Luis Alfonso de Alba, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for the 2019 Climate Action Summit, believes the meeting achieved progress. But, as he tells David Thomas, concrete plans to lower emissions and huge transfers of cash are urgently needed.
As thousands of diplomats, government leaders, and activists descended on the United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss the future of the fight against climate change in September, a softly spoken Mexican diplomat was preparing to coax concrete results from a summit full of vested interests.
Named UN Secretary General António Gutteres’ special envoy for the 2019 Climate Action Summit, Luis Alfonso de Alba was tasked with encouraging the world’s richest nations towards ever more ambitious pledges to cut emissions and ramp up financial support for developing countries as Greta Thunberg ‘s passionate advocacy focused minds on the cataclysmic results of failure.
Speaking to African Business from UN Headquarters a week after the summit, an optimistic de Alba insists that the meeting was a qualified success that delivers vital momentum and brings the world’s richest countries closer to definitive action.
“I think we were quite successful in highlighting the urgency of action and certainly the need to be much more ambitious. We have embraced the recommendation of the scientific community with the goal of not allowing the temperature to go beyond 1.5 degrees. I think that in itself is an important achievement now because the international community has the possibility to focus on that goal… We were also very successful in drawing attention to the tools, solutions and options countries may have to reach the level of ambition this requires.”
Inevitably, results fell some way short of the demands of the passionate activists who have accused global leaders of negligence in the face of impending catastrophe. While 65 countries and major sub-national economies such as California committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and 70 countries announced they will boost their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by 2020 or have started the process of doing so, critics pointed to a lack of concrete actions by the US and China (for further details see pages 16-17). While keen to express his satisfaction with the limited progress, Mexico’s former lead climate negotiator expresses frustration with the continuing wait for plans from major emitters.
“When it comes to the level of ambition, particularly of the major economies or major emitters, I need to recognise that we fell below what is needed because… Almost none of the major emitters are ready with the NDCs yet. We’re hoping that will happen in the next few months but that didn’t happen at the summit.”
And yet de Alba says that in contrast to previous meetings, the Climate Action Summit was specifically designed so that the UN can follow up on pledges made ahead of the crucial 2020 COP summit in Glasgow, to which countries have committed to bringing revised NDCs under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“[The secretary general] needs to have not only a report but an assessment of where we are and what needs to be done by different members states and stakeholders. He’s going to commit to doing the follow-up himself and remain engaged. Otherwise we’ll have yet another meeting where promises are made and nobody follows up. This is going to be different… the architecture [of the UN] needs to be more at the service of member states in terms of support and implementation.”
There are signs that pressure on the wealthiest countries is having the desired effect. De Alba commends the efforts of the European Union, which he says is “moving quite fast in the right direction” with much of the continent ready to embrace carbon neutrality and work on strong NDCs, even if comprehensive action is being held by back by some EU member states. He says the 2020 review process will be critical not only to ensuring that countries are complying with the Paris Agreement, but in focusing minds on the fact that “countries have to do much more than they expected in 2015” under the stricter 1.5 degree target that now applies.
“In the case of major emitters like China, India and others, I think they all recognise the urgency… They have not formally committed to the NDCs with the exception of China, which did it during the last meeting of the G20, but I know they are working on it and we are very much hoping other countries in the developed world as well as major developing countries will step up in the coming months.”
The fear of being an outlier when other countries produce ambitious NDCs in 2020 should not be the only motivating factor towards stronger action. Instead, says de Alba, the UN process needs to offer constructive support and ideas for how to achieve this. One such priority is helping developing countries move away from dirty coal plants to embrace renewables
“It has to be accompanied with alternatives for many of them, especially those that rely on coal too much. We need to keep the pressure not to build new plants and invest in renewables. We need to provide tools to countries like Indonesia and South Africa who still rely too much on coal… The way renewables are being handled in Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa and Egypt is very encouraging. They’ve made huge investments and it’s becoming cheaper to produce energy from renewables in Africa.”
He says the UN is encouraging China to pursue renewable investments on the continent rather than encouraging coal.
“We are working closely with China, because China has an important influence in the region through the Belt and Road and we want to China to give options not to build new coal plants but other options to countries in the region.”
Billions are not enough
And yet for the most part, mitigation and adaptation can only be made possible by huge transfers of cash from the rich world – which pledged in 2009 to mobilise $100bn a year by 2020 – to the developing world. While de Alba says that progress has been made towards this goal – citing OECD figures of some $71bn and pointing to pledges to replenish the Green Climate Fund – he admits that much more will be required in future.
“We need to get there and move beyond that, billions are not enough. We need much more than that and we will increasingly need much more participation by the private finance system… We’re going to encourage that, and in Africa in particular I see a lot of activity through international and regional financial institutions.”
While overnight success is never assured in climate diplomacy, de Alba says that the 2019 summit left him confident in Africa’s leadership on the issue.
“The possibility for Africa is not to repeat the same mistakes made by developing countries. The question is whether we support that from the outside and have enough political will and leadership in the region to make it a reality. I’m quite optimistic.”