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United Nations: A Renewed Focus on Climate Change This Week in New York

Covington BUrling Law Firm

Regardless of your perspective on the subject, expect significantly increasing media and public attention around climate change and greenhouse gas emissions this week.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, is convening a Climate Summit on Tuesday in conjunction with the meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York.  More than 120 world leaders are expected to attend this gathering, making it significant and historic to have so much focus on this issue.  The Climate Summit prompted activists to put together a People’s Climate March on Sunday calling for action by the assembled world leaders.  Hundreds of thousands of people reportedly joined the march in New York — creating media and popular momentum– and demonstrations also occurred in cities around the world.

This focus on climate change has come to be known as Climate Week in New York City.  One of the most notable features of it is the role that businesses are playing in promoting private sector innovation for clean energy solutions, accounting for their climate-related activities, and even advocating for clearer governmental climate emissions policies.  The week is filled with dozens of meetings and forums featuring such business approaches.  Today, for example, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook will be joining Climate Week opening day events to discuss his company’s approach, and dozens of CEOs will be attending a Private Sector Forum tomorrow at the UN.  These meetings include financial firms and investors, as well as greenhouse gas emitters.  The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) will be at the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday to release its annual survey of company reporting on carbon emissions, showing that some 70% of the S&P 500 companies voluntarily report on their carbon emissions.  Several major companies are expected to announce commitments to power 100% of their operations from renewable energy.

The business discussions in New York will increasingly center on a call for companies to put an internal price on carbon, as a complement to efforts to have governments establish regulatory mechanisms — such as emissions limits or trading schemes — that likewise impose such a price.  A carbon price is believed to sharpen the business focus on climate change risks, costs and opportunities.  The UN Global Compact and the World Bank are promoting leadership criteria for companies based on such reporting.  Indeed, a just released report  from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) shows that some 150 companies have developed internal carbon pricing schemes.  It would not be surprising for calls for company pricing policies to increasingly appear in future shareholder resolutions.

This increasing private sector focus complements the accelerating pace of the official UN negotiations.  Interestingly, the Climate Summit is merely an effort by the Secretary General to enhance the focus on the climate treaty negotiations, which are happening elsewhere.  The next step is the annual meeting of the parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima, Peru in early December to continue with drafting a framework.  Countries will then submit emissions reduction commitments in the Spring, with an effort  to reach a global agreement at the Paris meeting of the parties in December 2015.  Yesterday, the Major Economies Forum of the largest nations met to tackle these issues and discuss next steps to accomplish such an agreement.  Several observers see this meeting as a demonstration of the increasing importance of this issue, as for the first time that meeting consisted of country Foreign Ministers (Secretary of State Kerry attended) rather than simply energy or environmental officials.  Issues around addressing the growing emissions from rapidly developing economies, such as China and India — which currently sit outside of the existing UN framework — remain central to the ultimate success of this endeavor.

Key to the United States’ position are the significant emissions reductions that would be derived from the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently proposed rules for existing power plants. They are a central piece in fulfilling the President’s international pledge in 2009 that the United States would reduce its carbon emissions by 17% by the year 2020.  The President’s speech this week will be important in setting a trajectory for how much further the United States may be willing to go after 2020.

The UN’s chief climate change official, Christian Figueres, speaking at a small gathering yesterday, regards the week’s activities as an indication that the climate issue may be reaching a tipping point.  She characterizes the public demonstrations as a statement that the nations of the world “must” address climate change, the business actions as a demonstration that governments “can” address climate change, and believes that governmental leaders are now poised to assert that they “will” address it.  While the outcomes may not be fully settled for some time, companies can expect to see a renewed public focus on these issues and will likely find that they present a range of increasing risks and opportunities.

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© 2014 Covington & Burling LLP

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