Some good can come out of the COVID-19 pandemic if world leaders use it to "rebuild our world for the better" by investing in clean energy to slow global warming, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 3 million people and killed at least 211,000 globally, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers. Its economic and societal shocks also have been devastating. Schools and businesses have closed, confining children to their homes and throwing millions out of work. Poor and vulnerable populations have been especially hard hit.
"COVID-19 has put the lives of billions of people around the globe in turmoil, inflicting grave suffering and destabilizing the global economy," the U.N. chief said in his speech.
"We have a rare and short window of opportunity to rebuild our world for the better," he said. "Let us use the pandemic recovery to provide a foundation for a safe, healthy, inclusive and more resilient world for all people."
Guterres, speaking by video link at a two-day international climate conference in Berlin, reminded almost 200 nations — particularly China and the United States, the world's two biggest greenhouse gas emitters — of their commitments to reduce carbon pollution under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
"As we plan our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, we have a profound opportunity to steer our world on a more sustainable and inclusive path — a path that tackles climate change, protects the environment, reverses biodiversity loss and ensures the long-term health and security of humankind," said Guterres.
"It has exposed the fragility of our societies and economies to shocks, and it has laid bare deep inequalities that threaten the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals," he said, referring to the United Nations' 17 anti-poverty goals for 2030. "The only answer is brave, visionary and collaborative leadership. "The same leadership is needed to address the looming existential threat of climate disruption."
The Petersberg Climate Dialogue, which included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, drew 30 climate ministers and other senior officials such as U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. They agreed in a closing statement that economic recovery plans must be aligned with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
2050 carbon neutrality
The Paris treaty requires nations to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible. Most of that responsibility falls on the Group of 20 major economies, which collectively account for more than 80% of all global carbon emissions.
"We must urgently put in place measures to strengthen resilience and cut greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees," Guterres said. "Technology is on our side. So, increasingly, is public opinion, especially the voice of young people. Many cities and businesses are taking action. But we still lack the necessary political will in many parts of the world."
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration notified the United Nations last year that it intends to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris climate accord. The withdrawal process takes a year to complete, so the U.S. departure is slated for November 4 — one day after the presidential election.
"The Paris Agreement was largely made possible by the engagement of the United States and China," Guterres emphasized. "Without the contribution of the big emitters, all our efforts risk to be doomed."
The U.N. chief called on all nations to achieve net zero emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping industrial gases within 30 years — and for the European Union to create the first carbon neutral continent as of 2050 —by adopting his six-point plan into their COVID-19 economic and stimulus measures.
Already, 121 countries have committed to the long-term goal of carbon neutrality. Guterres' plan would end subsidies for oil and gas and ensure that nations direct the trillions they plan to spend on salvaging their economies primarily towards the promotion of jobs and energy based on non-fossil fuel sources.
"Delayed climate action will cost us vastly more each year in terms of lost lives and livelihoods, crippled businesses and damaged economies," he said. "The highest cost is the cost of doing nothing."