“Humanity is waging a war on nature,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned world leaders at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), exhorting countries to take decisive action against the urgent climate and biodiversity crises facing the world.

His action plan calls for governments at all levels, businesses, the investor community, and civil society to shape their countries’ COVID-19 recovery plans by ensuring that governments pursue six climate-positive actions: investing in green jobs, declining to bail out polluting industries, ending fossil fuel subsidies, taking climate risk into account in all financial and policy decisions, working together, and leaving no one behind.

While the challenge is immense, we saw some signs of progress during the course of UN General Assembly week that move us in the right direction and can be built upon.

President Xi Jinping used his high-level address to pledge that China would attain carbon neutrality before 2060 and peak emissions before 2030. The announcement points the way for the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases to enhance its Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement. This is a vital start, but more action is needed and we have yet to see the policies that will enable China fulfill this new commitment.

Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

China’s announcement followed closely on the heels of the European Commission’s presentation of its plan to enhance its own target to reduce greenhouse emissions to 55% by 2030 from its original goal of 40%. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged more ambitious action to make Europe the first climate neutral continent in the world by 2050.

Looking to seize on the national-level momentum, the UN Secretary-General and the United Kingdom announced a major new moment on the diplomatic calendar: this year’s fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, on Dec. 12, will be an important milestone to help raise climate ambition even further.

At the same time, cities, states, and the private sector redoubled their climate efforts during UNGA.

  • The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, grabbed headlines with an announcement that could be a watershed moment for the zero-emissions vehicle industry and broader passenger vehicle market in the United States and globally: California will stop selling new gasoline-powered cars as of  2035, replacing them with a surge of zero emission vehicles.
  • C40, a network of 96 mayors of metropolitan areas across the globe, announced that 12 major cities — from Berlin to London to Cape Town — have committed to taking all possible steps to divest city assets from fossil fuel companies and called on city pensions funds to follow suit and increase financial investments in climate solutions.
  • Federation and local officials were not alone in pledging new actions — corporate entities also announced climate action during UNGA. Walmart is now targeting zero emissions across the company’s global operations by 2040, and PepsiCo announced a plan to transition the company’s owned operations to 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
  • At the first United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, more than 150 leaders from across the globe spoke to the need to safeguard and finance biodiversity, building momentum for next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Kunming, China, where countries aim to agree on a new set of biodiversity targets. The summit took place one day after more than 70 countries signed a Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which included 10 steps to address the global biodiversity crisis, ranging from developing green COVID-19 recovery plans to scaling up protected areas and addressing ocean plastic pollution.

Guterres summed up best the mix of urgency and conviction that animated the climate and biodiversity issues at UNGA this year: “We have champions and solutions all around us, in every city, corporation and country,” he said. “But the climate emergency is fully upon us, and we have no time to waste. The answer to our existential crisis is swift, decisive, scaled-up action and solidarity among nations.”