Mary Robinson: global solidarity needed to confront climate crisis

Development & Climate Days in Paris, France, heard that we are entering a new era in which we must achieve global solidarity for climate justice, CDKN's Mairi Dupar reports.

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Mairi Dupar
Mairi Dupar is global public affairs coordinator at CDKN
09 December 2015
Mary Robinson addresses the Development and Climate Days, with (from left to right), Katharine Mach, IPCC; Claudia Martinez, CDKN; Janos Pasztor, UN (Photo: Climate Centre, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Mary Robinson addresses the Development and Climate Days, with (from left to right), Katharine Mach, IPCC; Claudia Martinez, CDKN; Janos Pasztor, UN (Photo: Climate Centre, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Mary Robinson, the former Irish President and champion of human rights and climate action, called on Sunday for global solidarity to tackle the climate impacts which fall disproportionately on the poorest people.

Speaking at the Development & Climate Days, a gathering of some 200 development practitioners, Robinson said that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in September "will not be very meaningful" without a "robust, binding climate agreement". The SDGs have eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 as their number one goal and climate change impacts are increasingly recognised as a factor driving people back into poverty (PDF).

A new era

Simon Maxwell, CDKN's executive chair and an advisor to UNEP's Emissions Gap Report, said that countries' current climate pledges are inadequate to halt global warming at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

There are different ways of calculating how much global warming will take place under the Paris pledges that have already been made (estimates range that the pledges add up to 2.7oC to 3.5°C of further warming — Bert Metz explains further in his blog). Either way, it's clear that collective ambitions are not yet strong enough to avert catastrophic impacts.

UNEP calculated that by 2030, the world's median emissions should be 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in order to be on track for a greater than two-thirds chance of limiting temperature increase to 2°C by 2100. (UNEP says: "The similar level for a 1.5°C pathway is 39 GtCO2e in 2030." See footnote for more information on the emissions gap.) The Paris pledges only close by one quarter the gap between the emissions pathway we need for two degrees, and the pathway we are on today.

The world will have to 'take a collective breath' to tackle the remaining excess emissions, Robinson said. "We are now in a new era."

Three degrees of warming will bring unacceptable risks

Katharine Mach of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC)'s working group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability told Development & Climate Days: "We know 3°C presents unacceptable risks and impacts – at global scale. There are the massive game changers. If we go up to 3°C and stay there we are looking at Greenland [ice sheet] melting and a high likelihood that the West Antarctic ice shelf melts, which leads to 10 metres of sea level rise.

"We are looking at a very high risk of unevenness, unfairness of the impacts – the impacts on crop yields, water availability will be very hard to deal with for those who are dealing with poverty eradication now. We know [the risks] are very serious and we know what [governments] need to do about it."

It will be essential for climate negotiators in Paris to step up to that task, said  Maxwell. Negotiators cannot assume that a myriad of voluntary efforts by civil society, business and city-level actors will necessarily make up the emissions gap. Hard commitments by governments will be needed – for which they will be accountable.

Calls grow to limit warming below 2 degrees

Even as the Paris pledges look inadequate to meet the requirements of staying below 2°C, a movement is growing among governments to endorse a global warming limit of 1.5°C. The average global temperature has already risen by 1 degree above pre-industrial levels and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have surpassed the threshold of 400 parts per million – which hasn't occurred on Earth for millions of years.

The increasing political momentum behind the lower temperature target is a response to significant climate-related damages already experienced by climate-vulnerable communities  and nations today. Governments such as those of small Pacific island nations find that the very viability of their territories is under threat.

Tony de Brum, the foreign Minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, told the COP21 plenary that "we are in Paris to safeguard our livelihoods and our future" (reported on Twitter) and recently told the New York Times that his aim at the talks is for commitments that will keep the Marshall Islands habitable and above water.

Robinson reported that 150 governments have now signalled their desire to 'keep open the window' of working towards a 1.5oC temperature limit. These include the Alliance of Small Island States, the Least Developed Countries Group of negotiators and the Climate Vulnerable Forum.

While achieving such a goal would be exceedingly challenging, it is not beyond the limits of technological feasibility, according to recent scientific research. Massive climate mitigation efforts would be required, starting now.

Caution on the social impacts of climate action

Even while the task to avert catastrophic climate change calls for unprecedented levels of cooperation and solidarity, Robinson cautioned that actions to mitigate climate change must be carefully designed and must put poor people first. Climate mitigation action, designed and implemented carelessly, could be socially damaging. (For more on this topic, read the examples of the social impacts of climate mitigation in CDKN's IPCC toolkit series.)

We have to target and prioritise the poorest in everything we do… it is doable," said  Robinson. "A combined zero carbon-zero poverty approach could provide solutions that are equitable and focus on the poorest."

There is a particular gender angle on climate change, Robinson stressed: women as a whole are more affected by climate change and interventions must be sensitive to this reality. By the same token, women – including in developed countries – could be the key agents of transforming consumption patterns toward sustainability, given their roles in the household. "Women can change behaviour in families, can start new way of thinking about what we eat, how we do things," she said.

Colombia: an inspired example

Claudia Martinez of CDKN, an advisor to the Colombian government, suggested that each country has its own unique opportunities to eradicate poverty and cut emissionsw.

Colombia is emerging from years of civil war and an ensuing peace process, it is the eighth most unequal in the world, and is plagued by deforestation – 58 per cent of the country's emissions come from changes in land use. The government anticipates signing a peace agreement with opposition forces in March 2016.

"It all falls in the same equation – doing zero poverty and zero emissions at the same time," in the search for a more equitable, peaceful and stable country, Martinez said. The issues are inter-connected. In a situation where peace, forest conservation and climate action are all desired, tangible measures can address all these opportunities simultaneously.

"In a country like Colombia, peace leads to [land] titling, titling stops deforestation, stopping deforestation is good for the climate," she said.

A virtuous circle

Returning to the theme of government ambition on the global stage, Janos Pasztor, the UN Under Secretary General for Climate Change, suggested that positive climate initiatives on the ground should encourage climate negotiators to make more ambitious, collective commitments.

"You end up in a virtuous circle," he said. "This will be the first test in this COP – to see whether all the positive action is positively affecting the negotiating process."

Although countries' pledges, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), do not yet close the emissions gap, the fact that 186 countries have submitted national plans is remarkable, said Pasztor: "We need an agreement on how countries will increase their ambitions". An idea is emerging among parties to the UNFCCC that they may review their pledges even before the new Paris climate agreement is due to go into force in 2020.

Nonetheless, as  Robinson said, the gathering of nations in Paris to agree an inclusive, binding climate agreement presents a historic opportunity. If countries do not rise to the highest ambition, that will be – in her words – "a huge, lost opportunity".

Mairi Dupar ([email protected]) is global public affairs coordinator at CDKN. This blog was orginally posted on the CDKN website.

Footnote: in its ‘Emissions gap report 2015', UNEP specifies that "the emissions gap between what the full implementation of the unconditional INDCs contribute and the least-cost emission level for a pathway to stay below 2°C, is estimated to be 14 GtCO2e (range: 12-17) in 2030 and 7 GtCO2e (range: 5-10) in 2025. When conditional INDCs are included as fully implemented, the emissions gap in 2030 is estimated to be 12 GtCO2e (range: 10-15) and 5 GtCO2e (range: 4-8) in 2025."