UN climate summit: ‘We are still not going in the right direction’

Taoiseach tells world leaders that Ireland will halve its emissions by 2030

More than 80 world leaders, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, have committed to scaled up actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in response to the planet’s climate crisis at a virtual UN climate ambition summit held on Saturday.

A majority undertook to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In addition, many participating countries flagged accelerated moves to get out of fossil fuels, notably in ending investment and exploration, with the most significant commitments under this heading coming from the UK, France and Denmark.

The summit was held on the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement and ahead of critical UN talks next year in Glasgow. A lot of participants detailed enhanced commitments in the form of nationally determined contributions in advance of the COP26 gathering in November.

On Friday, summit co-host Britain announced it was ending direct government support for overseas fossil fuel projects, aiming to prompt similar moves by other countries to accelerate a shift to cleaner energy.


Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the summit had to be held online, which made for a remarkable global gathering as leaders had less than two minutes to spell out their commitments – some countries were excluded because of insufficient new actions.

Concrete promises contrasted with recent annual climate talks hosted by the UN which were marked by discord and weak outcomes. However the absence of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Australia was notable.

Bhutan's prime minister Lotay Tshering declared: "Mother Earth has fever", adding the Paris Agreement was the cure – the summit was notable, however, for the listing of new actions in an attempt to get it back on track, rather than reiterating the symptoms of an overheating world.

Catastrophic temperature rise

Opening the summit, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said: "Five years after Paris, we are still not going in the right direction... If we don't change course, we may be headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees this century. Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency?"

The recovery from Covid-19 presented an opportunity to set economies and societies on a green path, he said, but that course had yet to be set – though “trillions of dollars needed for Covid recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations”.

He added: “We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden future generations with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.

“And so the central objective of the UN for 2021 is to build a truly global coalition for carbon neutrality by the middle of the century.”

He commended the UK pledge to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 and the EU move to cut their emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030. “These decisions deserve to be emulated.”

Every country, city, financial institution and company needed to adopt plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050, he said – “and start executing them now, including by providing clear short-term targets”.

Key emitting sectors such as shipping, aviation and industry must also present and implement new, transformational roadmaps in line with this goal, he warned.

“Technology is on our side. Sound economic analysis is our ally. Renewable energy is getting less expensive with every passing day,” Mr Guterres said.

In pursuit of specific commitments, he said it was time “to put a price on carbon. To phase out fossil fuel finance and end fossil fuel subsidies. To stop building new coal power plants. To shift the tax burden from income to carbon, from taxpayers to polluters.”

The collective goal must also be to surpass the $100 billion dollar a year target in 2021 in finance to support countries worst impacted by climate disruption, he added.

Scientific advances

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said scientific advances and international co-operation which had generated Covid-19 vaccines could be harnessed "to protect our entire planet, our biosphere against a challenge far worse, far more destructive than coronavirus".

“We want to turn the UK into the Saudi Arabia of wind power generation; enough wind power by 2030 to power every one of our homes with electricity,” he added.

“We do all of these things because they are right for the world, they are right for our country, but also because we know this green industrial revolution will generate hundreds of thousands of high-skilled, high-paid, good-quality jobs for generations to come.”

China's president Xi Jinping outlined more detail on how China will cut carbon to reach its recent pledge of net-zero emissions by 2060, and promised to cut emissions by over 65 per cent by 2030 but did not detail how it would be achieved.

He added: “China always honours its commitments – guided by our new development philosophy we will promote greener economic and social development in all aspects, while pursuing high quality development. We will take solid steps to meet the targets just announced and contribute even more to tackling the global climate challenge.”

In what was interpreted as veiled criticism of the United States, he said: "In meeting the climate challenge, no-one can be aloof, and unilateralism will get us nowhere. Only by upholding multilateralism, unity and cooperation can we deliver shared benefits and win-win results for all nations."

President-elect Joe Biden did not address the gathering but issued a statement promising to hold a major event on the climate within his first 100 days in office,

A significant number of US politicians, however, addressed the summit. Governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer said recent natural disasters in the US "are just a taste of what's to come" if the world did not take action on climate change.


“As we continue to grapple with the pandemic ripping through our communities, we have seen first-hand what happens when US officials fail to prepare. We cannot make the same mistake when it comes to the impending climate crisis.”

Ms Whitmer added: “We are not alone, more than 4,000 cities states, business, healthcare organisations, state groups, tribes colleges and universities and community groups have put forward a new statement to go further in partnership with the federal government. Make no mistake, America is all in.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Ireland will more than halve its emissions by 2030. "We are turning our ambition into law. By 2050, Ireland will achieve a climate neutral economy and that target is currently being enshrined in legislation," he added.

The Climate Action Bill was introducing a legal requirement for economy-wide carbon budgets, with emissions ceilings for each sector, he underlined. "Parliament and our independent Climate Change Advisory Council will play an important role in ensuring accountability. We will support projects and initiatives that reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, foster innovation, ensure climate justice is achieved, and a just transition is delivered."

Ireland would pursue innovative ways of financing public and private climate action initiatives – “sustainable finance remains a strategic priority”.

Supporting global climate action – in particular adaptation to make vulnerable countries resilient – in least developed countries and small island developing states, was a key priority for Ireland, he confirmed.


"From January, Ireland will work as a member of the UN Security Council to champion ways in which climate action can contribute to sustaining peace. We will scale up our financial contributions, at least doubling the percentage of Official Development Assistance spending on climate finance by 2030," Mr Martin said.

Pope Francis said the Holy See was committed to net-zero carbon emissions before 2050 and to stepping up efforts in environmental management. It was also committed to promoting environmental education among those attending Catholic schools and universities around the world.

French President Emmanuel Macron outlined measures to transition toward a low-carbon economy including halting all support toward exploration of new fossil fuel deposits within the next five years, not building new coal plants and forcing financial firms to disclose financial risk associated with climate; a key aim of the Paris pact.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook, the most high-profile corporate speaker, committed the global giant to achieving climate neutrality by 2030 throughout its full supply chains; 20 years ahead of the UN goal.

“We call on companies and governments around the world to do all we can to make 2021 the year we turn the corner for good,” he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times