Climate Summit Garners Modest Commitments On Clean Air, Foods, Oceans & Coal Phase-Out  

NEW YORK CITY – Monday’s long-awaited United Nations Climate Summit produced no dramatic surprises, but a long list of modest commitments offered a glimmer of a way forward. Government leaders, CEOs, and heads of major philanthropies announced a string of new initiatives to clean up the air, restore oceans, advance more sustainable food systems, phase out coal, plant forests, protect small island states, and better align trade rules with climate goals.

Leaders of the planet’s two most polluting nations, China and the United States, were absent from the summit stage – although US President Donald Trump, who has said he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, made a brief, unannounced appearance in the audience during the morning’s remarks by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before heading to a meeting on religious freedom. Chinese president President Xi Jinping sent a representative who recited an impressive litany of Chinese innovations in areas such as renewable energy and e-transport, but stepped gingerly around the debate over controversial new projects such as China’s massive Belt and Road project through Asia, which critics say could stimulate new sources of climate emissions.

A cluster of new initiatives by businesses, philanthropies and governments, however, offered at least some new directions and fresh models for stepping up action on climate drivers that are undermining the fundamental requirements of life on earth – as well as damaging health more visibly than ever before.

Opening ceremony of the Climate Action Summit.

Those announcements included the launch of a new US$50 million “Clean Air Fund” by a number of leading philanthropies and a “One Planet Business for Biodiversity” initiative led by the corporate giant Danone – which aims to restructure food systems that have “broken the cycle of life” in the words of Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber.  Over 40 countries and 70 cities signed a Summit commitment to a WHO Clean Air Initiative to reduce air pollution from sources that also drive climate change by 2030. Together those clean air commitments represent some 750 million people worldwide, WHO sources told Health Policy Watch. Some 60 countries at the Summit pledged to reach net zero climate emissions by 2050, so as to keep average temperature rise below 1.5 C, although climate scientists have warned that even at that level, impacts could still be severe and unpredictable.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and head of Bloomberg Philanthropies, declared that his massive foundation would accelerate its  “Beyond Coal” initiative to ensure that “no new coal plants” would be built anywhere in the world after 2020, and those already constructed would be phased out.  French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the critical need to harmonize trade rules with climate goals – a clear reference to the fact that global trade now incentivizes a carbon-intensive global economy based on the long-distance transport of many goods. And among a range of green finance initiatives, the insurance giant Allianz committed to net zero emissions for its investment portfolios of some US$2.4 trillion.

Parts of the Solomon Islands are submerged by rising sea levels.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg said that her country would step up ocean-based climate initiatives, which could reduce global emissions by as much as 20%, generate sustainable energy and ensure sustainability of ocean based food sources.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as the leaders of Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, laid out ambitious plans for reforesting vast swathes of their countries. Indonesian and DRC rain forests comprise the green lungs for much of South-East Asia and Africa, their leaders noted. And in the case of Pakistan, forests could help sustain the Himalayan glacier systems that regulate water supplies for millions of people, Khan said.

Small island states, which are most directly affected by climate change, announced initiatives in insurance, finance as well as in coastal ecosystems and fresh water preservation. They included Barbados’ “Roofs to Reefs” initiative, which would “help protect our fresh water resources and vital coastal reefs” which provide a buffer from storms as well as rich grounds for fish breeding and aquatic life.

Desperate Cry by Swedish Youth Activist Greta Thunberg sets the Tone  

Greta Thunberg, young climate activist, passionately appeals to world leaders to take stronger climate actions.

The summit began with yet another in a recent series of calls by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to redouble action: “Nature is angry, … and nature is striking back with fury,” Guterres said. He was followed by a desperate and angry cry from the Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg. She began her remarks saying, “this is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean…

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. 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. How dare you!” cried Thunberg.

Clean Air and Healthier Foods  

Corporate, philanthropic and government leaders repeatedly referred to the cries of youths like Thunberg in their responses, although it was clear that all were groping to provide sufficient robust answers.

“We beg you to listen to our youth because they are demanding this regenerative culture, and listen to that inner voice that whispers to us that life is sacred,” said Danone’s Faber, sounding an almost mystical note.  “The food system that we have built over the last century is a dead end for the future…. We thought we could engineer the life we needed and kill the rest in the fields… The resulting mono-cropping consequences are standing right in front of us now. We depend for two thirds of our food on this planet on only nine plants today. Some 40% of land is degraded.”

(Left to Right) CEO of Danone, Emmanuel Faber; President of Republic of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales; President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi; Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg.

Faber said that the “One Planet” business coalition of 20 of the world’s largest food and agro-based companies representing some US$500 billion in sales would work to restore soil health with regenerative agricultural practices; create consumer demand for more varieties of crops; rein in agro-based deforestation; and put “nature-based solutions at the heart of our strategies and our priorities.”

But he added that government agricultural subsidies also need a major overhaul so as to shift farm incentives from “killing life” to protecting biodiversity.

Meanwhile, Jane Burston, Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund, said that the new initiative would tackle air pollution that kills some 7 million people annually, transforming it into an “opportunity to not only save millions of lives but to avert  dangerous climate change.

“I want you to imagine what that means for a second. Imagine the families losing a parent to lung cancer …the schoolgirl gulping for air on the roadside because of an asthma attack brought on by traffic pollution …the baby whose brain and lungs will never develop properly because of the air his mother could not avoid breathing, And many millions more are living with chronic conditions caused and exacerbated by air pollution.

“This is a public health emergency, and it is getting worse,” said Burston.

She added that since “the causes of climate change are often the same as the causes of air pollution – two thirds of outdoor air pollution is from burning fossil fuels – like coal – for power, transport and industry. The solutions can also be the same: renewable energy, electric mobility, more walking and cycling.” And in economic terms, she cited World Bank and OECD data saying that cleaner air would save trillions of dollars every year in avoided health costs that drag down economic productivity.

Jane Burston announcing the launch of the Clean Air Fund.

Burston said that the US $50 million in clean air commitments was halfway to its target of US$ 100 million that the Fund hopes to recruit.  The initiative is backed by IKEA Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Oak Foundation, Bernard van Leer Foundation, FIA Foundation and the Guys and St Thomas’s Charity.

“I urge the leaders gathered here today to respond to the World Health Organisation’s call to action, and to put tackling air pollution at the top of your agenda, because clean air is a human right and together we can make it a human reality,” added Burston.

“The real cost of carbon is felt in our lungs,” said WHO’s Maria Neira in an op-ed published Monday in The BMJ. But it is also felt in national economies, she added, noting that air pollution’s health impacts cost OECD economies on average 4% of their annual GDP, and close to 10% for some countries in Asia. The countries and cities that joined WHO’s Clean Air initiative, led by Spain and Peru, would aim to reach WHO air quality guidelines by 2030, in the context of the Climate Summit’s social and political track of commitments.

Certainly the ears of many delegates in the hall were ringing throughout the day with words of Thunberg, who in the close of her remarks had said, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Whether her words will echo further in the coming weeks and months remains to be seen.


Youth climate activists protest outside the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative’s closed-door meeting, held the day before the UN Climate Action Summit.


This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story, co-founded by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.


  • Updated 24 September, 2019



Image Credits: UN Photo/Cia Pak, UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe, Thelma Young/

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