Opinionista Mary Robinson 9 June 2021

Those most affected by the climate crisis must be heard: Where is global leadership when we need it so badly?

The Covid-19 crisis hit just as we had come to a fuller realisation of the climate crisis, and the vital importance of changing course to a world warming at below 1.5˚C and restoring global loss of biodiversity. But will we see the necessary ambition at COP15 on Biological Diversity in China in October, and at COP26 in Glasgow in November?

The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for our world, and it has not affected countries equally. Developing countries, with weaker health systems and many of whose health professionals migrate to wealthier countries, have suffered a huge burden in deaths and illness. This is now compounded by the inequitable access to vaccines.

The Covid-19 crisis hit just as we had come to a fuller realisation of the climate crisis, and the vital importance of changing course to a 1.5˚C world and restoring global loss of biodiversity. But will we see the necessary ambition at COP15 on Biological Diversity in China in October, and at COP26 in Glasgow in November? 

There is a connection between the inequitable access to vaccines and creating a real urgency of decision-making at COPs. I saw this before and at the Paris Climate Agreement. I had the honour to serve as the Special Envoy on Climate Change of the UN Secretary-General leading up to the Paris Agreement, and I saw how it was possible to get the new goal in Paris of staying well below 2˚ and working for 1.5˚. 

It would not have happened just because the United States and China were in agreement that we would have a successful COP in Paris. There was no consensus about referring to 1.5˚ in the text. 

As Special Envoy, I attended informal ministerial meetings in the lead up to Paris, at which I heard Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, repeat the urgency of preventing his small islands from disappearing and his country no longer being sovereign. 

In the streets in Paris, indigenous peoples, young people and civil society marched to the mantra, “1.5 to stay alive”. 

A high-ambition coalition was formed in the early stages of the Paris conference, led by Tony de Brum but including the United States and the European Union amongst others. Its objective was to get 1.5˚ into the text, and thankfully it succeeded.

Why was this important? Because the Paris Climate Agreement had to ask the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to study the difference between 1.5˚ and 2˚ of warming above pre-industrial standards and advise whether the world should stay at 1.5˚. 

This was what the IPCC reported on in October 2018, making it clear that the whole world had to remain at or below 1.5˚ of warming, and that this required a 45% reduction of emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. This report changed the sense of urgency on the discussion on climate and it would not have happened without the small island states, poorest countries, indigenous peoples and civil society. 

The worry is that without vaccines being sufficiently available in the developing world before the COPs in October and November, the voices demanding urgency may not be able to be there. 

Given the lack of leadership of the richest countries currently, both on reducing their emissions and on the promised climate finance of $100-billion dollars a year by 2020, this potential absence is a real worry and should drive the G7 and G20 to ensure the achievement of the Gavi COVAX advance market commitment target of one billion vaccine doses to the world’s poorest countries no later than 1 September 2021, and more than two billion doses by mid-2022. 

They should also deliver the long-promised $100-billion per year of climate finance to vulnerable countries by COP26, with 50% of funds allocated to climate adaptation. 

We need to recognise the vital role played in Paris by those most affected by the climate crisis, and that their voices have to be heard at COP15 and COP26 this year. DM

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