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Greta Thunberg delivered a 15-minute address to around 150 people, rounding off her two-day tour of Capitol Hill, Washington DC.

The teenage activist from Sweden took the lectern under a giant chandelier in a grand committee room and smiled as she resumed her call to arms against the climate crisis.

“The USA is the biggest carbon polluter in history,” Thunberg told the audience. “It is also the world’s number one producer of oil. It is also the only nation to signal its intention to leave the Paris climate agreement because it was ‘a bad deal’.”

Speaking softly, she modulated her voice slightly to make clear she was quoting, disapprovingly, Donald Trump with the words “a bad deal”.

Thunberg invoked Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil rights and John F Kennedy’s goals that included landing a man on the moon – “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, – to plead with Washington to lead in the fight, even if it seems impossible. “Giving up can never be an option,” she said.

Existential emergency: green jobs and industries are not enough

Thunberg emphasized the need for urgent intervention and called politicians to step outside their comfort zones and start “treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is”. Dreams, including promises of green jobs and industries, are not enough, she added.

“Dreams cannot stand in the way of telling it like it is, especially right now… Wherever I go, I seem to be surrounded by fairytales.”

The teenager activist accused business leaders and others of telling “stories” intended to soothe people and make them go back to sleep. “The problem now is we need to wake up. It is time to wake up and face the facts, the reality, the science.”

Thunberg added: “This is, above all, an emergency, and not just any emergency. This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced and we need to treat it accordingly… Stop telling people ‘everything will be fine’… Stop pretending you, your business idea, your political party or plan will solve everything.”

Changing one disastrous energy source for “a slightly less disastrous one” is not progress, she continued. “Richer countries need to do their fair share and reduce their emissions much more and much faster.”

The speech was greeted with a standing ovation and followed by a panel discussion.

Thunberg, was scheduled to take a train to New York on Wednesday night, was asked about her observations of the way Washington works. She replied: “It’s definitely more calm than I thought. Everything is just happening so slow and people are just repeating the same things over and over again.

“I have heard so many politicians here say the same things over and over again. If it continues like that, we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to move forward from that and transform words into actions. My impression is it’s very calm, slow and diplomatic, which has its ups and downs.”

She also had a message for those who feel depressed or paralyzed by the scale of the crisis. “I started to do something, take action, try to make a difference instead of sitting in despair. That changed my life. It gives your life meaning. To know you can have impact, it makes you feel a lot better.”

Asked what her imagined future 60 years from now looks like, Thunberg replied: “I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far.”

The move is going on in the backdrop of the UN Climate Action Summit.

UN Climate Action Summit

UN Climate Action Summit has been billed as the defining political event for climate in 2019.

UN secretary general António Guterres is hosting a climate summit in New York on 23 September to ramp up global efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

The high-level meeting at the UN headquarters is a critical moment for political leaders to show their willingness to increase their climate plans and deepen the decarbonisation of their economies.

The summit will take place over three days 21-23 September at UN Headquarters in New York, with a culminating summit of national leaders on Monday 23.

A youth climate summit on Saturday 21 September will open the meeting, bringing together young activists, entrepreneurs and change-makers on the day following the world’s first global climate strike.

On Sunday, the nine coalitions are due to meet to take stock of their recent work and finalize details before Monday’s big reveal.

Monday’s plenary meeting, the main event, will be a combination of presentations from the best national plans and coalition initiatives being showcased on stage.

Despite commitments by governments to tackle the climate crisis, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise year on year.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries pledged to limit global temperature rise “well below” 2C of warming. But current national commitments will struggle to hold warming below 3C by the end of the century.

Countries have also agreed to review and update their climate plans every five years, with a view to progressively increase their emissions reductions targets. The first stage of this process is due next year.

To galvanize political leadership for ambition at a time when much of the world is gripped by a surge of nationalism and turning inwards, Guterres personally convened the summit, backing it with the full force of the UN machine.

It is expected to be a critical moment for climate diplomacy, intended to kick-start the process of increasing countries’ climate plans.

Guterres’ demands

“Bring plans, not speeches,” Guterres told countries.

In a letter sent to every head of state, the UN chief set-out his expectations for the summit, urging governments to come with concrete and meaningful plans for action.

Excerpts of the letter, showed Guterres asked all leaders to come “ready to announce the plans that they will set next year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050”.

