Zelenskyy Upstages UN Climate Summit – Analysis


By Alex Willemyns

A high-profile climate change summit hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York on Wednesday was derailed after he was whisked away to an unexpected meeting of the Security Council, where Russia’s U.N. ambassador tried to prevent Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from speaking.

The climate change summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly included the leaders of Vietnam, Thailand, Colombia, Chile, Kenya, South Africa, Samoa, the European Union and the U.S. state of California, and was intended to highlight those taking action on climate mitigation.

But Guterres told the leaders during his opening remarks that he would not be able to stay for long, due to a last-minute scheduling clash.

“Someone has scheduled the Security Council meeting for today at 11 [a.m.], after this summit had been scheduled,” he said, “and according to the rules, I have to be in the Security Council.”

Guterres told the attendees his departure did “not mean that I do not consider this an absolute priority.” He said humanity had “opened the gates of hell” by failing to enact effective mitigation policies.

“But the future is not fixed,” he said. “It is for leaders like you to write. We can still limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees. We can still build a world of clean air, green jobs and affordable clean power.”

‘If you agree, you stop the war’

In the Security Council, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, clashed with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who was sitting in his country’s seat as the current president of the council, over his proposal for Zelenskyy to deliver opening remarks.

Nebenzya accused the leader of Albania – a former member of the Soviet-aligned Eastern Bloc that joined NATO in April 2009 – of exercising “a blatant disregard for consensus and practices of the council” by insisting that Ukraine’s leader be the first speaker.

Rama, he said, had put his “NATO political and ideological beliefs above the obligations of the presidency of the Security Council,” which he said “should adopt an impartial position” of consensus.

But the Albanian leader accused Nebenzya of hypocrisy.

“Coming from you, all this lecture of violating the rules in this building is quite an impressive shot,” Rama said, before suggesting that it was Russia’s fault the Security Council was even meeting.

“There is a solution for this,” he said. “If you agree, you stop the war, and President Zelenskyy will not take the floor.”

Guterres, fresh from the climate summit, was then invited to speak. 

He noted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “in clear violation of the United Nations Charter,” had aggravated geopolitical tensions and cut “deep fissures” in multilateral cooperation at a time of multiple mounting global crises like climate change and increasing inequality.

Security Council reforms

Allowed to speak next, Zelenskyy called for Russia to be suspended from the U.N. Security Council and for reform of the body itself, arguing that Russia’s status as a permanent member, with its veto power, undermined the United Nations as a security guarantor.

“Humankind no longer pins its hopes on the U.N. when it comes to the defense of the sovereign borders of nations. World leaders are seeking new platforms and alliances,” Zelenskyy told the Security Council.

He suggested the U.N. General Assembly be given the power to overturn vetoes on the Security Council with a two-thirds majority, and called for an expansion of the permanent membership to include Germany, “one of the key global guarantors of peace and security,” and others. 

“The African Union must be here permanently,” Zelenskyy said of the Security Council. “Asia deserves broader permanent representation, and it cannot be considered normal when nations like Japan, India, or the Islamic world remain outside the permanent membership.”

Climate finance

At the U.N. climate summit, world leaders spoke of the need to further develop “climate finance” measures, including making good on the developed world’s pledge in Copenhagen in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year for climate action in the developing world.

European Union President Ursula von der Leyen called for the goal to be reached before the 28th U.N. Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP28, in Dubai in December. The $100-billion figure was originally meant to be achieved by 2020.

“Before we meet in Dubai, we have to meet the $100 billion climate finance goal,” von der Leyen said. “Indeed, it is a question of trust.”

She said that the European Union contributes $27 billion a year, and called on the rest of the developed world to step up. More ambitious carbon-pricing programs, which require businesses to buy permits to emit greenhouse gasses, could be the solution, she added.

“Today, it’s only 23% [of emissions] that are covered, and this brings revenue already of $95 billion,” she said. “Imagine, if we could cover 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of revenue that we would get to invest in low- and middle-income countries.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz were among many other world leaders who chose to highlight their countries’ contributions to climate mitigation, with Scholz going so far as to call 2023 a “turning point” on the climate change problem.

But Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh were among the majority of participants, which included the presidents of South Africa and Kenya, and Pacific Island nations like Samoa and Tuvalu, to call for more help.

Srettha noted that Thailand’s government had raised $12.5 billion on its own by issuing “sustainability bonds” to finance environmental and agricultural projects, and Pham explicitly called for more funds.

“Developed countries and international partners must double financing for adaptation by 2025 and operationalize the Loss and Damage Fund at COP28 as committed,” Pham said. “This will help support developing countries to address climate change consequences.” 

No worries

The apparent optimism from some Western leaders at the summit led Chilean President Gabriel Boric to joke he briefly pondered if there was anything to worry about anymore when it comes to climate change.

“The first thought that comes to mind as I listened to the debate occurring within this forum is that if what we’re all saying here were true, we would have several reasons to sleep easy,” Boric said.

“It’s painfully clear that we’re neither calm, sleeping easy nor optimistic, because, unfortunately, what’s being said here is not true,” he added.

The biggest rounds of applause were reserved for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, though, who said the fossil fuel industry had bought off politicians “for decades” to prevent climate change mitigation from taking effect and harming their highly profitable business model. 

Despite “all of the leadership” on environmental protection from Californian politicians from President Richard Nixon to President Ronald Reagan, he argued, the Golden State was today “burning” and “choking up” from wildfires, floods and droughts due to the oil-and-gas industry’s skill at lobbying.

“It’s time for us to be a lot more clear: This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” he said. “It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil, it’s the burning of gas, it’s the burning of coal. We need to call that out.”

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