The verdict of United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the Climate Action Summit, which convened Monday in New York, was that “time is running out.” The emphasis of that meeting was “action.” Guterres said only governments that made commitments to control climate change that went beyond previous pledges would be allowed to speak at the gathering. Scientists are increasingly concerned that it is too late for even bold steps; the climate is already changing and only radical programs can hope to work.
It has been a busy week for climate activism. Last Friday, young people across the planet went on strike, taking to the streets to demand radical action to address climate change. It is estimated that students from 156 countries joined the Global Climate Strike, with total crowd size reckoned to have reached 4 million people. That is a substantial jump from the 1.4 million who marched during the first strike in March.
An estimated 270,000 people protested in Berlin, as many as 250,000 demonstrated in New York, 100,000 in London and a similar number demanded action in Australia. In Japan, the numbers were much smaller. Less than 3,000 gathered in front of the U.N. University building in Shibuya, and groups demanded change in other major cities. Organizers in Japan bemoaned a lack of interest and a low turnout among this country’s youth. That is at odds with government polls that consistently show strong majority support for Japanese contributions to help solve problems such as global warming.
The strike was a prelude to the Youth Climate Summit, a special conference whose 700 activists generated enthusiasm and expectations for the Climate Action Summit, held just before the U.N. General Assembly. Their message was simple: Elected officials must take real action to address climate change or they will be voted out of office. “You are failing us,” thundered Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish activist who launched the climate strike with a solitary protest in front of her country’s parliament over a year ago. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and yet all you can talk about is money.”
Those fiery denunciations set the stage for the more traditional event Monday at the U.N. That meeting brought together governments, activists and, significantly, businesses to focus on and mobilize to address climate change. At the summit’s end, 77 countries had committed to carbon neutrality — not adding more carbon to the atmosphere than is being removed by plants and technology — by 2050 and 70 had promised to do more to fight warming. Guterres is pressing governments not to build new coal power plants after 2020, and Germany and Finland promised to ban coal within a decade.
As, if not more, important were commitments by businesses to do more. One hundred major businesses pledged to join the green economy and one-third of the global banking sector signed up to green goals. Governments must do more to encourage that behavior, for example, by ending subsidies for fossil fuels, which could cut global carbon emissions by up to 10 percent by 2030. Nonprofit organizations also have a crucial role to play. The Gates Foundation, in cooperation with the World Bank and some European governments, announced a nearly $800 million aid package to help 300 million small farmers adapt to climate change.
There is no time to lose. A new U.N. report warns climate change is accelerating and old goals no longer suffice. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, reaching “historic levels” of 53.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and there is no indication that they are peaking. Global sea levels will rise as Arctic sea ice continues to melt, this year tying for the second-lowest mark in 40 years of monitoring. U.N. experts are increasingly pessimistic, and have concluded that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 25 percent by 2030 to keep warming to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and must be halved to keep temperatures from rising just 1.5 degrees. The signs are not promising.
Japan should play a leading role in this effort. It has spearheaded environmental action in the past, helping produce the Kyoto Protocol, the Nagoya Protocol and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. That activism has waned, however, as Japan struggles with its own energy plans in the wake of the shutdowns of most nuclear power plants following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.
Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, promised that Japan is “committed to realizing a decarbonized society, and we are ready to contribute as a more powerful country in the fight against climate change.” He walks a fine line: His determination to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power would seem to support the Japanese government’s plans to add coal-fired power generation capacity, which in turn increases greenhouse gas emissions. He must do more or he too will risk becoming a target of the ire of Thunberg and her fellow activists.