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Every country must raise its political ambition to move towards zero pollution and full climate justice

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Photo: © European Union 2014 - European Parliament

Mary Robinson highlights that pollution is much more than carbon emissions and praises moves to develop a viable and sustainable post-pandemic recovery.

This speech was delivered at the virtual launch of Imperial College's Transition to Zero Pollution initiative on 23 September 2020. 

It is a geniune pleasure to join you this evening for the launch of this important new initiative from Imperial College for a “Transition to Zero Pollution”. I am only sorry that current circumstances preclude us from meeting in person, although the COVID-induced shrinking of our carbon footprints is perhaps one faint glimmer of a silver lining.

I am particularly pleased to participate in the discussions today because it seems to me that “Zero Pollution” is a timely and valuable holistic concept to guide policymakers as the world tries to develop a viable and sustainable post-pandemic recovery.

Much of the debate in recent years has rightly focused on the urgent need to curb carbon emissions and thus keep global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in accordance with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But pollution encompasses much more than just carbon emissions, given the ever-growing crisis of biodiversity loss and species extinction, and the environmental degradation caused by excessive use of plastics, to give just a few examples.

The four pillars which the Provost has outlined of the Transition to Zero Pollution initiative offer concrete and innovative possibilities for research and development:

  • By using engineering and physical sciences research to develop new zero-pollution technologies;
  • By improving our understanding of air and water pollution, their impact on human health, and how to mitigate them;
  • By developing innovative economic and business, policy and community engagement models for a sustainable society;
  • and by ensuring that we use water and produce food and energy in a sustainable way.

I have every confidence that Imperial College will offer a propitious environment for this research to flourish, in keeping with more than a century’s worth of world-class achievements and encapsulated by the memorable phrase on your website that “we believe that innovation thrives when cultures collide and collaborate”.

Today’s context of a deadly pandemic, its severe economic impact and the interaction of both these shocks with the pre-existing existential threat of a climate crisis pose immense challenges to leaders, policymakers, scientists, academics, businesses and civil society alike.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to infuse a sense of sustained urgency into the public sphere, to put real political pressure on leaders to act according to the long-term interests of all their citizens, and to counter the voice of cynical populists and narrow nationalists.

Of course, this is not a challenge that is exclusive to our times.

In preparing for this address, I was reminded of a quote from the author HG Wells, taken from his novel “The War In The Air” published in 1907, the year that Imperial College was founded:

“The accidental balance on the side of Progress was far slighter and infinitely more complex and delicate in its adjustments than the people of that time suspected… they did not realize that this age of relative good fortune was an age of immense but temporary opportunity for their kind. They complacently assumed a necessary progress towards which they had no moral responsibility.”

In his novel, Wells portrays a devastating military conflict between rival nationalist powers that in turn begets an economic collapse and a devastating pandemic. And of course, just a few years after the novel was published, his terrible prophecy became true in the carnage of the First World War and the subsequent “Spanish flu” pandemic.

In 2020, we have marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, established after the even greater cataclysm of the Second World War in 1945.

But even though the world has been spared another world war in the intervening decades, we should all be keenly aware how precarious and finely balanced our security, health and wellbeing remain, and how important it is for all global citizens to assume a moral responsibility for continued progress towards peace and justice.

COVID-19 has exposed the interconnections between health, economic and political risks of inaction and neglect.

The virus knows no borders and pays no heed to national sovereignty.  It has left a devastating cost; first and foremost in human lives, but also in terms of economic growth, political momentum and social and racial inequality.

It has exacerbated inequalities and shown the intersectionality between poverty, gender, race, marginalization and disability. At the same time, many countries whose governments are led by women have been noted to manage the virus better, and the jobs which have been revealed to be essential during the pandemic — from health and social care to low-paid services — are predominantly held by women.

It will be essential as we emerge from the crisis and “build back better,” that the recovery is aligned to the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement, and that the commitment to gender equality and parity of decision-making is at its very core.

Now is our opportunity to make change happen by design. The foundations of this new design however will remain those that have underpinned the global rules-based system since 1945: a strong, accountable and inclusive United Nations, and the rights and freedoms enshrined under international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We need to emphasise the first three words of the UN Charter – ‘We the peoples’ – and we find a way to curtail or restrict the concept of state sovereignty which should instead become identified with service to and protection of the people of a country, particularly those more vulnerable.

