Despite coordinated lobbying from investors and rousing rhetoric from governments, Jonathan Williams wonders whether the UN Climate Summit achieved anything

The UN Climate Summit in New York – which attracted more than 120 heads of state and government, campaigners including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Nelson Mandela’s widow Graça Machel – should be viewed as a success and failure in equal measure.

A success because, in the run-up to the one-day event, its host city saw more than 300,000 protesters take to the street, demanding action on climate change. While this pales in comparison to the turnout for anti-war protests, it also highlights that climate change is no longer the sole concern of green NGOs.

A success because AP4, Sweden’s SEK274bn (€30bn) buffer fund, will lead a pack of institutions in reducing the carbon footprint of $100bn (€78bn) in assets by next December – proving it an eminently sound and practical investment decision.

And finally, a success because institutional investors the world over were able to lobby governments for change to regulation that will mobilise $1trn a year in low-carbon investment.

Nevertheless, the conference was a case of preaching to the choir, with climate evangelists talking with other supporters, and those governments that wish to be seen as environmentally friendly dispatching their prime ministers or presidents to extol the virtue of being the greenest government ever.

The 400 companies that have come out in favour of carbon pricing, part of UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon’s Caring for Climate initiative, are more noteworthy. In an ideal world, governments would take bold action and introduce carbon pricing despite business resistance – as markets such as Australia and the European Union have.

Emissions trading schemes (ETS) are not the sole solution for tackling growing greenhouse gas emissions, but they do provide an incentive to reduce output, as the levels of carbon produced before and immediately after the abolition of Australia’s ETS proved.

It would also offer a financial disincentive to continued investment in high-carbon activities, as Anne-Marie Corboy, chief executive at the AUD28bn (€19bn) HESTA Super, told the conference – a view likely to be shared by Frank Pegan, chief executive of the AUD5.3bn Catholic Super, who said ahead of the event that the abolition of Australia’s ETS was a “backward” policy.

Corboy, however, was also realistic during her address. “No single investor can change either system alone, but, by showing leadership and reinforcing others in the system, we can contribute to change and hasten the low-carbon future we all need.”

The need for supportive capital was the UN’s motivation behind its 2010 Green Climate Fund. Four years later, the venture has so far only attracted $2.3bn to invest in emerging market climate projects – $1bn committed on Wednesday by France, a further $1bn previously offered by Germany. It shows that, despite government recognition of the risks of climate change, very little concrete action is forthcoming.

The hope remains that, spurred by the private sector’s coordinated response, as foundations move to divest fossil fuel, pension investors reduce carbon and companies call for a carbon price, governments will be compelled to agree new, binding carbon-reduction targets at next year’s conference in Paris.

At that point, the investor community’s work may pay off, as they remember that these reduction targets can be delivered with the help of investors worldwide, aided by a new regulatory framework boosting low-carbon investment to the targeted $1trn a year.