Youth activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations on September 23, 2019 in New York City. The summit at the U.N. comes after a worldwide Youth Climate Strike on Friday, which saw millions of young people around the world demanding action to address the climate crisis.
Stephanie Keith—Getty Images
By Justin Worland
September 25, 2019

On Sept. 20, millions of young people around the world took to streets demanding bold action on climate change. When world leaders gathered at the United Nations Climate Action Summit three days later, the activists’ demands were left unmet.

The problem, by and large, isn’t that countries are denying the science of climate change. Instead, the issue is the entanglement of a slew of other issues that have gotten in the way: China’s trade war with the United States; the European Union’s Brexit distraction; and long-time concerns about economic development exacerbated by a lack of support from the U.S, among others.

This new reality has left the most concerned leaders grappling for the next move. Some called this week to give preferred trading status to other countries pursuing aggressive climate action. Others called for a broad campaign to shame countries that have failed to meet their commitments. The details varied, but as the dust settled on the summit it seemed clear to many that more aggressive climate measures would not be achieved without a paradigm shift, moving from diplomatic cooperative engagement to forceful pushes.

“What I see is governments still reluctant in changing the regulations, in adopting the adequate tax policies and in making the other moves to allow the markets to work in the way markets will inevitably work,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said at a lunch for business leaders Monday, departing from his typical diplomatic tone. “Make sure that governments feel the heat.”

Guterres, who convened the summit, had for months demanded that countries attend the conference with plans of action to address climate change and not just offer rhetoric. Among his calls were demands that countries tax pollution and commit to ending the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

Some countries stepped up to the plate. More than 75 leaders pledged to eliminate their carbon emissions by 2050, though mostly from smaller economies, and a handful of European countries touted their commitment to spend billions to fund climate programs in developing countries. But the world’s biggest economies were largely absent. The U.S. and Brazil brought nothing to the table while China promised to follow through on its previous commitments and India said it would increase its deployment renewable energy, statements that fell short of hopes.

It’s this reality that has pushed forward long-simmering discussions about how to punish inaction. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his support for using the international trade regime to penalize countries that failed to live up to the Paris Agreement. “We need to have a trade agenda that serves the climate agenda,” he said. “I don’t want to see new trade negotiations opened with countries that are running counter to the Paris Agreement.”

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries are supposed to update and strengthen their pledges to reduce emissions made in the lead up to deal by the end of next year, and, behind the scenes, climate policy experts say that the political environment is such that countries that come to the table may include new trade restrictions.

Conceptually, the idea of trade restrictions, particularly a border carbon adjustment that would impose a carbon fee on products imported at the border from countries out of compliance with the Paris deal, has been around for a long time, but in the past countries have preferred engagement to penalties. “If we’re to keep going with some countries ramping up ambition again and again, and other countries not moving much or even backsliding on what they’re doing, we may need to resort to these kind of trade measures,” says Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at World Resources Institute.

One key question is China. The country has sought to assume a leadership role not only addressing climate change but also elsewhere in the international arena as President Trump has led the U.S. retreat on a slew of issues. But on Monday the country offered little in the way of new commitments, even as international climate experts say that the country is likely to make major announcements in the coming year as the country hammers out the details of its next five-year plan, a key document outlining the country’s development plans.

The scale of China’s ambition may well hinge on whether it can make progress on a slew of other issues it faces, most significantly ending the trade war with the U.S. or bolstering alternative markets. A planned summit between the EU next September could be a break out moment if leaders from the two countries can come to agreement to bolster trade relations and commit to new climate measures at the same time. “That’s a conversation that hasn’t started fully,” says Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation and a key architect of the Paris Agreement. “And it’s needed.”

A bilateral announcement between the U.S. and the EU in 2015 played a pivotal role building momentum for the Paris Agreement and helped cement the perception that the two were the leading the rest of the world on the issue. A EU-China deal could serve a similar purpose and cement the place of the two as the world’s climate leaders, though Tubiana says that the EU-China deal would need to be of a much larger scale to make an impact.

Prior to this year’s summit, national pledges would have left the world on track for more than 3C degrees of warming, and countries were not even following through to meet them. A report released last year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world needs to keep warming to 1.5 C to avoid some devastating impacts of climate change, including the loss of the world’s coral reefs and the displacement of hundreds of millions of people. To change direction, countries will likely need to cut their emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate their carbon foot prints by the end of the century.

Top U.N. officials acknowledged a deficit in commitments from national governments, but said the summit had succeeded in growing momentum ahead of next year’s key climate talks. “The bottom line is governments are not where they need to be today. That’s a fact,” said Robert Orr, special adviser on climate change to the UN Secretary-General, in an interview. But “it takes this process here to get them going.”

Part of that process was hearing from non-government actors committed to addressing climate change. Some of the most significant commitments came from the private sector. Nearly 90 companies with a total value of $2.3 trillion said they would eliminate their carbon-footprint by 2050 and investors with $35 trillion in assets called for the phasing out of coal-fired power. Even sectors that have historically avoided navigating the difficult waters of climate change seemed willing to at least engage on the issue. The shipping sector, for instance, set a net-zero target for 2050. And oil and gas CEOs met on the sidelines of the summit to announce commitments to cut methane emissions, though many activists dismissed these efforts.

And, of course, the tens of thousands of youth who marched in the streets of New York and the millions who marched around the world delivered a clear signal that they would not tolerate continued inaction. “People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg told a gathering of world leaders. “How dare you.”

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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