Why the UN Climate Summit will have a hard time doing anything

President Obama will address the UN Climate Summit, and more than 120 world leaders are expected to attend. But big emitters China and India will not be represented by their top leaders.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
People march during a rally against climate change in New York, September 21, 2014. An international day of action on climate change brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of New York City on Sunday, easily exceeding organizers' hopes for the largest protest on the issue in history.

In New York on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanded global action on climate change.

And on Monday, a new report found that global emissions of greenhouse gases jumped to new heights in 2013, with India alone increasing greenhouse emissions by 5 percent. Even the United States, which like many developed countries had seen its emissions fall in recent years, recorded an increase last year, according to the report from the Global Carbon Project.

Yet despite the mounting public pressure for action and new evidence of a continuing rise in heat-trapping gases, a United Nations summit Tuesday on climate change is given little chance of delivering much beyond dire rhetoric on the consequences of inaction.

The main culprit is an old one: a rift between developed and developing countries over whose prosperity should take a hit for the planet. Who should pay for climate measures has also divided rich and poor (or increasingly middle-income) countries.

President Obama will address the summit, underscoring the importance his administration puts on the climate change issue. Although more than 120 world leaders are expected to attend, neither China nor India – the world’s first and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases, respectively – will be represented by their top leaders.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, will be in New York Wednesday to address the UN General Assembly, and a few days later he will dine with Mr. Obama at the White House.

But Mr. Modi will avoid the Climate Summit, reflecting India’s view that the world doesn’t need new initiatives like the summit called by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but rather more action following the principle of the Kyoto Protocol. That agreement called for action by wealthy nations but exempted developing countries from mandates that would dent their efforts to lift their populations out of poverty.

India wants developed countries to make good on past commitments, including funding a $100 billion Green Climate Fund to help less-developed countries address the impact of climate change.

At a pre-summit climate event in New York Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed a sense of urgency about the situation.

"The worst impacts can be prevented still – there is still time – if we make the right set of choices," Secretary Kerry said. "But it is absolutely imperative that we decide to move and to act now," he said

The evidence that global warming is happening now is available "for all to see," he noted. “You don’t have to take my word for it," he said. "You can just wake up pretty much any day and listen to Mother Nature, who is screaming at us about it."

At a briefing last week, White House officials said Obama would announce new initiatives for assisting the world’s poorest countries, including some island nations that are already experiencing devastating sea-level rises attributed to warming temperatures.

Despite the continuing face-off between the world’s developed and developing countries, a highlight of the summit could actually be mounting evidence that some high-emissions countries are acting in their own self-interest to cut carbon production, some climate experts say.

Indian officials made time in their generally critical pre-summit comments to list the steps India is taking on its own to address climate change, including promoting cleaner technologies and a “renewable energy revolution” in their country.

China, by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (although it likes to point out that on a per capita basis, the US remains the world’s carbon king), is expected to elaborate on a plan it is developing to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2020.

With China paying more attention to evidence that carbon dioxide production is affecting its economic growth – not to mention public health – the country is seen to be increasingly willing to move toward significant commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN summit is also expected to endorse a new international plan to cut deforestation in the world’s tropical forests – with conservation plans to be paid for by developed counties – and to underscore global efforts to share green technologies with the world’s poorer countries. Ideas for “pricing carbon” and financing efforts to reduce emissions – for example, by taxing internationally traded goods based on the carbon emissions those goods produce – will also be aired.

But Sunday’s legions of demonstrators are likely to be disappointed if they are expecting the UN summit to bring about actions with big global impact. The next opportunity for something close to that may be a spring climate meeting in Lima, Peru, and then another summit at the end of 2015 in Paris. At that one, a new international climate agreement – one with hope of stemming the rise in global temperatures – is supposed to be ratified.

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