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unYesterday was the first-ever UN Climate Summit. The all-day event was by invitation of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and opened with statements given in the storied General Assembly Hall by Al Gore, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Oscar winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio. 

From murmurings in the hallways of the Secretariat building, it was evident that world leaders and CEOs had taken at least some note of the 400,000 people at Sunday’s march calling for action. Though there were some very positive announcements, with events at the UN, the devil is always in the details and some felt the people’s messages were not heard enough.

DiCaprio’s speech made a big splash with the usually staid cadre of diplomats. “I pretend for a living,” he noted, “you do not.” It was an unmistakeable commentary on climate deniers and diplomats’ lip service to the issue without real action. His speech was certainly directed at the American political audience when he stated “this is not a partisan debate, it is a human one.”

President Obama also made an appearance at the Summit as well. In the official UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, there is a provision for “loss and damages.”  Essentially, this mechanism compensates developing countries for climate change-related damages, but many developed countries like the U.S. and Australia have been unwilling to concede on certain issues and/or contribute funds to the effort. In fact, developing countries actually walked out of a meeting with developed countries at the UNFCCC meeting in Warsaw last year.

Given the social and political tension of “loss and damages,” and Congress’ unwillingness to take real steps on climate change action, “nations that contribute the least to climate change often stand to lose the most” was an important line of the President’s speech. But probably not a game changer.

hollandeFrench President Francois Hollande was also in attendance at the Summit. In a press conference, he stated that “we need to define a new economy in the world…you can’t fight climate change without development.” He announced that France would be contributing $1 billion over the next few years to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a trust set aside to help poor countries recover from deforestation and climate change devastation, as well as rebuild a climate-resilient environment and infrastructure. The fund was intended to raise an estimated $100 billion by 2020, but this is certainly a positive step.

It was interesting to note that the UN Global Compact’s Private Sector Forum took place concurrently at Headquarters as well. The UN has reached out to corporate executives from companies like Ikea, Nestle and Cargill because of the private sector’s continued destructive contribution to climate change.

However, Brandon Wu, senior analyst of ActionAid USA, worries about the private sector influence, specifically on country financial pledges. In a press release, he said that “pledges must be for grant-based public money, [that’s] the only way to reach the poorest and most vulnerable who need support most urgently.”

But the Summit did further countries’ efforts to lower carbon emissions substantially in the years ahead. Not only did Secretary General Ban announce that the UN system would be carbon neutral by 2020, but much of the day’s discussion at the Private Sector Forum focused on carbon pricing.

By setting a price on carbon, it is thought that private actors will have a concrete financial incentive to reduce carbon emissions. Whether all manufacturing companies will agree to a particular carbon price is what is up for debate. As Asad Rehman, Head of International Climate at Friends of the Earth EWNI cautioned the media: “Polluters have to pay, and the real cost of climate pollution needs to be levied – but carbon pricing in the form of failed trading and offset schemes is not the way forward.”

obamaSome other announcements of note:

Nicaragua pledged that 90 percent of their energy would come from renewable sources by the same year.

China contributed $6 million to the UN to promote south-south cooperation.

Bangladesh, Chile, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nepal, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Uruguay and Vietnam made more solid commitments regarding vehicle fuel efficiency. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 1 gigaton by 2025.

Much of the day was focused on cities. With urban areas being responsible for 70 percent of emissions, their “greening” is crucial to any climate change action discussion. New mechanisms were announced on financing climate-resilient and low carbon infrastructure projects, which are the key to making any urban area sustainable. The City Climate Finance Leardership Alliance and City Creditworthiness Partnership, led in part by Former New York City and UN Special Envoy on Cities and Climate Change Michael Bloomberg, seeks to make it easier for cities to get funding for critical landfill waste, sanitation, water, and energy projects. Bringing together the World Bank, UN Habitat, and the likes of Citibank and Bank of America Merril Lynch, the alliance is a mix of public and private entities that will need to keep shared priorities in mind to help cities.

So, was the Summit a success? Michael Mann, Professor and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, wonders if it will “provide just the momentum that is needed to reach…an agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris next year.”

This December’s UNFCCC negotiations in Lima will signal whether any of the pledges or announcements made during the Summit will translate into real action. But the real proof will come in Paris 2015 when the deadline for member nations’ Millenium Development Goals arrives.

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