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Juan Manuel Santos: We do not have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy planet

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Photo © Crozet / Pouteau

Juan Manuel Santos calls on the G20 to show real leadership in fostering a green recovery from COVID-19, in an address to a virtual session of the F20 High-Level Forum.

This speech was delivered at an F20 Climate Solutions Week virtual session: "COVID-19 and Climate Crisis: More Resilience and Recovering Better" on 15 September 2020, ahead of a meeting of the G20 Ministers of Environment in Riyadh on 16 September.

Dear friends,

It is an honour to speak to you today as part of this fourth F20 High-Level Forum.

I am delivering this message in my capacity as a member of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to work for peace, justice and human rights. Now, more than ever, Mandela’s vision of a better world is one we should seek.

COVID-19 is a global emergency that continues to wreak economic and social devastation. It has shone a harsh light on the deep social inequalities that scar too many of our societies and has highlighted how none of us can be truly secure and healthy when the weak and vulnerable are not protected from pandemics, poverty and disease.

But the coronavirus is not the only threat. The climate emergency remains the most significant long-term risk to economic and social stability.

I want to put to you today that it is not only desirable that we prioritise a green recovery from COVID-19 - it is crucial!

I was encouraged that the foundations and philanthropists making up the F20 aim to urge decision-makers at all levels of the G20 process to implement sustainable recovery measures. G20 nations generate three-quarters of the world’s wealth, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, so the long-term structural changes needed in our world require courageous, robust leadership from this important group.

With a few regrettable and conspicuous exceptions, most G20 leaders do now recognise the severity of the climate crisis.

We have a critical, but closing, window of opportunity to curb how much worse things will get by limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The lack of planning and preparation for the COVID-19 outbreak in many nations has shown the crucial importance of resilience.

The G20 could signal real leadership in fostering a green recovery by jointly advancing a global agenda with vulnerable nations.

This will require moving away from 'business as usual' approaches and ensuring social and environmental safeguards are in place for stimulus spending and development assistance as well as investing in those sectors that allow for both economic recovery and environmental and social benefits.

This year, Bangladesh admirably modelled ways to safeguard its people from increasingly powerful storms – managing to cope with Cyclone Amphan, while simultaneously responding to the pandemic and economic crises.

Yet, as these costly climate-related disasters become more frequent, vulnerable countries cannot be left on their own. Therefore, I hope the G20 will re-ignite the cooperation it had with the ‘Vulnerable 20’ Group of Finance Ministers, towards mutual goals of pursuing stronger international economic and financial cooperation on a resilient recovery.

Vulnerable countries are seeing their revenues dry up, aid budgets are being cut, and many face a crippling debt crisis. These nations cannot invest in just transitions and recoveries if they are shackled by debt payments – sometimes at exorbitant interest rates – to foreign banks, asset managers and wealthy governments and institutions.

Even the leaders of the IMF and World Bank have realised this and are calling for action.

The G20 has made some initial steps in pausing debt for some countries, but more needs to be done.

We do not have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy planet. To suggest we do is disingenuous and ultimately illogical: you cannot have one without the other! The International Energy Agency has published a sustainable recovery plan which shows that in the energy sector, the best investments – from whichever angle you look at them – are investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy and natural climate solutions.

From the EU to Nigeria, there are strong examples of governments putting workers back to work, and rebuilding the economy, but without the rebound in emissions.

The EU is bringing forward its Green Deal - creating jobs in the badly hit construction sector, and cutting household bills through renovating buildings for energy efficiency.

Nigeria is reliant on the oil and gas industry for 70% of government revenue and has been hard hit by the drop in the price of oil. Despite this challenge, it has put forward an ambitious and forward-looking COVID-19 recovery plan, including a new programme to boost solar energy, expanding access to energy to 5 million people and creating 250,000 jobs. The government has made the courageous decision to end fossil fuel subsidies, recognising that there has never been a better time to do so with oil prices so low. The move is expected to save the government $2bn a year. This is the time for the G20 to also finally make good on its commitment, first made over a decade ago, to end fossil fuel subsidies once and for all.

Even though the case is clear for a green recovery, this does not mean it is happening. In April, G20 Finance Ministers pledged "to support an environmentally sustainable and inclusive recovery”, consistent with the 2030 Agenda, but recovery spending is going in the wrong direction. According to the Energy Policy Tracker, so far more public funds have gone on fossil fuels than clean energy during the pandemic. This is wrong. This is a wasted opportunity.

For tropical forest countries like mine, like Colombia, natural climate solutions provide a normative approach to restart the economy, while generating climate, poverty alleviation and biodiversity benefits. Natural climate solutions are the prevention of deforestation, restoration of ecosystems and better management of land that ensures that carbon stays in the ground instead of being released into the atmosphere. Also, natural climate solutions provide rural job opportunities, which is essential for poverty alleviation, given that 87% of the world's population that lack access to, for example, electricity, live in rural areas.

Building back better means investing in zero-carbon industries and job creation while supporting workers and communities through the transition. Justice, fairness and equality cannot be side issues in this recovery.

I’d like to give two examples from my own country.  The city of Medellín is on its way to becoming a leading centre of the digital revolution. It is investing in training 25,000 people in science, technology and innovation, with an emphasis on women, youth and older people – so they can benefit from the new jobs created and participate in the new economy. The city is also investing in low-carbon public transport infrastructure, including a new metro line. Secondly, in my administration, we put in place a carbon tax in Colombia, for the first time. It is particularly novel as it allows companies to reduce their tax burden by buying carbon credits from domestic forestry projects that reduce deforestation or restore degraded forests. Not only has this driven investment in areas of Colombia that desperately need them but also it has attracted significant investments from outside project developers who know there is now a market for such avoiding deforestation and restoration projects.

I believe we can build on the sense of solidarity that the COVID-19 crisis has awakened in so many of our communities and we must unite not only to beat the virus, but also to tackle its profound consequences. I call on G20 leaders to seize this opportunity and to demonstrate the kind of leadership the world so badly needs.

I thank those of you listening today for championing a better, fairer, more resilient future for all.

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