On September 21st, what is being promoted as the “largest climate march in history” will take place on the streets of New York City. But no matter how many concerned citizens show up to express their support for climate action, the absence of two world leaders at the daylong U.N. Climate Summit two days later will be felt throughout the week of climate-related activities.
The leaders of China and India are not planning to attend this month’s summit, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. President Xi Jinping of China and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi oversee the first and third-leading greenhouse gas emitting countries on the planet and their decision to refrain from attending the high-profile meeting is troubling for the prospects of a new climate agreement coming together by the end of 2015.
In late July, the White House confirmed that President Obama, leader of the second largest GHG emitter, will attend the summit. While the U.S.’s carbon footprint has leveled off, China and India’s continue to increase as the demand for power in those countries increases along with economic growth.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is hoping to use the summit to galvanize the ongoing effort for a global climate deal to follow the Kyoto Protocol. While the Sept. 23 summit is not an official negotiating session it will bring together world leaders, business executives, and activist groups to push the discussion forward and generate stated commitments and “ambition announcements.”
The next official negotiating session will be at the U.N. climate conference in Lima, Peru in December. Leaders hope to reach a global agreement a year later, at the session in Paris.
Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told Bloomberg Businessweek that the country wasn’t ready to confirm who would attend the summit and said it’s “biased” to suggest that who attends the meeting sends any signal about China’s commitment to protecting the climate.
In a joint op-ed in the Guardian on Thursday, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Mario Molina, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, write that the summit offers “a moment in time for heads of state, cities, organizations, and companies to announce bold new initiatives to address climate change in the short to medium term.”
They also write that this needs to coincide with a long-term view that extends 50 years or so. They call that view one of ‘climate neutrality’ — “i.e. not putting in more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than natural processes take out:”
Let us be clear. Climate neutrality is not nirvana or an alternative universe — it is about dramatically reducing current emissions to the point where we reach a balance between those emissions entering the atmosphere and the capacity of the Earth to absorb them.
This will require charting the path from the high emission society we have today — including initially through some level of certified carbon offsets — to a deep, decarbonization of the global economy before arriving finally at a climate neutral family of nations.
China and India together represent a significant chunk of the makeup of that family of nations. They are both struggling to provide more energy to demanding citizens while also fighting to reduce hazardous levels of air pollution found in many of their urban centers. While coal use continues to grow, both countries have made headway recently in a push for renewable energy sources. India’s newly elected PM, Modi, has focused on solar power as a clean, cheap, and distributed way to bring power to the hundreds of millions who lack it in the subcontinent while China is experimenting with pilot carbon markets in an effort to curtail pollution.
Population growth in China and India also means food and water will be in higher demand than ever in the coming decades. With climate models predicting changing rainfall patterns and melting freshwater glaciers, the less proactive these countries are in mitigating their emissions the more domestic security issues they stand to face.
However, even if the top Chinese and Indian leaders are absent at the summit they are still engaged at a high level on climate negotiations. There is no doubt they will be paying close attention to the commitments and cooperation put forth by major developed countries. If the summit yields some tangible and promising results it could still lead to meaningful action from all nations at next year’s conference in Paris.
“I think the important issue for us is really on the commitments that countries will bring,” Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said on Wednesday. “And the Secretary General expects every member state to come with strong and bold commitments on climate change.”