His demands, in line with the tougher 1.5C goal of the Paris deal, set a high benchmark for ambition. Reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 is something only a handful of largely developed countries have so far committed to do.

Guterres also called on countries to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030, end fossil fuel subsidies and ban new coal plants after 2020 – a set of asks unusually prescriptive for the head of the UN.

Governments have to say

Countries are expected to compete for the spotlight with only the most ambitious and meaningful plans being showcased on stage on Monday 23, with the aim to spur a race to the top.

Between 80 and 100 countries have suggested they were ready to increase their climate plans ahead of schedule, with some countries signaling they could make an announcement at the summit, according to the UN.

Special envoy for climate change Luis Alfonso de Alba said a number of countries had told the UN they were “committed to be reaching new [climate] plans but they might not be ready to do that by the summit”.

The UN is also expecting countries to set-out how they are going to meet their targets and plan to increase them.

Indications of what large emitters might bring to the summit remain mixed. Days before the summit, de Alba said he was “very confident” that China will come to the summit with clear commitments and “a much higher level of ambition”.

The UN has repeatedly pointed to a statement signed by China, France, and Guterres on the margins of the G20 as an indication of Beijing’s plans. It included a commitment to increase their climate plans and publish their “long-term mid-century low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020”, something Beijing could flesh out at the event.

In a communiqué released last week, EU Commission outgoing vice-president for the energy union Maroš Šefčovič said the EU will bring “the fruit of our work”, which he described as “a realistic perspective of a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, backed by ambitious policies set in binding legislation.”

The Commission is hoping members states can agree on the target by early next year, but must overcome resistance from some holdouts.

The U.S. is not part of the conversation at the moment.

For China and the EU, the ultimate deadline to come up with more ambitious plans will be next year’s climate talks. And yet, without a strong indication that the world’s largest emitters are ready to take more robust climate action, the summit’s success could be compromised.

This is not competition

This is not competition. This is about cooperation.

Besides, a push for countries to increase their climate plans, preparation for the summit have seen the creation of nine tracks – or coalitions – under which governments together with businesses, NGOs and other international organizations are expected to present meaningful, realistic and scalable initiatives.

The tracks have been led by national governments and include mitigation (Chile), energy transition (Denmark and Ethiopia); industry transition (India and Sweden); climate finance and carbon pricing (France, Jamaica and Qatar), infrastructure, cities and local action (Turkey and Kenya); nature-based solutions (China and New Zealand), resilience and adaptation (UK and Egypt), youth engagement and public mobilization (Marshall Islands and Ireland) and social and political drivers (Peru and Spain).

Each track is led by an alliance of countries working with a range of partners, including businesses and civil society. The proposals emerging from these tracks should be “transformational”, the UN said, in a way that doesn’t leave communities who depend on fossil fuels for their livelihood behind.

Heads of States

Sixty heads of states are expected to take the podium to announce more ambitious plans – or at least plans to plan in time for next year’s climate talks.

Some of those expected to make an appearance include India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, France’s president Emmanuel Macron, the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson and German chancellor Angela Merkel. China is due to send a lower-ranking minister than initially anticipated – and the foreign minister is expected to be in attendance.

Neither US president Donald Trump, nor Australian prime minister Scott Morrison will attend the summit despite both attending the UN’s assembly general later in the week. Foreign minister Marise Payne and ambassador for the environment Patrick Suckling are expected to represent Australia, while US state department officials are also due to attend.

Besides business and civil society representatives, more than 500 young people have been selected to attend the summit, with youth due to play a key role throughout the event. The UN has funded travel “as carbon-neutral as possible” to New York for 100 young climate leaders from across the world.

Greta Thunberg, who crossed the Atlantic on a race boat as an alternative to flying, is also due to have a speaking role during the three-day event.

A political moment

The summit is a political moment for world leaders to take concrete steps to ramp up ambition. It doesn’t replace the annual climate negotiations talks, which this year are taking place in December in Santiago, Chile.

Instead, the summit marks an additional step for countries to build momentum ahead of the 2020 climate talks – the most important negotiating moment since the Paris Agreement when countries are due to announce how they are going to update their climate plans.

Following the summit, Guterres is expected to write an analytical report about the meeting’s achievement in securing additional emissions reduction pledges and the support needed to implement the proposed initiatives.

The report is due to be presented at Cop25 in Chile.


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