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Climate Week Starts With a Fizzle at the U.N. — The Loop

September 24, 2019, 11:48 AM UTC

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Days after millions took part in a global strike to highlight the growing discontent over climate change on Friday, the United Nations yesterday convened its second Climate Action Summit — five years after the first in 2014. The event coincides with the U.N General Assembly as well as the start of New York Climate Week. But hopes that the high-profile gathering in would result in a series of government-led initiatives to combat climate change were soon dashed.

“While countries were expected to come to the Summit to announce that they would enhance their climate ambition, most of the major economies fell woefully short,” Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the environmental organization the World Resources Institute, said in a statement after the summit.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, described the outcome as “largely disappointing” warning that global leaders “cannot keep pushing these decisions down the road — we are running out of time.”

Expectations for the meeting were high as U.N. secretary-general António Guterres reportedly allocated floor time only to heads of state who could announce drastic plans to cut carbon emissions — including reducing subsidies for fossil fuels, reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and committing to stop building new coal power plants.

Of the more than one hundred states that applied to deliver a speech, Guterres only approved 63. The U.S. was not among them. President Trump was, in fact, expected to skip the summit altogether but made a surprise appearance in the audience, where he stayed for 15 minutes.

Asked to explain his attendance, Trump said, “I’m a big believer in clean air and clean water, and all countries should get together and do that, and they should do it for themselves. Very, very important.”

“Do it for themselves” is more telling of Trump’s attitude to climate change. The President has taken the U.S. down a radically insular path on climate change, systematically unravelling environmental policies established in previous administrations and threatening to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement — an accord spearheaded by his predecessor.

As the U.S. withdraws, it cedes space to China, which has emerged as an unlikely and imperfect champion of climate change initiatives. China has generally exceeded the targets it set out during the 2015 Paris Agreement, however 40% of the world’s coal power plants currently under planning are in China, too. China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, was permitted to address the Summit and took the opportunity to chide the U.S. for abandoning the Paris Agreement — but didn’t announce any stronger commitments from Beijing.

In line with the Paris Agreement, signatories are expected to “ratchet up” their commitments to cutting carbon in 2020. Judging from the Climate Summit yesterday, few leaders want to start a moment sooner.

More below.

Eamon Barrett

Carbon Copy

Business leaders step up. In the run up to the U.N.'s Climate Action summit 87 major global businesses, representing a combined market cap of $2.3 trillion, have pledged to drastically reduce their carbon footprints, with some — such as Nestle and L'Oreal — pledging net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Reuters

Did the strike work? E-commerce titan Jeff Bezos announced an update in Amazon’s sustainability policies last Thursday, a day ahead of the Global Climate Strikes, which over 1,500 of his own staff pledged to join (and which I doubted.) The new pledge commits the corporation to becoming carbon neutral by 2040 and to running entirely on renewables by 2030. But Bezos isn’t going alone: the CEO has invited other corporates to sign up to his Climate Pledge, a document that challenges signatories to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 — a decade ahead of the Paris deadline. So far, none have. TechCrunch

Money in, money out. Philanthropist Bill Gates says activists are wasting their time lobbying investors to divest from fossil-fuels and would better spend their energy convincing investors to back disruptive tech that slows carbon emissions and helps peoples adapt to a new world. “Divestment, to date, probably has reduced about zero tonnes of emissions,” Gates says. However, money taken out of fossil fuels is, of course, money that can then be put in to the green tech Gates advocates. Financial Times

Bank roll. A bevy of 130 banks representing a third of the global banking sector, with total assets valued over $47 trillion, signed the U.N.’s Principles for Responsible Banking on Monday. The PRB is a set of six guidelines designed to align banking activity with the targets set out in both the Paris Agreement and the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The world’s largest bank by assets — ICBC — and 29 others led the development of the Principles. Unepfi

Micro-burger. A slew of start-ups are investigating how to harness the mighty power of microbes, turning the microscopic life into fertilizer, pesticides and food. Chicago-based Sustainable Bioproducts has raised $33 million from investors, including Danone, to harvest proteins from microbial cultures and turn them into meat and dairy substitutes. The costs are still prohibitive but the company plans to launch microbe-based food in the U.S. within the next 18 months. Financial Times

In The Loop

Barack Obama Speaks Out on Climate Change, Income Inequality, and the Downside of Social Media by Jonathan Vanian

The Internet Cloud Has a Dirty Secret by Naomi Xu Elegant

Jeff Bezos Details Amazon’s Net-Zero Carbon Emissions 2040 Goal by Joanna G. Ramey

Google Has Bought Enough Renewable Electricity to Power All of Uruguay by Eamon Barrett

How the World’s Largest Gold Mining Company Is Turning Its Miners into A.I. Engineers by David Z. Morris

Nestlé Has a Plan for Reducing Emissions—and It Starts With Happier Cows by Katherine Dunn

Data Dive

24.4 meters

When Panama’s Lake Gatun — a reservoir that constitutes three-fifths the length of the Panama Canal — drops to a depth of 24.4 meters, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) must limit the cargo load of the shipping containers that pass through the canal’s locks, costing the authority, the country and the shipping companies millions of dollars. According to The Economist, Gatun’s waters are currently lapping around the 24.7 meter mark, having dropped 1.8 meter lower than normal during “the most intense drought” since 1903. The ACP is scrambling for a solution as increasing droughts threaten to close the waterway.


France’s Schneider Electric has brought forward its goal of achieving carbon neutrality across the company’s “extended ecosystem” to 2025, shaving five years off of its original 2030 deadline. According to a spokesperson, the extended ecosystem includes Schneider's plants, sites and encompasses both suppliers and clients. Schneider's "operational emissions" and its supply chain, however, won't be brought to net-zero emissions before 2030 and 2050 respectively. 


This edition of The Loop was edited by Eamon Barrett. Find previous editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here.