Covid solutions must be climate change and inequality solutions too, says former United Nations climate change chief

Imagine a group of adults sitting on a beach building sandcastles, says Christiana Figueres, former United Nations climate change chief, leader of the 2015 Paris Agreement negotiations, and author of “The future we choose: surviving the climate crisis”.

The people have their backs to the sea – so they can’t see the series of waves heading towards them from the ocean, waves coming one after the other, but all converging together to cause chaos on the beach.

“There’s the Covid wave, and behind that is the economic crisis and the shutdown crisis, and behind that wave and larger than those two is the biodiversity crisis, and behind that, and 10 times higher than all of those is the climate change crisis,” she told the Climate Change + Business Conference in Auckland this week. 

Underlying all the waves is the inequality crisis.

Christiana Figueres says Covid solutions must be climate change and inequality solutions too.

Governments and businesses must turn around and focus on dealing with not just the first Covid wave, but the longer-term crises. And importantly, they need to join up the solutions.

“We know all these crises are interlinked and we must address them together. We have $US13 trillion of debt capital being inserted into the global economy, maybe $US20 trillion by next year. It’s crucial this debt capital addresses all these crises at the same time because this debt we are incurring must be used for the wellbeing of future generations, not their detriment.”

Investing in renewable energy, in smarter transport and in clean water will not just create new jobs but “will get us on a path for the future from an environmental, social and economic perspective”, she says. 

Figueres has spoken in the past of the danger of “jumping out of the [Covid-19] frying pan and falling into the raging fire of runaway climate change”.

She told the Auckland and wider online audience she was “stubbornly optimistic” there was an opportunity for businesses and governments to change the way they work and the technologies they use. 

“Our parents did not have the tools, and by the time our children unseat us, it will be too late to make a difference.”

Christiana Figueres, Paris Agreement negotiation leader

It is up to this generation to make a difference, now, she says.

“As I was working towards the Paris Agreement I had this reoccurring nightmare – night after night – of seven pairs of eyes in a row looking at me. And I came to understand this was the seven generations after me asking ‘What did you do?’ And that’s the question for every adult now – we are holding the power, we are the ones at the decision-making table.

“Our parents did not have the tools, and by the time our children unseat us, it will be too late to make a difference.

“It is by 2030 that we will determine the future of people on the planet. Either we will have to cut greenhouse emissions in half, and work for a socially equal world. If not we condemn the world.”

Governments lagging behind

While some of the largest global companies – Amazon, Nike, Starbucks and Apple, for example – were moving towards net carbon neutrality by 2040 or even 2030, Figueres said, most governments were well behind on their own targets. 

Amazon this year announced initial $US2 billion funding to accelerate investments in companies with low carbon products and solutions. The company said this should allow it to meet its “climate pledge” to reach net zero carbon by 2040, a decade ahead of the Paris Agreement.

Figueres said six of the G7 group of countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK) are moving forward “with ambitious commitments” to introduce net zero targets for all greenhouse gasses. US President-Elect Joe Biden has promised targets once he takes office.

As New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw told the conference, the “all gasses” reduction commitments from G7 countries were “much higher targets than we can muster”. 

New Zealand has largely ignored methane in its targets, despite that being our largest greenhouse gas in terms of emissions.

NZ lacks serious climate policies

Speaking after Figueres, former Green MP Russel Norman, now executive director of Greenpeace Aotearoa, castigated the Government for its lack of action on its 2030 climate change targets.

“We have no goal to cut emissions out of agriculture, which is half our emissions. We have no real policy on transport, in fact we are spending billions on roading upgrades. Our policies will increase net emissions, although they may marginally cut gross emissions.

“Have we yet put price signals on agricultural emissions? No. Are there any serious policies to decarbonise transport? No.”

“The adults are still turning their backs on the waves, blind to the fact we have waves converging on us, crashing around us.”

Christiana Figueres

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope didn’t spare the Government either. While saying it was important for businesses to take action on climate change, he said people often forgot the Government owns a lot of business in New Zealand.

“They can play a leadership role and that can help determine the size and shape of our climate change action.”

Take government procurement, or its vehicle fleet for example.

“If you electrified all the Government’s business fleet it would produce a fundamental change; including opening us up for overseas companies to see New Zealand as more of a market to bring electric vehicles here.”

As Figueres says: “The adults are still turning their backs on the waves, blind to the fact we have waves converging on us, crashing around us.”

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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