COVID-19 turned the world upside down last year, but it has also shown us that when there is a political consensus for action, human ingenuity and innovation can be deployed at the scale and speed needed to meet global challenges.
With unprecedented speed, we have developed, tested and begun to deploy multiple effective vaccines for COVID-19. Now we must bring the same resolve to bear on fighting the other great existential threat to humanity: climate change.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month: “Our future security and prosperity depend on bold climate action.”
Yet, even at the most recent Climate Ambition Summit on Dec. 12 last year, many leaders’ commitments still fell far short of what is needed to meet this collective challenge. To be sure, the EU, the UK and even some of the smaller countries that are most vulnerable to climate change have significantly strengthened their 2030 emissions-reduction targets.
However, China, Japan, the US and other major greenhouse-gas emitters still need to follow suit, preferably well ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. Given the crisis we face, there are no more excuses for delay or prevarication.
Five years ago, after long and painstaking negotiations, the world came together to conclude the Paris climate agreement. This was one of the greatest triumphs of multilateral diplomacy in recent years, but it must not be taken for granted. Without an even greater commitment to action, the legacy of Paris risks being squandered altogether.
The events of the intervening half-decade have created a geopolitical landscape that would be unrecognizable to those who gathered in Paris. Back then, words like “coronavirus” or “Brexit” would have elicited little more than a puzzled shrug; now they command the fevered attention of policymakers, heads of state and governments around the world.
Yet these developments cannot be allowed to obscure the continuing and increasingly acute need for climate action, especially climate finance.
More than a decade ago, the world’s richest countries pledged to mobilize US$100 billion per year by 2020 to assist poorer countries with climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. That deadline has passed, and these countries have yet to fulfill their promise.
Still, there is hope.
US president-elect Joe Biden has reaffirmed his commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement immediately upon taking office.
US leadership is sorely needed after the four wasted years of unnecessary destruction under US President Donald Trump. A US$2 billion payment to the Green Climate Fund by the US to help meet its part of the US$100 billion commitment would be a concrete complement to rejoining the Paris accord.
This money was already pledged during then-US president Barack Obama’s tenure, so there is no excuse to keep it sitting in the US Department of the Treasury’s coffers.
By the same token, other rich countries must not use the renewed focus on the US as an alibi for backpedaling on their own commitments.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement that she plans to initiate a new international process on climate finance next year is a welcome declaration of intent, but past experience shows that lofty rhetoric cannot be counted on.
Moreover, all countries this year must give clear proof that they are reviewing and seeking to heighten the ambitions of their nationally determined contributions, the voluntary instrument through which signatories uphold their commitments under the Paris Agreement.
Solidarity and justice lie at the heart of the Paris accord and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were also adopted in 2015. These principles, and the responsibilities they entail, are more important than ever as a sustainable recovery is charted from the shock of COVID-19.
The blunt truth is that too much time has been wasted in the five years since Paris. The policies that are required to cut emissions — including an end to fossil-fuel subsidies, a meaningful carbon price and investment in renewable energies — have been fitful, inconsistent and uncoordinated.
Yet the climate crisis, like COVID-19, observes no borders and is indifferent to national sovereignty.
While attention has properly been focused on the virus, the world has also witnessed ever more extreme weather phenomena, from wildfires in Australia and California to the costliest storm on record in the Bay of Bengal, which forced 2 million people to evacuate their homes.
Everyone has become acutely and intimately aware of the fragility of human existence and the extent to which, across borders and generations, our fates are interconnected.
As we move from Paris to 2030, global leaders, businesses and citizens alike should expect to be judged by the actions that are, or are not, taken today.
Neither our descendants nor the planet will tolerate more selfish short-termism.
Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights, is chair of The Elders.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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