International News  /  Patricia Espinosa: Nations Must Show “Bold and Courageous Climate Leadership”

Patricia Espinosa: Nations Must Show “Bold and Courageous Climate Leadership”

  • Date: 2021-08-05
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UN Climate Change News, 5 August 2021 – In a keynote address today to students at the Harvard Kennedy School, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa reiterated her call for “bold and courageous climate leadership” to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Ahead of the crucial UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in November in Glasgow, which she called “a credibility test for global efforts to address climate change,” she urged governments to show leadership now through ambitious national climate action plans (NDCs) outlining commitments for the next five years.

The UN Climate Chief stressed the importance of urgent and decisive action ahead of COP26 in the face of rising extreme weather events globally and the imminent publication of the IPCC’s next major climate change report, which is likely to issue further stark warnings on the state of the climate:

“Leaders must respond or risk missing our long-term goal under the Paris Agreement to limit global temperatures to 1.5C,” she said.

While pointing to some positive developments this year, including the submission of stronger NDCs from some nations; the global uptake of renewable energy; and the commitment by large companies and businesses throughout the world to operate more sustainably, she underlined the need for no less than ‘systemic change.”

While history has shown us that this often take decades, even centuries, she stressed that “We have, at best, one decade,” and urged her international audience to contact their respective government representatives to get them to submit ambitious climate plans.

Highlighting finance as crucial for progress, she cited the pledge by developed nations to mobilize $100 billion to developing nations by 2020 and underlined the need for 50% of climate finance to be allocated to adapting and building resilience to climate change.

With COP26 now less than three months away, Ms. Espinosa stated that “it’s time to compromise,” adding: “Inaction is the result of an inability to make difficult decisions. The problem is that failing to decide may end up being the same as deciding to fail.”

Ms. Espinosa called on her audience to use their positions of leadership and influence to place issues related to sustainability and resilience at the heart of their work, both to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and to capture the vast opportunities that come with building a cleaner, greener and healthier future.

See full speech by Patricia Espinosa below:

It’s a pleasure to speak with all of you today and I thank the Harvard Kennedy School for extending this invitation.

While the school has an impressive catalogue of courses and eleven research centres addressing the role of public policy in combatting climate change, I understand that this is the Kennedy School’s first mandatory climate change course.

This is reflecting an overall shift — whether in academia, government, industry or otherwise — in which climate change has moved from the periphery of public awareness to, if not by choice but necessity, the forefront of public policy.

Many of you are at the midpoint of your careers.

Your lives have paralleled this great shift.

While some of you are too young to remember the first stirrings of the environmental movement and the response by some governments to enact tougher regulations and legislation in the late 1960s and 70s…

…perhaps you have childhood memories of the global efforts to repair the ozone layer which led to the Montreal Protocol...

…or later when world leaders such as President George Bush Sr., Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and others spanning the ideological spectrum advocated for greater climate protection.

Perhaps your high school years saw leaders gather at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, to promote a more sustainable planet for the future — a summit that led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

And in your college and university days you followed the subsequent global climate change negotiations: Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun and beyond.

By the time the Paris Agreement was adopted a little over five years ago, you had already assumed professional leadership roles.

Throughout your lives, you’ve watched as the impacts of climate change became more devastating, the science underpinning it more conclusive, and as it evolved from distant threat to existential emergency.  

Today you all are in positions of leadership, authority and privilege. You influence policy, programs, governance and more. Few throughout the world can claim the same.

As a generation that grew up with climate change, and who now occupy these influential roles, we call upon your unique insight, knowledge, solutions and leadership to help stem its worst impacts for both you and the generations that follow.

Because it’s clear that issues around sustainability, resilience and climate change will remain at the heart of geopolitics and global policy for decades.

My message to you today is this: if you have not already put these issues at the core of your work and planning, I urge you to do so now.

Some of you may feel passionate about climate change. Others may not share that feeling. But all of you will be forced to deal with it in one way or another. Just as governments, businesses and communities throughout the world have as well. It has become, as we’ve established, mandatory.

Building a more sustainable and climate-resilient planet is not one in an array of policy choices, it is, in effect, the only policy choice if we’re to collectively ensure humanity’s future on this planet.

So the only question is, will we respond in time?

Today, I will outline the urgency for action this year, the crucial policy choices facing governments as a result of this urgency and, throughout, discuss your roles in this process. 

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

We stand at the mid-point of a crucial year in which leaders must respond or risk missing our long-term goal under the Paris Agreement to limit global temperatures to 1.5C.

