Op-Ed by Hanaa Singer, Resident Coordinator, United Nations Sri Lanka. Originally published in Sunday Times Sri Lanka, on Sunday 22nd September 2019, to coincide with the UN Youth Climate Summit and UN Climate Action Summit taking place in New York.
What do you want to be when you grow-up?”
– A question we often ask our children, encouraging them to dream big and aspire towards anything they set their heart on.
But let’s take a moment to evaluate the world that we pass on to them.
The concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is at its highest in 3 to 5 million years. Heat-waves in Europe and South Asia experienced this year stand evidence to the fact that the we are in the midst of the 5 warmest years on record. Deforestation has caused the loss of more than 290 million hectares of forest – almost 44 times the total land area of Sri Lanka, while globally, those displaced due to disasters outnumber those uprooted by conflict.
The cost of climate change is more so for island nations.
In Sri Lanka, 14 coastal cities are at risk from rising sea levels. All 9 of the country’s provincial capitals have faced flood situations in the 4 decades since 1974, with over 4 million people affected by it. With our cities expanding more communities are being exposed to climate risk. In urban settings, the spread of vector and water-borne diseases is further increased by climate change – Following the floods in May 2017, 43% of all cases of Dengue in Sri Lanka were recorded in the Western megapolis.
While water springs dry up in the mountain, exposing the country to long periods of drought, rising sea levels have also resulted in increased salination of the country’s fresh water. Water resource management across multiple sectors is among Sri Lanka’s biggest challenges.
The effects of erratic weather patterns and extreme weather events is severe on the agriculture sector, leading to the disruption of not only farming households, but also the 70% of rural livelihoods and almost 30% of Sri Lanka’s labour force that rely on it. The knock-on effect which can be seen in varying development indicators – increasing level of indebtedness, deeper levels of poverty, a further exacerbated level of malnutrition.
Climate change consequence is not limited to natural disasters. The loss of bio diversity in Sri Lanka, a country that is seen as 1 of the 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world, is staggering. Increasing human-elephant conflicts due to habitat loss, degradation of seascapes and landscapes, coral bleaching also bring in new dimensions, considering Sri Lanka’s greater focus on tourism.
In 2015, 195 countries committed to the Paris Agreement; a global action plan to limiting the planet’s warming with emission-cutting pledges at national level. While many countries have until 2030 to meet these targets, most are far behind and even if the promises of the Paris Agreement are fully met, the world still faces the risk of at least a 3-degree temperature rise by the end of the century.
The numbers are numerous, but they all point towards the need for urgent action – Climate change is progressing exponentially faster than our efforts to address it.
It is a challenge that no country can opt out of addressing.
The UN Secretary-General in his call to global leaders for the UN Climate Action Summit taking place this week, asks for less of beautiful speeches and more of bold action and greater ambition with ‘concrete, realistic plans to enhance nationally determined contributions by 2020’.
Building climate resilient communities to protect people and the environment is among the United Nations’ priorities in the country. In partnership with the Government and other stakeholders, the UN in Sri Lanka works on various aspects, from restoration of irrigation tanks to rehabilitating degraded agriculture lands, diversification of livelihoods to enhancing the resilience of rural communities against recurrent natural shocks, protecting and conserving the seascapes and landscapes to biodiversity conservation.
In 2018, Cape Town’s ‘Ground Zero’, the largest drought-induced municipal water failure in modern history, saw the Government increasing water tariffs, restriction on heavy users, combined with conscious public usage, resulting in a drop in residential consumption.
The solutions for climate change require collective ambition, collective action. It requires bold and transformative change in every aspect of our lives.
We need to embrace innovation and technologies that offer green solutions, but more importantly, we need to make conscious choices. We need rapid change in the way we do businesses, in how we power our homes, plan our cities, our means of commute, how our food is produced, the clothes we wear, and our means of waste disposal.
The rising demands of responsible consumers will lead to businesses moving from grey to green economy, leaders acting on the priorities of their concerned citizens, and Governments exploring and accelerating sustainable development that benefits both people and the planet. Climate change risks need to be mainstreamed across all decisions, solutions need to be climate-smart and climate friendly, while ensuring that the most vulnerable are not left behind.
Young people everywhere are impatient with our inaction.
The ‘FridaysforFuture’ movement led by 16-year-old Greta Thrunberg, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and climate activist, saw children across the world boycott school, protesting to protect their future.
If we don’t act now, when we ask the next generation to dream – it is going to be with a fine print that reads of limited possibilities in a world of crisis. That would be our collective legacy.
When water scarcity forces wars, and each day is defined by the unpredictability of droughts, hurricanes and floods, how do they move from a mode of survival?
When rising sea levels threaten to destroy their homes, how can they build their future?
While the wondours beauty of wildlife slowly becomes a long-lost treasure, the last tree cut down, the ocean polluted, air chocking with smoke, how can we promise them the possibilities of a better tomorrow?