Climate Week can make me feel cynical but there are signs that change might be underway

  • During Climate Week, politicians and execs arrive often promise big wins for the planet.

  • Yet global emissions have continued to climb since 2015 when countries agreed to curb warming.

  • This year, there have been nascent signs of progress on climate action.

  • This article is part of Insider's weekly newsletter on sustainability. Sign up here.

It's easy to be cynical about Climate Week.

Year after year, politicians and executives pour into New York City touting big promises to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet global emissions have kept growing since 2015, when nearly 200 countries struck the Paris Agreement aimed at averting the most catastrophic effects of a warming planet.

As of June, 929 large, publicly traded companies had net-zero-emissions targets, though few are backed up by a credible plan to get there.

Given the trends, many Climate Week attendees understandably question the significance of it all. But even in just the two years I've participated, there are subtle changes afoot that indicate some progress.

For one, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres tried to cajole countries into more ambitious plans by excluding those that don't step it up. Speaker slots at his Climate Ambition Summit on Wednesday were for "first movers and doers," and the world's top five polluters were notably absent, including the US, China, India, Russia, and Japan.

That was by design. There were strict criteria to get a slot, such as accelerating emissions cuts, spending more on climate finance for developing nations, or boosting renewable energy, said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at E3G, a climate think tank.

"By saying that leaders need to come and deliver results and commitments — not just rhetoric — the secretary general has rightly raised the stakes," Meyer told reporters. "But that has made it more difficult for some leaders to get over those hurdles."

Colombia, the sixth-largest coal exporter in the world, made the cut. Colombia and Panama agreed to phase out existing coal plants and stop new ones from being built, unless they are paired with carbon-capture technology. Brazil reinstated emissions-reduction targets that are slightly more aggressive than the US's.

There's also more willingness to name the main driver of climate change: fossil fuels. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the only state-level official invited to speak at the summit, delivered the strongest criticism.

"This climate crisis is a fossil-fuel crisis," he said to loud applause. "It's not complicated. It's the burning of oil. It's the burning of gas. It's the burning of coal. And we need to call that out."

Sultan Al Jaber, an energy executive from United Arab Emirates and president of the UN climate summit in Dubai later this year, said the "phase down of fossil fuels is essential. It is in fact inevitable."

His statement was notable because Al Jaber is also chief executive of UAE's state-owned oil company, which is planning to spend $150 billion through 2027 to boost oil and gas production. The UAE is also investing up to $54 billion over the next seven years to triple its renewable-energy capacity, the Associated Press reported.

Climate activists worry Al Jaber's appointment as president of this year's UN climate conference, known as COP28, will undermine global efforts to crack down on fossil fuels. But his defenders argue that oil and gas companies should be at the table because they can deploy technology like carbon capture and storage, which UN-backed climate scientists say is key to solving the crisis.

President Joe Biden didn't attend the Climate Ambition Summit and instead sent the nation's climate envoy, John Kerry. Yet activists questioned whether Biden would've even secured a speaking slot. Even though the Inflation Reduction Act is spurring billions of dollars of investment in cleaner technologies like solar, wind, batteries, and carbon capture and removal, the administration has also approved new oil and gas drilling in Alaska and struck a deal with Republicans to expedite the Mountain Valley pipeline.

Meanwhile, city and state leaders — many of whom are women — also have a more prominent role. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo have headlined events. Their presence is a preview of what's to come at COP28, where a summit for local officials is being organized for the first time.

City leaders are at the forefront of the climate crisis and many are cutting emissions faster than national governments, said Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the vice chair for Africa at C40 Cities, a global network of nearly 100 mayors.

"We don't have the luxury of making policy statements, putting them on a shelf, and forgetting about them," she said during an event announcing the local summit planned for COP28. "Whether it's a flood, it's a fire, it's a drought, the impact of that is directly felt by the residents that come to our door, and for whom we are responsible."

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