They must do so in a year in which millions continue to suffer through a global pandemic, economies have been upended, and the climate emergency gets worse.

The science underpinning this emergency continues to get stronger.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is, right now, putting the final touches on their next major climate change report that will inform nations heading into global climate change negotiations — at COP26 — in November.

While we do not yet have the final version, it’s safe to say that the news will be far — very far — from good. Each successive report has become more and more stark in its warnings.

Two months ago, the World Meteorological Organization indicated a 40% probability that average global temperature will cross the Paris Agreement 1.5C threshold, at least temporarily, in the next five years.

This will trigger tipping points that will result in death, destruction and disrupt economies all around the world.

This isn’t politics. This isn’t ideology. This is reality.

We saw it in the devastating flooding in central China and in India.

We saw similar flooding in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.  

We saw extreme heat in the Western United States and in Canada.

In my home country — in the outskirts of Mexico City — a 40-year-old man died of hypothermia when he was trapped in his car in a block of ice that formed during a hailstorm. Not heat — hypothermia.

While horrific incidents can happen in any nation, they’re also incidents developing nations and the most vulnerable have experienced for years.

My condolences go out to those who have lost loved ones, homes or livelihoods — in any of these tragedies.

But sympathy isn’t enough. We need urgent action if we’re to have any chance of addressing climate change before humanity reaches the point of no return.

As we just saw at the recent G20 meetings, however, nations continue to struggle with reaching consensus on several issues central to raising ambition on climate change — at a time we can least afford delay.

Before I discuss those issues, we need to examine the other part of the picture. Despite this being an extraordinarily challenging year, it has also been one of progress.

The United States returned to the Paris Agreement and submitted a stronger, more robust national climate plan. These plans are known as NDCs and are crucial to the Paris Agreement.

Renewable energy is being embraced globally, despite the pandemic, and faster than previously anticipated.

The shift by major automobile manufacturers towards electric cars is reaching a tipping point.

And some of the largest companies and businesses throughout the world have committed to operate more sustainably. Many have pledged to align their operations with the Paris Agreement and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 or even sooner.

These are signs of progress. They are positive developments but mark only the beginning of what ultimately must be a complete transformation of how we produce, distribute, consume and dispose of goods throughout the world.

It’s a monumental task. And we will not achieve it unless we are all — all governments and sectors — on board and fully invested in it.

That includes you. And what you can do now is what nations and businesses must all ultimately do — put sustainability and resilience at the forefront of your actions, policies and plans.

I’m not talking about cosmetic change. I’m talking about transformational, enduring and, most of all, systemic change.

For governments, systemic change means integrating sustainability and resilience at all levels, consistently apply them throughout all ministries and ensure they permeate all jurisdictions. They can no longer be the purview of a forgotten corner of the Ministry of the Environment.

Businesses must put these issues front and centre as well. A speaker I recently heard put it best: the businesses that don’t will be businesses that go bankrupt.

A significant caveat here: this will only happen if consumers demand change from those who sell them goods and services. This makes our personal purchasing and investment choices extremely important. There is nothing inevitable about change — and nothing insignificant about the power each of us wields with our money.

History tells us that systematic changes — changes that usher in a new age or direction for humanity — often take decades, even centuries. The Agricultural or Industrial revolutions are examples.

But we don’t have decades. We have, at best, a decade.

This is the window we’ve left ourselves; the time we have left to create an enormous transformation that will get us off our current trajectory of destruction.

So, to the question of “will we respond in time?”, the only possible answer is we must. But we must do it now. And this year is crucial.

Ladies and gentlemen,

COP26 in November is a credibility test for global efforts to address climate change. It’s where nations must make considerable progress to reach consensus on issues they’ve been discussing for several years. And it’s where they must show more climate ambition.

But they cannot simply show up in Glasgow and expect this to magically come together. The work must happen now.

Here then is the work that must be accomplished, as I outlined to G7 and G20 ministers recently.

To begin, I told them that nations must show bold and courageous leadership right now by presenting, in line with science, ambitious national climate action plans.

Plans that:

…outline commitments for the next five years…

…that show how they will reduce emissions 45 per cent by 2030…

…that show how they will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050…

…and that include Long-Term Strategies that define the path to that goal.

We currently have 112 NDC submissions, but this is less than sixty percent of all Parties to the Paris Agreement. We need the rest of those plans.

Here’s where you can also play a role, and it’s an area we need it most. I understand that 50 per cent of those attending this course are from outside of the United States. Get in touch with your respective government representatives and get them to submit strong, robust and ambitious climate plans for the short-, medium- and long-term. Encourage others to do the same.

