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We must tackle carbon inequality to meet our Paris Agreement commitments

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Photo: Grant Ellis / World Bank

Noting that the richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest, Ban Ki-moon warns that the global carbon budget is being rapidly depleted for the purpose of expanding the consumption of a tiny minority of people.

This speech was delivered at an Oxfam virtual event entitled: "Confronting Carbon Inequality", on 25 September 2020.

Good afternoon and good morning to distinguished participants.

I would like to thank Tim Gore for presenting this very detailed report on how we can generate international global political will to reduce carbon emissions.

It is an honour to join you distinguished participants in my capacity as Deputy-Chair of The Elders, but you have mainly introduced my career as former Secretary-General. I’m really proud that climate change is one of the priority issues on which I have spent all my energy and time to generate and mobilise global political will of political leaders, as well as business and civil society.  

I am proud that these two ambitious and far-reaching visions were adopted too during my time, as you said: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Today, as we gather online, we are conscious of the young people mobilising socially distanced global climate strikes around the world.

The Elders, which was founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, is composed of global political leaders, former heads of state and government, and Nobel peace laureates, like Jimmy Carter who is still working as an honorary member. And there are many Nobel peace laureates including, Kofi Annan, my predecessor. Unfortunately, he passed away last year. He was the Chairman, now The Elders group is being chaired by the distinguished former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, whom you know very well, so I am very pleased to work with all of these distinguished former political leaders.

The Elders stand in solidarity with young people as they continue to call for an urgent shift away from the fossil fuel economy. The youth call for change because they know they’ll have to live with the ever-worsening effects of runaway climate change if we do not take urgent action quickly enough, to mitigate it.

The climate crisis is a grave intergenerational injustice.

[By] injustice I mean that those countries and people who have contributed least have to bear the brunt of climate impact.

The reality is, if you are 30 years old now, more carbon emissions have been put into the atmosphere during your lifetime, than in all of preceding history.1

The nature of economic growth over the past three decades has produced more carbon emissions than ever before. But has this growth been equal? Justify, who has benefited most?

As you said, just one percent of richest and rest ten percent: they’ve taken more than fifty-sixty percent of the global greenhouse emissions. In that regard, I really appreciate that Oxfam, with whom I have been working very closely during my time, tell us that over this period, the richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of the humanity.

This means that the global carbon budget is being rapidly depleted - not for the purpose of lifting all of humanity to a decent standard of living - but more for the purpose of expanding the consumption of a tiny minority of people.

Many governments have pursued economic growth at any cost, blind to whether it’s green or dirty, and unconcerned with whether wealth is shared, or built on exploitation. This economic model is what has enabled both cataclysmic climate change and catastrophic levels of inequality.

As inequality widens, the social fabric of our societies is being stretched and strained. We have seen this throughout the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, where poorer and more marginalised groups have borne a disproportionate burden of ill health and fatalities. And as our emissions grow, our planetary boundaries are buckling. This has dire consequences for those bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

In my role now, I am now having multiple responsibilities globally. One of the responsibilities is that I am now working as Chairman of the Global Commission on Adaptation, headquartered in the Netherlands. This was created together with Bill Gates and Kristalina Georgieva, who is now Managing Director of the IMF. We started with a small group but now it has been expanding.

Recently, we have established a regional office in Africa. Because without addressing African challenges we will never be able to claim that we are living a fair and just world. It happened last week. Two weeks ago we also established a South Asian regional centre of Global Centre on Adaptation in Dhaka, Bangladesh. An Indian Minister participated in [the] launching ceremony, and we have already established one in 2018 in Beijing, China. So, we are now expanding our work.

On 25 January, we are going to have a virtual summit meeting in The Netherlands under the auspices of Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. I am going to be there in person and chair this summit meeting. I hope Oxfam will participate.

I have seen that those living on the frontlines of the climate crisis in the Global South and in small developing islands in the South Pacific and the Caribbean are not only more exposed to climatic hazards but are more vulnerable to their adverse effects. They have been promised international support to adapt to the growing impacts of a climate crisis they had little hand in creating. Yet, funding for adaptation in the poorest countries is being neglected and needs to be scaled up as part of delivering the $100 billion per year.  

This promise by OECD countries was made during the Copenhagen summit meeting in 2009. They promised $100 billion by 2020, this year, and then thereafter from next year. Every year, $100 billion.

But we have not yet mobilised $100 billion annually, even during the last ten years. So, this is a complete lack of their commitment, their political will.

When the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, then we are losing momentum, even though there are still many countries committed to carry on. Again, I hope that civil society like Oxfam will speak out.

We need to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic with a different set of priorities and values. Addressing the disproportionate carbon emissions from the wealthiest in society, whilst protecting the most vulnerable from the impacts, must be key to this collective commitment.

Now is our opportunity to make this change happen by design.

Last week business leaders called for a “great reset” and a better way to run our economy to value human wellbeing and planetary health over wealth.

The call to action from the young people, activists and environmental defenders across the world is clear - they are asking us to listen to the science and to act. We have to follow what nature tells us to do. Nature has its own way. We are experiencing a lot of extreme heat, extreme weather patterns, like flood, cyclones, hurricanes, and even wildfire. This is happening sometimes in the most well-to-do countries like the United States and Australia.

So we must do all our efforts to contain global temperature rise below 1.5°C, as was strongly recommended by the IPCC in 2018.

Unless we address inequality and curb the excessive emissions generated by the lifestyles of the richest in our world, we will not live up to the promises we made in the Paris Agreement.

We cannot afford inaction.

Dear colleagues,  I am asking world leaders, I am telling them: Now is the time to rebuild back a better, safer, more equal, world for all of us. This is our moral responsibility. And all the political leaders have a political responsibility for humanity.

Let us work together to make sure that people and countries implement the Paris Climate Agreement and implement the Sustainable Development Goals. Thank you for your commitment.


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