‘I think climate change offers an opportunity for multilateralism to prove its value.’ So said António Guterres, after being photographed for a Time magazine cover this June, knee-deep in the rising waters of Tuvalu. The UN Secretary General is getting ready for the 2019 Climate Action Summit (21-23 September), to be held alongside the United Nation’s 74th General Assembly. His ambition is to boost each country’s ambition in implementing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It is going to be a tough job.
The multilateral world order envisaged in the post-war era with the birth of the United Nations, is being threatened by the biggest wave of unilateral pronouncements since 1948. ‘[My country] first’ is the new motto no one seems ashamed to utter. And nationalism doesn’t bode well for universal climate action.
Last June, opposition from coal-burning Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic shipwrecked the European plan for implementing a 2050 net zero-emissions target. The same target that the IPCC, the pool of world climatologists, recommends if we are to avoid the worst effects of the ongoing crisis. A week later, a UN meeting in Bonn saw the IPCC report excluded from negotiations because of opposition from Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries. It’s worth remembering that UN treaties, such as the Paris Agreement, have to be approved unanimously.
In spite of Mr Guterres’ lofty ambitions, the road towards decarbonisation is being led by unilateral steps. Finland has set a net zero-emissions deadline for 2035. Sweden has enacted a 2045 target by law. Norway aims for 2030, but with the help of carbon-offsetting mechanisms. France, the UK, Germany, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland all have 2050 laws under discussion, often with nationalistic caveats – France has doubts on restraining nuclear energy, Ireland on methane-producing livestocks, Germany on coal-burning. On the other side of the Atlantic, California and several other states have erected a wall of environmental legislation, defying – and often hampering – the Trump administration’s plan to dismantle all of President Obama’s green initiatives.
Truly, multilateralism has to prove its value with climate change. While wishing the Secretary General all the success, we keep waiting for the first country leader to unilaterally say: ‘My planet first’.
This was published in the August 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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