As humans, we need to remember the wisdom of the British economist and writer, Barbara Ward: ‘we have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do…’

We are seeing some recent political leadership on the climate crisis, notably by Ursula von der Leyen in her State of The Union speech to European Parliament. Prince Charles has called for ‘a Marshall-like plan for nature, people and the planet’, because of the urgency. But the United Kingdom, which has the presidency of COP26 next year, has yet to give clear leadership.

I am reminded of the tireless efforts of the French government ahead of COP 21 in 2015, from then-President Hollande and his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius down to officials at every level, who were constantly talking, listening, persuading and cajoling to achieve the necessary breakthrough. And that is what we need to see for COP26.

Next year will mark the 65th anniversary of the UK landmark Clean Air Act, which helped clear the smog and notorious “pea-soupers” that had clogged Britain’s air and lungs for more than a century.

What a tremendous legacy it would be to have a successful COP that could deliver a comparable outcome on a planetary level; an ambitious goal, to be sure, but one I believe can be reached with sufficient drive and determination from the very top.

And of course, this is not the UK’s responsibility alone. Every country needs to raise the level of its political ambition regarding the Nationally-Determined Contribution climate plans.

The science of the climate crisis makes it imperative that we implement in full the voluntary commitments of the SDGs and the Paris commitments.

We need a bold new vision, where every country, city and corporation commits to being carbon neutral by 2050.

We need a change of mindset to enable a just transition to clean energy in a way that allows us to stay at or below 1.5°C of warming, but protects the workers who helped to build our economies. 

We need to put a proper price on carbon.

We need to protect 30% of our global landmass and 30% of our oceans by 2030, to prevent a further total loss of biodiversity. 

Every country needs to take seriously the report of the Global Commission on Adaptation and build resilience in communities for the “new normal” that we are experiencing; an experience exemplified by the terrible wildfires across the West Coast of the United States.

We will only generate the necessary momentum and political pressure on leaders if we combine a top-down and a bottom-up approach that brings together all key actors, from the young activists with their Fridays for Future campaign, to central bankers and the heads of the world’s top investment funds.

I am particularly delighted to have learned that Greta Thunberg and her fellow activist Vanessa Nakate from Uganda will next month deliver the 10th annual lecture in honour of my dear friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This is precisely the sort of intergenerational dialogue we need to stimulate a positive vision for the future and inspire all of us to show the same courage and fierce optimism that both Greta and Arch embody.

All of this is part of what I mean by climate justice – the recognition that without urgent action, today’s leaders risk squandering the futures of our young people and those who have yet to be born.

We need to see climate change as an intergenerational injustice as well as a crisis whose burden is felt the most by the people who have least contributed to rising emissions.

Some small-island states will literally disappear unless the richer industrialised countries take much more radical and urgent action to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, including a definitive and wholesale move away from fossil fuel use, exploration and extraction.

There is a big gender dimension because of the different social roles of women and men in many countries. Women are on the frontlines and have to try to build resilience when their communities are affected, and women leaders need to step up more on this crisis.

In reality, failure to act will be a terrible stain on the world’s conscience, and will mean any future references to justice or common endeavour would ring hollow for the millions impoverished and displaced by the twin disasters of the pandemic and the climate crisis.

But I do not wish to end on a pessimistic note!

Instead, I am genuinely enthused by the imagination and drive of the Zero Pollution initiative, and believe it offers a model of cross-disciplinary collaborative research which should be followed by national governments and international agencies alike.

The hard months and years ahead will require determined and principled leadership. Multilateralism is not merely an option: it is the only path that can deliver a green, sustainable and equitable future.

COVID-19 has revealed fundamental truths about what it is to be human, to live and to die, and to share our lives with others. And to be intimately in our homes, sharing those lives. 

In this spirit, I would like to end by quoting one of my own country’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney.

Seamus captured these eternal truths in his reworking of Sophocles’ Greek myths, and I believe this spirit can guide us through our contemporary troubles and lead us to a brighter, fairer future:

“So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.”

Thank you, and I look forward to the discussions ahead.

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