For those nations who have already submitted these plans, we need them to go back and make them more ambitious.

Finance is another area where nations must make progress if we’re to make any headway going forward. Finance is linked to virtually every element of our global climate change efforts.

A major example is the pledge by developed nations to mobilize $100 billion to developing nations by 2020.

This is a commitment made in the UNFCCC process more than a decade ago. It’s time to deliver. How can we expect nations to make more ambitious climate commitments for tomorrow if today’s have not yet been met?

We also need to see more work on adaptation and to ensure it becomes a bigger part of the finance picture.

Adaptation ranges from physical infrastructure, such as the construction of sea-walls to deal with rising waters, to investing in nature-based solutions, such as planting trees or mangroves.

One large-scale example is the Great Green Wall Initiative that will create a mosaic of green and productive landscapes across 11 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. Already, almost 18 million hectares of degraded land has been restored and 350.000 jobs created across the Sahel region.

Once complete, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.

Clearly, adaptation can no longer — especially in light of recent climate disasters — be the forgotten component of climate action. Specifically, we need to see 50 per cent of the total share of climate finance to be allocated to adaptation and resilience.

On a wider scale, nations and businesses must align their portfolios and activities to the goals of the Paris Agreement. This is the only way we can truly achieve the deep transformation we need to see towards a more sustainable, resilient future.

Again, this is where you can play a key and influential role. We must all — whether we’re in the public or private sphere — get away from the idea that there are climate or “green” investments and then other investments.

Nations and businesses cannot fund a few climate projects and then claim to be sustainable and climate friendly if all other investment is based in high-emissions sectors.

That’s not courageous leadership. It’s impossible to move forward if we’re still chained to the past.

So, in addition to:

  • submitting more ambitious national climate action plans and long-term strategies;
  • mobilizing the $100 billion;
  • making adaptation a bigger part of the finance picture; and
  • aligning global investments with the Paris Agreement…

…we also must also make COP26 a success this coming November. And that means achieving consensus in areas where several differences remain.

They remain in areas ranging from Article Six — the issue related to carbon markets and pricing — to matters related to transparency, capacity building and more. Much of the work centres on technical issues that nations have been discussing for years.

We have run out of time. It is necessary to come to an understanding and ensure the full implementation of the Paris Agreement, which is the most comprehensive and the only reliable strategy to address climate change.

As I told G20 Ministers, it’s time to compromise.

Negotiations must be driven not just by the legitimate desire to protect national interests, but also by the equally commanding goal of contributing to the welfare of humanity.

And however complex the technical aspects under discussion may be, they are, by their very nature, subsidiary to the overriding goal of protecting our peoples and our planet.

Every day that goes by without being able to implement the Paris Agreement in full is a wasted day.

A lack of action calls into question the commitment of those who signed it and is the cause of persistent harm and suffering around the world.

Inaction is the result of an inability to make difficult decisions. The problem is that failing to decide may end up being the same as deciding to fail.

Never have we needed bold and courageous leadership more than today. Not by government leaders alone, but by all leaders at all levels — leaders such as yourselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

As I’ve outlined today, an incredible amount of work lies ahead for the remainder of this year, and all of you can play key roles.

To repeat:

If we are going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we are to capture the vast opportunities with building a cleaner, greener and healthier future, I urge you to place issues related to sustainability and resilience at the heart of your work.

I call on you to use your leadership positions to encourage governments — regardless of nation or jurisdiction — to develop strong short, medium and long-term climate plans outlining a clear path forward and in line with the Paris Agreement.

And I urge you to invest wisely — professionally and privately — to ensure finance is driven from the grey economy to the green.

My final request has to do with participation, involvement and communication. Climate change policy doesn’t start in the boardrooms, it starts in our homes and in our communities. Get involved at that level. Talk to others. Convey the science. Underline the urgency. Discuss the economic implications of inaction.

And use your privileged and influential roles to do what others cannot.

You are the generation that has watched climate change move from a distant threat to our existential emergency. You are now adults in positions of significant leadership and influence.

When we look back at history, we examine the key turning points and wonder: did they know that this was a major turning point?

Did they know that if they simply made these particular sets of decisions, that what came next could have been avoided?

Never has a turning point been broadcast so much in advance and with so much warning. Never.

So let us therefore assume our great responsibility and make the bold and courageous decisions we must all make to address this emergency that threatens not only our lives but the lives of the generations to follow.

Thank you very much for your attention.



Date:August 5, 2021