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The Financial Express

Climate variability and the pandemic -- creating insecurity  

| Updated: March 16, 2021 20:15:08


--Representational image --Representational image

Currently, in many regions of the world, environmentalists are referring to a UN Security Resolution of 2018 which had warned of the adverse effects of climate change, ecological changes and natural disasters. This warning is currently coming true through what is happening particularly in Africa which is witnessing droughts, desertification, land degradation and food insecurity in different countries. Sudan, in particular, has become an example of vulnerability because of increased frequency of droughts and high rainfall variability. This is affecting rural areas where pastoralist livelihoods play a dominant role.

Such distressing situations are also emerging in other parts of the world-- in Latin America, in Asia and also in different parts of Australia. Women, youth and children are the groups most adversely affected by such climate insecurity. That is most evident in South Asia-- in India and in Bangladesh.

Such a dynamic, according to Nisreen Elsaim, Sudanese climate activist and Chair of United Nations Secretary General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change is also creating climate-related emergencies which are resulting not only in major disruptions to healthcare and climate-related internal migration but also increased risk of gender-based violence. It is becoming evident that women, youth and children are the groups most adversely affected by climate insecurity.

This renewed interest in the effects of climate variability has come to the forefront ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) which is expected to take place in November this year in Glasgow, Scotland.

Natural historian Sir David Attenborough in a video message has also given a strong warning that the "stability of the entire world" could be altered by climate threats. In this context he has drawn attention to the emerging threats as of "unprecedented kind". He has also underlined that weather changes has no regard for national boundaries and are turning forests into deserts, drowning great cities and leading to the "extermination of huge numbers of creatures with whom we share our planet."

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has also drawn attention to the fact that the last decade has been the hottest in human history and that wildfires, cyclones and floods have now become the new normal within communities. This is beginning to also affect political, economic and social stability. He has also underlined that "climate disruption is a crisis amplifier and multiplier," because it is also drying up rivers, reducing harvests, destroying critical infrastructure and displacing communities.

It may be noted that in recent discussions in the last week of February in the UN and some of its institutions including the UNEP, a consensus has emerged that 2021 will be critical, not only for curbing the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic, but also for meeting the impact created through climate variability. It has also been a climate challenge. Guterres has also reiterated the need to build a global coalition for carbon neutrality by 2050. It is being hoped that such a measure would also help to contain rising pollution within the atmosphere.

Similarly, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has reminded us that sustainable energy in the form of reliable and uninterrupted energy supply is critical to managing the diverse effects that the world is facing because of the pandemic crisis.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, has noted some interesting aspects in this paradigm.

Attention has been drawn to the fact that clean and sustainable energy is central to our recovery from COVID-19 pandemic. The SDGs in this regard could then be a guiding framework for recovering better together: (a) by making meaningful progress on the SDGs, we can address many of the systemic issues that made societies more vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place - health, decent work, poverty and inequalities, to name a few, and (b) by directing stimulus spending to investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

This will then help create more jobs for the same investment as fossil fuel projects. By increasing expenditure on clean cooking and electricity access, we can also enhance economic activity in rural areas and introduce modern infrastructure that can make communities more resilient and inclusive, particularly for the wellbeing of women and children. One needs to agree with such a format.

Additionally, investing in low-carbon infrastructure and technologies can create a platform and basis for the accomplishment of ambitious climate pledges reached during the Paris Agreement which set targets of a 2-degree global warming limit.

Consequently, it was interesting to note that during the discussions in February several countries announced their desire for achieving carbon neutrality-- consistent with goals set forth within the SDG matrix. We have to understand that we must harness the capacity of sustainable energy to rebuild our societies and economies while protecting the environment in the pursuit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

It would also be fitting to refer here to the decision by the new US Biden Administration to rejoin the Paris Accord. It is not just symbolical. It has a powerful and political significance for COP-26. President Biden signed a letter in this regard on his first day in Office. The connotation of coming back to Paris, according to environmental analysts means that henceforth the US will once again have to follow the rules. Those rules mean that sometime this year the US will need to improve on their previous commitment to cut carbon emissions made in the French capital in 2015. It may be mentioned that President Biden has made a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and 100 per cent clean electricity by 2035. This equation will now guide the US economy and society for decades to come. Coming back to Paris also denotes that it is no longer "America First". It also reiterates the fact that "multilateralism" is present once again in the White House.

This change in US policy is quite understandable. The world has watched with horror the many wildfires in California. These have been associated with climate change. There have also been numerous wildfires in Australia and in South America. These incidents have sent a clear message: climate now plays an important role in security policy. President Biden's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline permit has also been a carefully calculated message to the oil industry.

It needs to be appreciated that the US has again become a Party to the multilateral effort to overcome the existential threat posed by climate change. Along with the pandemic, the economy and racial justice, it has now emerged as one of the four key crises facing the new Administration.

It also clearly understands that tackling the root causes of rising temperatures can not only benefit other pressing problems as well but also that there is a symbiotic connectivity in this regard. This course of action has also spelt out that the responsible authorities in the US understand that climate solutions can boost the economy and also generate jobs.

It may be recalled that during his campaign for the Presidency, Biden highlighted electric vehicles and charging infrastructure (needed in this regard), building high-speed railways, and improving energy efficiency in homes and offices. Many are suggesting that all of this might be difficult to achieve quickly. However, it is also being mentioned that to accomplish this target, the Biden team might push the US Congress to pass a clean electricity standard that would set a target for green energy but leave it up to utilities to find the best way to meet the goal.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry will be President Biden's special envoy on climate change. His presence will help move things forward not only for the US but also for the rest of the world.

It would also be fitting at this point to refer to some of the views expressed with regard to the impact of climate variability by Joyce Msuya, the Deputy Executive Director for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).  He has correctly pointed out that environmental issues are development issues and are therefore everybody's issues.

In this regard attention has also been drawn to the fact that biodiversity loss is  not only taking place at a faster rate than ever before, but that pollution also, especially plastic pollution, is surfacing as a big problem.

In this regard UNEP has correctly proposed that "environmental issues are development issues and they are everybody's issues". Citizens, as such have been urged to make little changes in their households. It has also been pointed out that communities, particularly those who live around oceans, can make little changes with regard to their waste management so that it helps to improve the blue economy. It has also been significantly suggested that governments need to work together with the private sector, indigenous communities, civil society, youth population and children to address the environmental changes. This means inclusive multilateralism is the answer to our problems. We need to pay more to protect nature than to exploit it.

António Guterres has correctly outlined how the world is facing a severe and serious situation. Apparently, in the current growth trajectory "despite a temporary decline in emissions due to the pandemic, the earth is heading for at least 3°C of global warming this century; more than 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species are at substantially increased risk of extinction; and diseases caused by pollution are currently killing some 9 million people prematurely every year".

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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