It is supposed to be different this time.
The United Nations Climate Summit, which kicks off Sept. 23, in New York City, is designed to break two decades of deadlock that have stymied efforts to reach a binding global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even as the world rapidly approaches the point of no return for preventing catastrophic climate change.
For the first time since the failed 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen, world leaders—more than 120 are expected to attend—will gather to hammer out a way forward in the run-up to the next big round of climate change talks in Paris in December 2015.
Unlike those formal proceedings, called the Conference of the Parties, Tuesday’s event in New York involves no negotiations and no bitter disputes between developed and developing countries over obligations to cut greenhouse gas emissions and who should pay the cost. Instead, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summoned political leaders, titans of industry, and environmental activists to discuss concrete solutions and build public support for actions related to agriculture, energy, carbon markets, transportation, and other issues. Even representatives from the oil and gas industries are expected to participate.
“People who pull the levers of the global economy will be in this building,” Robert Orr, assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and strategic planning, said at a press conference at the U.N. on Tuesday. “When they speak with a unified voice in this area, it has a real impact in the political realm.”
The summit will kick off with What’s Possible, a video on solutions to climate change narrated by Morgan Freeman. (A preview is below.) World leaders will then give a series of four-minute speeches before individual sessions begin on climate-related topics.
Look for big announcements from big corporations on climate change initiatives as well as policy moves by governments, such as the Obama administration’s anticipated announcement that it has reached agreements with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Honeywell, DuPont, and other companies to cut emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas.
“It’s the beginning of new coalitions—not only governments but the private sector—of civil society, mobilizing ambitious action around sectors that are in these high-impact areas,” Selwin Hart, director of the secretary-general’s climate change support team, said at the press conference.
Much has changed since the Copenhagen conference in 2009. Over the past five years, renewable energy has grown from a niche market to a multibillion-dollar business. Cities, states, and nations, meanwhile, have taken matters into their own hands, implementing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In June, for instance, the Obama administration moved to slash carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent. China has started rolling out regional carbon-trading markets as it becomes the world’s biggest installer of renewable energy systems.
“There is change afoot,” said Orr. “Part of it is the hard reality of economics. Many industries will die if they don’t change. Now the economics of the energy sphere have fundamentally changed.”
Talk is one thing; action is another. The question is whether political and business leaders will follow through with the grand pronouncements they make and keep the pressure building for action in the lead-up to the Paris negotiations next year. On Sunday, more than 100,000 people are expected to march through Manhattan to goad the U.N. to take action.
Still, there’s an air of optimism missing from recent climate change discussions.
“In Copenhagen, there was more of a sense that this was about dividing up the pie of pain,” said Orr. “This is about growing the pie of opportunity.”