Leaders of world’s biggest polluting countries skipping UN climate summit

<span>Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP</span>
Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

Leaders of some of the world’s biggest polluting countries are skipping a UN summit on Wednesday aimed at generating some progress in the spluttering effort to address the climate crisis, during what may be the hottest year ever recorded.

The climate ambition summit, convened by António Guterres, the UN’s secretary general, will feature more than 100 national governments who have traveled to New York to outline renewed plans to curb global heating and help people adapt to its impacts. The UN has said the event will “showcase first movers and doers” among countries most willing to act on the climate crisis.

But the summit has failed to attract the leaders of the two biggest carbon emitters, with neither Joe Biden, the US president, nor Xi Jinping, president of China, attending. Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president, are also missing the gathering.

“We are not seeing the leadership we need,” said Sir David King, the UK’s former chief scientific adviser. “This is the biggest challenge civilization has ever faced and yet we can’t get the response we need. I can’t tell you how I feel about them just not showing up. It’s difficult to be optimistic, we are in a terrible place.”

The climate summit, held in the week of the UN’s annual general assembly, comes a day after Guterres criticized world leaders for coming up “abysmally short” in their efforts to stem global heating. A recent UN analysis of country’s actions to reduce planet-heating emissions show the world is well off track to avoid breaching agreed temperature limits, unleashing worsening heatwaves, droughts and floods.

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Climate advocates hope the summit will include pledges to cut emissions, phase out fossil fuel subsidies and step up aid to vulnerable countries but that the absence of major emitters, along with geopolitical tensions over issues such as trade and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has somewhat overshadowed the summit.

“There is this stasis among the big players and so there’s a disconnect between what the secretary general is calling for and what national leaders are prepared to deliver,” said Alden Meyer, an expert in international climate negotiations at E3G.

“It’s an embarrassing gap. National leaders are just pointing fingers at each other over the lack of progress. Given the events of this summer, where things have just spiraled out of control, you’d think that would concentrate minds.”

Biden did address the climate crisis in his own speech to the UN on Tuesday, in which he lamented a year of heatwaves, wildfires and drought. “Taken together these snapshots tell an urgent story of what awaits us if we fail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and begin to climate-proof our world,” said Biden. “From day one of my administration the United States has treated this crisis as the existential threat that it is, not only to us, but to all of humanity.”

While the Biden administration has implemented the Inflation Reduction Act, which is expected to radically scale up renewable energy, it has also allowed a number of major new oil and gas projects. Biden has also been criticized for not declaring a climate emergency, despite claiming that he has done so in practice.

In one of the largest climate protests held since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, about 75,000 people marched through Manhattan on Sunday to call for an end to fossil fuels. Protesters have targeted institutions that financially support the fossil fuel industry, with activists picketing the Bank of America and blocking access to the New York Federal Reserve.

The protestors “had a clear message for the Biden administration: stop sacrificing communities”, according to Ebony Twilley Martin, executive director of Greenpeace USA. “Overwhelmingly Americans don’t want this. We deserve a planet free from pollution and the devastating impacts it causes. Stop approving fossil fuel projects that hurt communities like mine – at home and abroad.”

It emerged on Tuesday that Sunak is planning to row back on some of his government’s net-zero policies before the UK’s next general election such as delaying a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

Tom Rivett-Carnac, co-founder of Global Optimism and a former chief political strategist at UNFCCC said: “The UK claims to be a global leader for the 21st century. Watering down climate commitments and disincentivizing the industries of tomorrow for cynical short term political reasons is not leadership, it is cowardice.”

In New York, a more upbeat message of technological solutions to the mounting climate crisis has come in the form of Climate Week, a nebulous collection of events designed to showcase progress in dealing with global heating.

On Tuesday, Prince William unveiled 15 finalists for the Earthshot Prize, an initiative he started in 2020 to reward people who come up with new ideas to help the environment. The Prince of Wales, who is in New York to promote the awards, said that he retained optimism despite a summer of wrenching climate disasters.

“I think we’ve got to retain optimism because it’s the bigger driver of change, of innovation,” he said. “We want to believe there is hope, that there are people doing incredible things.”