"United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres's warning at last December's COP25 climate conference that "we are knowingly destroying the very support systems keeping us alive" might be the most alarming words ever uttered by a UN leader."
In recent weeks, the world has been focused on urgently battling the fast-evolving Covid-19 pandemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO), governments, and central banks have acted rapidly to mitigate the virus's impact, while scientists, policymakers, and public-health experts are sharing vital data via sophisticated tracking tools. And the large number of people who have recovered from the virus attests to the efficacy of the response to date.
But in addition to the novel and immediate Covid-19 threat, the world also faces an unprecedented climate and environmental emergency. Governments and businesses must now start addressing climate change with the same resolve and urgency that they are showing in fighting the pandemic.
Consider air pollution, which kills an estimated seven million people worldwide each year. Unlike Covid-19, this threat is not new, stems from multiple sources, and is closely linked to how we heat and light our homes, move around, and deal with waste - daily habits that are deeply embedded in our lifestyles and economic systems. Tackling such a complex challenge thus requires action on many fronts to reduce the risk of even more premature deaths.
Indeed, while the Covid-19 response has demonstrated the power of open, collaborative science and swift action in dealing with emerging threats, it also has highlighted deep-seated issues that limit our ability to respond to challenges like global environmental change. In particular, the world is waking up to the possibility that the pandemic - and the strict measures introduced to contain it - could result in an even deeper economic downturn than the one triggered by the 2008 global financial crisis.
The systemic nature of such risks may also explain why climate action to date has been insufficient. The science is clear: Global carbon dioxide emissions must decline by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by mid-century if the world is to have a chance of preventing catastrophic global warming. But although the need for urgent and decisive government action in this area has never been greater, political leaders have so far failed to rise to the challenge.
In fact, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres's warning at last December's COP25 climate conference that "we are knowingly destroying the very support systems keeping us alive" might be the most alarming words ever uttered by a UN leader. As matters stand, countries' nationally determined contributions under the 2015 Paris agreement would have to be five times more ambitious in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050.
Likewise, although a growing number of companies are pledging to become carbon neutral, this share needs to increase significantly. Too many multinational corporations and investors resist adopting climate-friendly policies and exert heavy pressure on governments, which in turn are unwilling to take the bold and potentially unpopular steps that are needed. Yet, a relatively small number of fossil-fuel companies are responsible for a significant proportion of global CO2 emissions. By putting a real price on carbon, governments can set in motion a controlled shift away from fossil-fuel dependence.
Digital platforms can play their part, too. After all, Google and Facebook have removed false information about Covid-19, along with offers that try to profit from it. They should also consider limiting the visibility of people who spread false information about climate change, or of companies that depend on climate-endangering activities.
This year marks a critical juncture for global climate action, and not only because it falls halfway between the 2010 baseline for CO2 emissions and the 2030 deadline for significant cuts. It also is a bumper year for environmental negotiations, with new global biodiversity goals expected later this year (October's meeting has now been postponed, owing to COVID-19), and COP26 scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November. With countries' climate pledges up for review, COP26 will be a make-or-break moment that tells us whether we can avert a global climate disaster.
Any global climate action must start by considering our common humanity, and the need for solutions that are just and equitable for everyone. Because the climate-change burden falls most heavily on the countries least responsible for causing it, those that are most responsible - the rich and developed countries - must lead the way in cutting emissions.
In many respects, the last 12 months have been encouraging, with creative responses to climate change and indications of behavioural shifts such as new no-fly trends. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren around the world have protested against climate inaction, spurred on by the indomitable Greta Thunberg, while grassroots climate mobilisation has reached unprecedented levels.
But climate policies that disadvantage certain groups can lead to a backlash, such as the "Yellow Vest" protests that exploded in France in response to a planned fuel-tax increase. Such unrest highlights the need to put social justice at the heart of our climate response.
In 2020, the world is at a social tipping point. Scientists and civil society must jointly raise their voices and make every effort to ensure that we emerge on the right side of it. Young people have urged political leaders to listen to the scientists. And, as in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the scientific community stands ready to work side by side with governments and businesses to put humanity on a sustainable climate path while managing the development trade-offs responsibly.
The Covid-19 threat has shown that governments can act swiftly and resolutely in a crisis, and that people are ready to change their behaviour for the good of humanity. The world must now urgently adopt the same approach to the existential challenge of climate change.
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and current Chair of The Elders, is a patron of the International Science Council. Daya Reddy is President of the International Science Council.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.