Climate Week 2014: The Wrap-Up

Climate Week's big pledges included preserving forests and investing in renewable energy. Now those promises need to be kept.
March for climate action

As Climate Week NYC slips into the rearview mirror, what can we take away? Did anything, you know, happen?

Yes … sort of. From the sci-tech perspective, important energy and conservation agreements were announced. Now the hard work of putting them into action begins for the pledgers and signers, as well as those watchdogging that process.

It may not sound like much, but intent must exist for action to ensue, right? So if you’re into environmental conservation — particularly, curbing climate change — these agreements are worthy of some renewed optimism.

Here are some developments that blipped our tree-friendly radars:

New York Declaration on Forests

It’s impressive: 32 national and 20 local or regional governments, 40 companies, 16 indigenous peoples groups, and 49 non-profits have all pledged cooperation to halve current rates of deforestation by 2020. Beyond that, the coalition has promised to restore hundreds of millions of acres of former forestlands and to halt global forest destruction entirely by 2030.

Razing and burning forests accounts for about 10 percent of present global carbon emissions, or 3.6 billion tons of CO2 a year. Currently eight football fields worth of forest is degraded or destroyed every ten seconds, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

So if it’s successful, the plan’s impact on carbon dioxide emissions could equate to taking every single car on Earth off the road. In the U.S. alone, tailpipe emissions account for one-fifth of the nation’s annual 5.833 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would also mean an awful lot to the dozens if not hundreds of animal and plant species that call these forests home now and will need room to move as temperatures rise in coming decades.

Importantly, many corporations and indigenous groups are partnering on this effort, along with governments and conservationists. But so far, Greenpeace International is not among them, stating that the plan is neither ambitious enough nor firmly grounded in tangible action. Neither is the nation of Brazil, home to roughly 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest (although the government has stated it intends to cut deforestation roughly 25 percent by 2020).

As part of the declaration, Norway, the U.K., and Germany among others pledged $1 billion to developing countries such as Liberia and Peru for preserving forests.

Palm Oil Pledge

As Popular Science reported live from the climate summit last week, a coalition announced a new commitment to stop tropical forest and peatland loss related to the palm oil industry. A widely used ingredient in processed foods, palm oil has become a lucrative industry that is helping millions escape poverty. But the enormous demand also drives rampant deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia as growers clear land for palm oil plantations.

Major palm oil consumers Asian Agri, Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources, Wilmar, along with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, say they’ll work with the government of Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, to plant new palms and conserve forests that have been cut down as a result of the palm oil industry. They have also pledged to stop buying palm oil from suppliers that destroy forests for the creation of plantations.

Fossil Fuel Divestment

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it is dropping all of its investments in fossil fuels -– about $60.2 million, or 7 percent of the total $860 million endowment –– in favor of renewable energy. While the greenbacks involved are a relatively small amount compared to the trillions invested in global oil, coal, and natural gas, the symbolic splash is huge: Heirs to a major oil fortune are pulling their money out of the industry. The move will likely put wind under the wings of the fledging international fossil fuel divestment movement, which has been targeted largely at universities and cities so far.

ICYMI: A Quick Recap Of Climate Week 2014:

On September 23, several dozen heads of state, including President Barack Obama, came to the United Nations for a one-day “climate summit.” Scads of business and industry leaders, scientists, and non-profit advocacy and civil society groups also took part.

It was the first time since 2009 that the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had nestled a day full of climate change-centric programming into the yearly schedule of the U.N. General Assembly. In 2009, official climate treaty talks were scheduled with the intention of producing a strong global climate treaty later that year — one featuring defined and legally binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the U.S. and other industrialized nations. But the Copenhagen talks were a flop, leaving negotiators and climate activists flailing.

Five years later, many negative impacts of climate change have become even more visible worldwide, as Popular Science often reports. That fact helped get 300 to 400,000 people (including many scientists and the people who love them) from around the country and the world onto the streets of New York City just a couple days before the climate summit on Sunday, September 21. They marched to demand climate change action, and even the march’s organizers claimed to be surprised by the heavy turnout.

Hundreds appeared again the next day, September 22, for “Flood Wall Street,” using the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street protests to keep media attention on climate change.

Polar Bear Arrested

The science behind climate change is well-accepted in most nations, and the urgent need for action has been well-explained to heads of state by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the U.N.’s own climate science body). So this latest unofficial climate summit was more about staking out positions on contentious issues ahead of official climate treaty negotiations that will occur over the next 14 months. That process will culminate late next year in Paris at the 21st official U.N. climate conference, where a new international climate pact is supposed to be finalized.

Climate finance is one of the most challenging issues negotiators will try to resolve in the coming year. A financial entity called the Green Climate Fund” (GCF) has been set up to take in contributions from industrialized nations. (Richer emerging economies, such as China and Mexico, may end up contributing as well.) The fund will distribute money to developing nations to help those countries pay for low- or no-carbon economic development projects, such as expanding their energy generation capacity with renewables like sun and wind, instead of fossil fuels. These types of projects fall under the buzzword “mitigation.” The GCF is also intended to help pay for resilience-related projects, such as strengthening infrastructure to withstand global warming impacts like sea level rise — efforts that are termed “adaptation.”

Donor nations have been dragging their heels when it comes to putting money into the pot, however. There have been disagreements over how the funds will be managed. Many questions remain: Should donor nations have any say over how the funds are allocated? Will countries receiving funds be required to report back on how they’re spent?

Disagreements over emission cuts remain equally fraught. What share of curbing present-day pollution will be taken by the world’s poorer nations as well as the richest? While there were unofficial side talks on this issue last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s no-show at the summit (Modi pointedly arrived in New York afterwards, for the General Assembly and other events) underlines that India will be hard to bring around on cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, which are now the world’s third-largest.