UN Climate Summit: 5 Major Narratives to Know About

Here are five major stories heading into the UN's week-long climate summit.

A traffic jam, as seen from above, is used to illustrate the website for the weeklong UN Climate Change Summit, which begins on September 23, 2019.

The international climate strike last week achieved its goal renewing the activist streak that underpins the public’s passion for slowing climate change. On Monday in New York, the world’s leaders face the challenge putting that passion into action.

Representatives from around the world will gather this week for the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit 2019, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling the meeting to “raise the global level of ambition to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,” and those goals include keeping the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

people protest on the street in Westminster, England
Over the past year, Thunberg’s #FridaysforFuture protests have picked up international steam, as students demand more aggressive climate policies.

Here are five narratives we’ve seen emerging as focal points for the summit.

5. ‘Sling shot’ into action

Ahead of the summit, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed released this report intended to inspire international action.

“When I look back on this Climate Action Summit, I want us to see it as a sling shot that helped to change our common trajectory towards sustainability,” Mohammed said last week. “We have very little time to take the decisions needed to get there”.

Mohammed also called out the youth movement surrounding climate change, saying it’s important to build trust “between our children and ourselves that we are all working together to our fullest potential to tackle the climate emergency.”

4. Food and land use

Over the summer, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change addressed overhauling humans’ land use, including how we grow food, develop communities, and raise animals for food, in fighting climate change.

The group’s report on land use will come up during Monday’s summit, as the IPCC set out to provide specific information to inform policymakers, and making policy is what this meeting is all about.

Land that’s already in use could feed the world and provide biomass for renewable energy, said climatologist Panmao Zhai, Ph.D., who worked on the IPCC report. But policies outside land and energy — like transportation and the environment — need to be part of the solution.

“We are using technologies and good practices, but they do need to be scaled up and used in other suitable places that they are not being used in now,” Zhai says.

3. Greta Thunberg and the youth movement

The teenaged Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, will attend the summit.

The Global Climate Strike, held to raise awareness ahead of the UN summit, illustrates one effect Thunberg has had on the climate movement. Over the past year, Thunberg’s #FridaysforFuture climate protests have picked up international steam, inspiring students to demand more aggressive climate policies.

The 16-year-old made her way to the U.S. on a zero-emission yacht, sending a message about the climate impacts of air travel.

2. Who is conspicuously absent

On Friday, the same day the global climate strike began, President Donald Trump talked about “clean coal,” an umbrella term for a variety of in-development technologies and processes to reduce pollution from that comes from burning coal.

Trump brought up the idea during a press conference with the prime minister of Australia, a country that gets 80 percent of its power from burning coal. Neither leader is attending the climate summit.

About half of the one hundred-plus countries who applied to speak were granted permission. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are among those who made the cut.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro talks to two other men
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has come under fire internationally for dismantling conservation policies around deforestation and illegal logging. 

Leaders from coal-supporting nations like Australia, Japan, and South Africa won’t speak, the Financial Times observes. Neither will Paris agreement critics Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

The speaker list does include representatives from China and India, both of which are major coal plant builders, and among the world’s largest polluters. Both countries are outpacing the United States in scaling up renewable energy infrastructure.

1. Can they come up with a plan for zero emissions by 2050?

Back in July, UN Secretary-General António Guterres sent a mass letter asking all countries to come up with a plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The goal mirrors the IPCC report calling for the same outcome, with a benchmark goal of reducing global greenhouse gases by 45 percent by the year 2030.

Guterres says he wants to see more than “fancy speeches”, and as Public Radio International reports, the UN chief says he’s reserved the meeting’s main stage only for countries announcing ambitious plans to cut carbon or contributions to a fund that helps developing countries that are expected to be hit the hardest by climate change — to fight and adapt.

“We will see on Monday who is stepping up,” Deputy Secretary‑General Mohammed said. “We will see what climate leadership looks like.”