Turning up the heat on Climate action: No time for delay

by alvaro | September 22, 2014
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by Winnie Byanyima

In the five years since global leaders met in Copenhagen to discuss climate change, a lot has changed, and too much has stayed the same.

Climate change is no longer just coming. It’s here already. In the past five years, more than 650 million people have been affected and more than 112,000 lives lost as a result of weather-related disasters.

It is threatening to reverse development gains as it destroys livelihoods and infrastructure, devastates crops, leaves millions hungry, and undoes people’s efforts to climb out of poverty. And the financial cost of this chaos has been immense – almost half a trillion dollars – three times the costs in the whole of the 1970s.

Yet much has stayed the same. International commitments to reverse the threat of climate change seems to have stalled, both on cutting emissions and on giving developing countries the resources they need to cut their emissions and cope with the effects of climate change that cannot now be prevented.

No country has increased mitigation targets since 2009 and some have gone backwards

When leaders met in Copenhagen in 2009, they agreed to cut the emissions causing climate change, but not enough to keep warming below the 2 degrees Celsius target they set. But in the years since, no country has increased their mitigation targets and some – like Canada and Japan – have even gone backwards. As a result, the world is on course to heat up by almost 4 degrees Celsius (39 F) by the end of the century, and to disastrous effect.

Leaders also called for  a ‘Green Climate Fund’, and rich countries pledged $30 billion from 2010 to 2012, and to increase that to $100 billion a year by 2020, to help poor countries adapt to a changing climate and reduce their emissions. Here too the picture is of flat-lining political ambition: only a few countries have committed to increase their finance contributions in the next years. At best, $16-17 billion will flow this year, though without some creative accounting tricks, this is probably closer to $8-9 billion.

In the meantime, there is ever-increasing spending on fossil fuel subsidies – despite plummeting costs of renewable energy, and despite growing demands from citizens around the world for a different way.

We need a gear shift in the way we deal with this crisis

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders, from government, finance, business, and civil society to a Climate Summit this week, intended to galvanize and catalyze climate action.  The Summit is badly needed. We do need more momentum, a gear shift in the way we deal with this crisis unfolding before our eyes.

Climate change is not the only thing on the plate of world leaders at the moment. Rarely in recent years have we known so many international crises – from Syria and Iraq, to South Sudan and Somalia. Yet in many ways climate change is actually one of the low hanging fruit. Unlike some current political crises, where the solutions are hard to identify, we know how to fix climate change. We agree with Ban Ki-moon when he says “instead of asking if we can afford to act, we should be asking what is stopping us, who is stopping us, and why?” The only thing holding us back from securing a safer future are the vested interests in the Fossil Fuel industry.

Too many will offer little more than ‘greenwashing’ spin

Unfortunately, the Summit doesn’t look set to do enough to put us back on course. World leaders are expected to bring little to the table. The political vacuum is being filled by announcements from the private sector, but while there will be some encouraging commitments made, the risk is that too many will offer little more than ‘greenwashing’ spin which won’t add up to much.

Progressive business leaders need to, as the Secretary General puts it, “push back against skeptics and entrenched interests”. Business can help achieve this by pressing governments for better regulation, energy efficiency, and investment in renewables. They can also cut their own emissions and set targets to phase out fossil fuel emissions from their own operations.

But voluntary promises by the private sector will not be enough. Only with political leadership and government regulation can we get the global action that both the science and a growing number of people around the world demand.

If it’s to be a success at any level, this week’s Summit must be the beginning of renewed energy and action to get the world back on track before leaders meet again at the end of next year in Paris to agree a new international climate agreement. There clear government commitments, guided by the science and principles of equity, will be needed.

Climate change is happening now, claiming lives and making people hungry. The costs are mounting and delay will only make the situation worse. We need a step change. That´s why we marched in New York on September 21st. With tens of thousands of others, we’re saying it’s time to stop climate change from making people hungry, and to build a safer world and a just and peaceful future.

Winnie Byanyima is Oxfam International Executive Director. A version of this blog originally appeared at blogs.oxfam.org


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