UN Summit has corporations leading on climate change

Leaders from around the globe gathered in New York to confront head-on the challenges of global warming, with businesses more than governments ready to take steps toward energy efficiency.

On 23 September, world leaders gathered with heads of corporations and civil society groups at the United Nations in New York to share proposals on how to both slow and adapt to global warming. Overall, companies showed more interest than nations in leading the way towards a sustainable future.

The goal of the UN Climate Action Summit, according to UN Secretary General António Guterres, was to find ways to achieve the goals set out at the 2015 Conference of Parties in Paris sooner and to achieve global carbon neutrality by mid-century.

Guterres told participants to come with proposals in hand.

“I told leaders not to come with fancy speeches, but with concrete commitments,” Guterres said at a press conference before the summit opened.

The summit focused on six general areas, the first of which was energy transition to fully renewable sources.

Energy transition tops the list for good reason: it will undergird the most radical economic transformation the world has ever seen in so short a period.

Marco Wirén, President, Energy Business, at Wärtsilä, says that the company’s Smart Energy vision is a 100% renewable energy future.

“We are committed to supporting our customers on this path and working together to significantly reduce total emissions by using flexible balancing and back-up solutions – both storage and engines,” Wirén says. “The final push to a 100% renewable energy future is reached by using renewable fuels, including synthetics, and storage.”

Finland commits to carbon neutrality

Finland is among the countries leading the way towards a future built on renewable energy. At the summit, President Sauli Niinistö said Finland plans to end coal use by 2029, stop using oil for heating by 2029 and become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2033.

The agenda at Monday’s summit prioritised countries focused on moving away from coal. Summit organisers declined to include presentations by countries such as Japan and Australia, which are actively building new coal-fired power plants, in favour of countries like India, which is looking for ways to transition away from the fuel. 

Although developing nations remain among the largest users of coal, they are also making commitments to move beyond it. Clean energy deployment in developing nations was up 20% in 2018 from the year before.

For example, in one proposal from India, the states of Gujarat and Chhattisgarh have announced they will end construction of coal-fired power plants and use renewables, primarily solar sources, to fill the gap in energy generation.

Germany, which plans to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2038, announced it will increase its funding for global climate protection measures from EUR 2 to 4 billion.

In the end, however, major powers declined to commit to accelerating their transition to an emissions-free economy, and others, like China, agreed only to meet previously stated targets.

“Much more is still needed to reach carbon neutrality by 2050,” Guterres said in his closing statement.

Corporations leading the way

Overall, it was companies rather than nations that showed interest in taking the lead on climate action.

Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said that while “most of the major economies fell woefully short,” the meeting produced “inspiring signs of progress.” In many cases, “the private sector and subnational actors are moving faster than national governments,” he said. “Fifteen governments and 10 companies committed to accelerate energy efficiency by 3% per year.”

For example, 87 businesses have signed onto to ambitious 1.5 degree C targets across their operations and value chains. More than 100 cities committed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The Gates Foundation, the World Bank and several governments announced USD 790 million to enhance resilience of over 300 million small-holder farmers. More than 130 banks, with USD 47 trillion in assets, signed onto new climate principles. In addition to the commitment to accelerate energy efficiency, a number of companies joined a new initiative to support zero-carbon buildings. Other commitments ranged from expanding nature-based solutions and protecting the oceans to investors incorporating climate-risks into their portfolios.

Written by
Christopher Pala