries, eliminating emissions and protecting carbon sinks.

Civil society groups and some world leaders continue calling for countries to rapidly phase out rather than just phase down fossil fuel production in line with 1.5°C pathways. Strong condemnation of the fossil fuel industry also resonated, accusing them of deliberately delaying climate action for decades through public deception and lobbying to continue reaping huge profits.  

Currently, most countries' Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) remain insufficient for Paris Agreement goals. Credibility of net zero targets in many countries remains low, leaving ample room for greenwashing. Moreover, major emitters have yet to agree on timelines for reducing fossil fuel production and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. And developed countries have not proposed concrete commitments on significantly increasing overseas development assistance, expanding concessional finance access, providing major debt relief and delivering technology and capacity building transfer.

Although the summits did not achieve breakthroughs on these key demands gaining traction in developing countries, such as continuing to invite developing countries to join the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiated by Pacific island countries and advocating fossil fuel phase-out timelines consistent with the Paris Agreement, the voices on these issues are only growing louder. 

Climate action momentum building but no breakthroughs on key issues 

Furthermore, expanding climate finance for developing countries will be a focus for COP28. Leaders at the Climate Ambition Summit stressed commitments from major economies remain far short of emission cuts by 2030 consistent with 1.5°C pathways, which require 45-50% reductions from 2010 levels. Meanwhile, climate finance pledges approach $100 billion annually but only 80% has been delivered, mostly as loans, with less than 10% for adaptation. Financing remains far from sufficient for vulnerable countries to address climate change impacts.

The funding mechanism for loss and damage passed at COP27 last year will also be in the spotlight. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed stressed wealthy countries must bring bold new climate finance plans to COP28, especially on adaptation and operationalizing loss and damage funding, which is crucial for restoring global confidence and trust in the multilateral process. However, up to the June Bonn intersessional climate talks, these summits, and the latest round of transitional committee meetings on the funding mechanism, there are still no signs of bridging developed and developing country differences on financing modalities, nor any indication of progress on sources of funding. This suggests substantial challenges remain for COP28 to deliver concrete assistance to climate-impacted vulnerable countries incurring loss and damage. 

Moreover, while proposals gained support on carbon pricing, debt-for-climate swaps, reforming multilateral development banks, setting adaptation goals and other innovative financing solutions, the summits did not translate these vital issues into tangible outcomes. COP28 must embed these widely backed recommendations into its action plan.

Growing roles for subnational governments and youth in climate action

The Climate Ambition Summit also started acknowledging the role of subnational governments in climate action, with the prominent example of California Governor Gavin Newsom participating, noting the climate crisis was created by the fossil fuel industry and demanding oil companies be held accountable for decades of corruption and deceit. This shows local authorities, despite not being UN members, are increasingly gaining recognition in UN processes.

In fact, local governments constitute one of nine observer constituencies under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and can participate in technical meetings and some negotiating sessions to implement the Paris Agreement. Moreover, the COP28 Presidency recently announced a Local Climate Action Summit during COP28, branding it the Cities COP, aiming to actively engage cities and local authorities and strengthen their capabilities to address climate change. 

As a city, Hong Kong SAR, though not a UN member, has an obligation to implement the Paris Agreement since the central government announced its applicability to Hong Kong in 2016. Hong Kong enjoys greater capabilities to fulfil relevant agreements than many other Asian cities, including in finance, technology and talent. For instance, many Asian cities require central government or even foreign assistance to fund climate action, which Hong Kong does not. Hence, Hong Kong still has much untapped potential to enhance and accelerate climate action beyond existing goals in the Climate Action Plan 2050. As of today, I still have not received news of Hong Kong SAR officials attending COP28. We hope they will participate and demonstrate Hong Kong's climate ambitions to cities worldwide.

Meanwhile, besides local governments, youth is also one of the observer constituencies under the UNFCCC. Fijian youth representative Vishal Prasad urged countries to consider climate justice and youth rights when presenting views before the International Court of Justice. Costa Rican youth representative Genaro Matías Godoy González proposed levies on aviation, shipping and pollution to fund climate action while insisting developed countries uphold finance commitments. Their voices expressed anger at ongoing climate inaction and amplified demands for global climate justice and just transition. COP28 must respond to these swelling calls, especially from youths facing the climate emergency.  

The road to a climate-just future starts from COP28

In conclusion, the two summits underscored the urgency of climate action and unity against converging crises, as well as the imperative to accelerate collective efforts to close 1.5°C gaps through necessary systemic reforms that ensure climate actions consistent with 1.5°C pathways adhere to climate justice. However, leaders also cautioned progress could still be undermined by delays, while current climate action remains far from meeting vulnerable regions’ needs for economic transformation, resilience building and addressing loss and damage finance.

COP28 presents the opportunity to convert ambitious visions into implemented solutions through courageous leadership and cooperation. The world is beset by multiple crises. Guided by the SDGs and Paris Agreement, COP28 must build bridges between developed and emerging economies to:

  • Complete the first Global Stocktake, evaluating and ratcheting up countries' climate action pace;
  • Countries submit updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and long-term emission reduction strategies, enhancing commitments and targets towards 1.5°C goals;
  • Comprehensively phase out rather than just phase down fossil fuel production and consumption, enabling rapid renewable energy transitions;  
  • Deliver and expand climate finance commitments supporting mitigation and adaptation work, addressing loss and damage financing needs;
  • Operationalize funding arrangements for loss and damage in regions already facing climate impacts;
  • Through capacity building and just transition programmes, enable workers and communities to transition from carbon-intensive sectors into new livelihoods;
  • Reform financial systems to unlock public and private capital flows into projects aligned with 1.5°C objectives; 
  • Initiate discussions on ramping up developed countries' climate finance commitments to developing countries post-2025;
  • Strengthen developing country leadership in shaping solutions that uphold climate justice and human rights.

Hong Kong, as an international city, has an obligation and responsibility to implement the Paris Agreement and scale up climate action in line with the latest science. There are opportunities for Hong Kong to further enhance its ambitions and leadership in response to swelling international calls for bolder climate action. This includes showcasing locally-appropriate solutions at COP28 and beyond that accelerate decarbonisation while upholding social equity and justice. Fulfilling Hong Kong's climate responsibilities as part of the global community requires urgent, cooperative efforts across society and courageous leadership. Through concerted local and global climate action, we can secure dignified, prosperous lives for all and build a just, equitable and sustainable future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.



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