Political 'retreat' on climate action harms all nations, says UN climate chief

Helping poorer nations develop cleanly and adapt to climate threats is 'not charity but a global act of self-interest', says Patricia Espinosa.

solar panels at Centragrid power plant in Nyabira, Zimbabwe
A worker walks past solar panels at Centragrid power plant in Nyabira, Zimbabwe. Image: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

Rich nations are failing on promises to help poorer ones meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, even though such help would be “not charity but a global act of self-interest”, UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa said on Monday.

In an unusually pointed speech, she decried the erosion of the “strong, willing and informed leadership” that led to the 2015 accord, noting a “retreat” by leaders of many large-emitting nations from meeting commitments at home and abroad.

While she did not give examples, US President Donald Trump, for instance, has blocked climate action set in motion by his predecessor, Barack Obama, and plans to pull his country out of the Paris Agreement next month.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has encouraged development of the Amazon rainforest - crucial for its ability to absorb climate-changing emissions - for farms and mining, spurring a spike in deforestation and fires.

Espinosa noted that rich nations had agreed to raise $100 billion a year, starting from 2020, to help poorer, vulnerable countries develop cleanly and adapt to climate shifts - but it is “not yet clear” the money is being delivered, she said.

“Today there is… a disconnect between those throughout the world calling for more urgent action and what national leaders have achieved so far,” she told an online event run by London-based think-tank Chatham House.

The world’s rich also continue to “consume and consume and consume with no thought”, she charged, even as they “drag their feet” on meeting pledges to tame climate threats.

Today there is… a disconnect between those throughout the world calling for more urgent action and what national leaders have achieved so far.

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary, UN Climate Change

“When we collectively look in the mirror, the reflected image is not kind,” she said, referring to a study last month that found the world’s wealthiest 1 per cent emitted twice as many planet-heating emissions as the poorest half of humanity over the last quarter century.

“Even children can understand the simple math of injustice,” she added.

Thelma Krug, vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a Brazilian deforestation policy expert, said holding planetary heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7F) above preindustrial times - a key aim of the Paris pact - was still physically possible.

“It’s a matter of governance and political will,” she said.

Todd Stern, a senior fellow at the US-based nonprofit Brookings Institution and Obama’s chief international climate negotiator, said much depended on US elections in November.

Trump’s rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, has “very ambitious climate plans”, including a national bid for net zero-emissions power by 2035 and $2 trillion in new investment to deal with climate change over four years, Stern said.

A reversal of current U.S. policy, combined with a recent Chinese commitment to become “carbon neutral” by 2060 - actions from the two biggest carbon emitters - could help spur broader change and rebuild climate action coalitions, he said.

But if Trump is re-elected, “I wouldn’t expect any change” from current policies, Stern added.

Regardless of political changes, accelerating action on climate change to the level needed will require the world to “mobilise capital at a different level than it’s ever been mobilised before”, Stern noted.

Right now there are many things impeding that, from outdated subsidies, taxes and laws to lobbying by fossil fuel companies to slow a clean-energy transition, said Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the European Environment Agency.

To speed a green transition, “we should spend more time on understanding what is blocking us”, he urged, noting political “ideologies” that rejected climate change were also a problem.

“We should not sidestep the uneasy parts of the discussion,” he added - but there was “plenty of capital” available if such problems could be overcome.

Chris Stark, chief executive of Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, said he believed China’s new unilateral “carbon-neutral” pledge reflected a growing recognition that halting still-rising emissions was becoming an “economic imperative”.

“The fundamentals of decarbonisation – the economics globally – get better and better every year,” he told a separate online event on Monday.

“This looks less and less like some sort of hair-shirted ambition, and more and more like a straightforwardly sensible prospectus for investment, regardless of your views on climate change.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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