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Parliamentarians must make sure climate commitments are met after COP26

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Mary Robinson addresses the Inter-Parliamentary Union, asking delegates to take bold action to close the gap to 1.5°C.

Mary Robinson delivered this speech at the 2021 Global Conference on Health and Climate Change event at COP26 on 7 November 2021. 



Thank you very much Harriet for those warm words, I hope I can live up to, at least part, of that warm introduction. I feel at home in the IPU for reasons I will explain.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

it is an honour and a privilege to be here with you today. The eyes of the world are on Glasgow, including those of the millions of electors to whom the parliamentarians gathered in this splendid hall are accountable.

I keep asking the question: are our leaders really in crisis mode? Is your parliament in crisis mode? Is the committee that you sit on in your parliament in crisis mode?

If you come from a developing country, the answer is more likely to be yes.

The obligations upon everyone attending COP, but particularly those who have been elected to positions of authority, are not only moral but deeply practical.

They speak to the social contract that lies at the heart of parliamentary democracy: women and men in whom the public have placed their trust have a responsibility to act in the best interests of their constituents and the wider society they represent.

As you heard, I speak to you today as Chair of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela. I actually follow in big footsteps, the first chair was Archbishop Desmond Tutu whom I absolutely love, and the second was Kofi Annan who was my boss in the UN and who died on the job in August 2018. I was with him in Zimbabwe and he pushed himself too much and got pneumonia and died shortly afterwards. We work for peace, and justice and human rights. But I speak also as someone who started her career in public life in parliament, and who took part in IPU meetings.

I was a member of the Irish Senate for 20 years from 1969 to 1989, and during that period I saw at first hand how legislatures and legislators could deliver significant, progressive social and political change, even in the face of concerted opposition.

Here, today, at this critical moment for humanity, parliamentarians have an indispensable role to play: not only in generating sufficient political pressure to get a deal in Glasgow, but then using the instruments and institutions at their disposal to ensure that commitments are met, policies are implemented and leaders keep their word.

It is in and through Parliaments that commitments made under the Paris Agreement, including the all-important Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), will be translated into workable pieces of legislation.

I would encourage the IPU to step up again and the support the climate emergency pact of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. The Elders have been working closely with the Climate Vulnerable Forum and there is a delivery plan for the annual $100 billion a year to be seen in terms of five years so that it is climate finance for development totalling $500 billion from 2020 to 2024, and we need to make sure that going forward it is more than that. And then there is also the annual reporting. Five years is too long, because of the urgency, to get on a political pathway, and so the Climate Vulnerable Forum are calling for an annual reporting, especially of the largest emitters, and particularly those who haven’t as yet made full commitments. That actually is allowed under the Paris Agreement under article 4.11, countries can increase their ambition every year, they don’t have to wait five years, and then we have the stock take in 2023.

I am actually very pleased to see that the draft Declaration that this meeting is due to adopt captures a number of points very clearly, and I wholly endorse this appeal, and I quote:

“We call upon all parliamentarians to use these tools to ensure that their countries’ national climate commitments and international obligations are transparently scrutinized, widely debated and, most importantly, upheld in full.”

 But as you all know, a parliamentarian’s work neither begins nor ends in the chamber. When tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets to demand climate action as we have seen here in Glasgow, yesterday and the day before – including young people who are not old enough to vote – it is essential that elected representatives take the time to engage meaningfully with these constituencies, understand both their concerns and their ambitions, and reflect them in their legislative work.

The transition to a net zero, climate-resilient economy has profound implications for every aspect of our lives, particularly for those of us who live in industrialised countries whose business models and infrastructure have been based on fossil fuels for decades.

For such a transition to be accomplished in an effective, sustainable and equitable fashion, then democratic consent is essential.

If climate policies are imposed in what is perceived to be a “top-down” manner with little sensitivity towards the needs and budgets of ordinary citizens – for example regarding fuel taxes or subsidies – this, as we have seen, can spark a backlash, the “gilet jaunes” in France, which can then be exploited by populist forces who are all too adept at exploiting grievances for their own cynical ends.

As you well know, parliamentarians need to be alive to the concerns of their electors and to ensure that climate policies do not disproportionately penalise the poorest and most vulnerable in society. At the same time, parliamentarians need to show courage and leadership by explaining the longer-term consequences of both climate action and inaction, reminding the public that either the benefits or price will be paid not today but by future generations, and to remind them that the science is compelling. These young climate activists keep telling us, “Listen to the science,” and that is what we all have to do.

I think in many cases, the public is actually clearer-sighted and bolder about the need for climate action than some political commentators would give them credit for. A recent survey by the Royal Society of Arts in this country found that 77 percent of people in the UK believe they have a duty to future generations to preserve the planet, 57 percent believe they should eat less meat, 69 percent that they should drive less, and 71 percent that they should buy fewer clothes and recycle them more.

Every politician knows of course that there is a gap between how people respond to surveys or opinion polls, and how they then decide to act in the home, or in the workplace or the polling booth.

But these figures are a timely corrective to the fatalistic or self-serving argument that radical climate action “won’t be accepted” by the public; instead, enlightened parliamentarians can help build coalitions across all sections of society – youth, women, labour unions, business, faith groups – to ensure that whatever is decided in Glasgow is then put into practice, and that pressure is maintained on leaders to further increase their ambition in the years ahead.

Because, as we all know, Glasgow is not the end of the road. We are still dangerously off course from meeting the targets agreed six years ago in Paris, including of course limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C as the IPCC in October 2018 clearly warned us. It is absolutely essential that the negotiations underway here result in an accelerated pathway to close the gap to 1.5, to deliver the climate finance owed to poorer countries, and to keep the multilateral process alive. I understand that you will have a discussion on climate finance after this.

Multilateralism is the lynchpin of future success. Although national parliaments rightly and vigilantly defend their sovereignty, it is only through global cooperation at all levels of politics and society that we will arrive at global solutions.

In this regard, bodies like the IPU play a crucial role in providing a platform for common and open exchange of ideas, sharing best practice and formulating collective positions and approaches.

This approach is also important if we are to collectively meet the wider challenge of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, agreed as you will recall by all 193 member states in 2015, the same year the Paris Agreement was signed.

You might have noticed, maybe not those of you at the very back of the room, but I have a very big SDG badge of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is much bigger than the UN one. I lost all my UN badges, they got lost at the cleaners, and some woman was making these big badges and she gave me one, and I like it because it is even more visible than the orthodox one.

You will recall that the preamble to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Development, with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals at the core, sets out a clear and powerful vision of the world that leaders committed to strive towards, and I just want to quote part of it:

“We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world into a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.”

This mantra “no one left behind” resonates even more clearly and poignantly when we consider everything that humanity has endured during the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has shone a harsh light on existing inequalities and in many cases exacerbated the damage wrought to the social fabric and the life chances and health of the most vulnerable in our societies, including women and children.

We won’t overcome the twin existential threats of the pandemic and climate change unless we restore trust, honesty and solidarity at the heart of public life and our public institutions. We won’t achieve this without the active engagement and support of parliaments and parliamentarians across the globe. You are tribunes for the people, with both great power and great responsibilities. Now is the time to act and make your voice heard!

Let me conclude with words from our founder Nelson Mandela who brought The Elders together in 2007. He put it very succinctly, I think, when he said:

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Thank you.


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