By Matteo Civillini

As United Nations chief Antonio Guterres convened a climate summit for the first time in four years, he was keen to avoid platforming greenwash.

Instead of a long procession of leaders, the stage would be given only to those with “credible policies and plans” to keep the goals of the Paris Agreement alive.

On Wednesday, the absence of most of the world’s biggest polluters spoke volumes. Three-quarters of the G20 nations were left outside the door, with the United States, China, the United Kingdom and India pushed off the guestlist.

Among those that made the cut, there were a handful of slightly improved goals and climate finance promises – nothing groundbreaking.

“This wasn’t a dramatic pledging or deal-making summit”, says Tom Evans, an analyst at E3G. “But it put forward a group of leaders showing who is ahead and isolated those who are laggards. It was trying to show what is possible instead of diluting the level of ambition.”

Leaders from 34 governments along with seven non-government bodies, including the World Bank, the London mayor and the governor of California, addressed the summit. Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, the EU, and South Africa were the most high-profile speakers.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the event was increasingly fiery rhetoric on fossil fuels.

California governor Gavin Newsom started by accusing the industry of “playing each and every one of us in this room for fools”. The state has recently filed a lawsuit against major oil companies.

Those words were echoed by Chile’s Gabriel Boric, who said “the climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis, so we need to leave fossil fuels behind”. His regional counterpart, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro came out against fossil fuels despite the country being a major global exporter of coal and oil.

“We depend on those exports, we live on those exports,” Petro said. “However, the real goal for all countries is aiming for zero production and supply of coal, oil and gas in the short term. If we don’t focus on that life will not be saved.”

Catherine Abreu, founder of Destination Zero, hailed the speeches as “game-changing” from the perspective of the global climate regime. “We saw once and for all the connection being made between climate change and fossil fuels”, she told Climate Home News. “As shocking as it is, that is revolutionary for the international space.”

Brazil brought the biggest news to the table when it announced widely trailed plans to undo former president Jair Bolsonaro’s cuts to its climate ambition and strengthen its targets further.

“We will enhance Brazil’s emission reduction commitments from 37 percent to 48 percent by 2025, and from 50 percent to 53 percent by 2030,” said environment minister Marina Silva, who stepped in after President Lula reportedly fell ill. “This is despite the fact that our historical responsibilities are incomparably smaller than those of the rich countries.”

Among the major European countries, which made up the bulk of the attendees, only France came with fresh commitments. It announced it would give €1.61 billion (US$1.75bn) to the Green Climate Fund’s four-yearly fundraising round. While this is slightly more in euros than France gave last time in 2019, the changing exchange rate means it is less in US dollar terms.

The EU’s president Ursula von Der Leyen repeated the bloc’s battle lines for Cop28, pushing for global emissions to peak by 2025 and unabated fossil fuels to be phased out “well before” 2050. Germany’s Olaf Scholz restated his country’s commitment to renewable energy, underlining an agreement to triple capacity by 2030 struck at the G20.

Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi campaigner and adviser to the Cop28 presidency, said he was left underwhelmed by the lack of commitments, especially on the loss and damage fund and on adaptation. He told Climate Home News that, while the summit was “an excellent initiative”, it was ultimately “long on talk and short on delivery”.

Oscar Soria from Avaaz, who was at the summit, was disappointed, but not surprised, with the outcome. “The world is on fire, of course, we were expecting more concrete announcements. Nobody said anything meaningful on subsidies to fossil fuels, for example.”

The climate ambition summit was billed as one of the crucial stepping stones to building a consensus ahead of Cop28. Securing a deal in Dubai will inevitably require a strategy to bring the countries left outside of the room in New York back to the table.

Closing off the summit, Antonio Guterres urged the attendees to “take no prisoners” and “bring together all those that you can bring together with you”.

But E3G’s Tom Evans says, “the absence of key power players highlighted how difficult climate politics has become”.

“The UAE will now be thinking of the strategy to bring them back on board. The summit helped in showing where people are sat with ten weeks to go,” he added.