The United Nations, the United Kingdom as COP26 (United Nations Climate Change Conference) Presidency, and France will co-host a virtual leader-level Climate Ambition Summit on 12 December alongside our partners Italy and Chile to mobilize and accelerate climate action. The Climate Ambition Summit will highlight the countries that are increasing urgent action in their national climate plans to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5C within reach. Non-state actors, including civil society, business, academia, indigenous peoples, and youth will also have their voices heard and make commitments where appropriate.
UN Sri Lanka Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer recently spoke at the ‘Introduction to COP’ event hosted by the British High Commission in Colombo. In her remarks she highlighted the current climate crisis in the context of COVID-19 and the impact of climate change on Sri Lanka. She also noted the UN’s partnership with the Government to strengthen environmental management and the ambitious steps needed if we are to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Excerpts of her speech:
This year has been a challenge on almost every possible front as the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated lives, livelihoods, and economies. But other crises have not disappeared, and the pandemic has not slowed down climate change, which presents an ever-growing threat to people’s health, jobs and safety. The stakes could not be higher: the science shows that temperatures are in record-breaking territory, greenhouse gas levels are mounting, sea levels are rising, and natural disasters are becoming more frequent and destructive. As the world confronts the pandemic and embarks on the long-awaited pathway to recovery, there is also a growing recognition that this recovery must be built on a new foundation of a green and sustainable economy that supports decent jobs and prosperity for all, reduces emissions, and builds resilience.
Report after report spells out how close we are to climate catastrophe. In the last two months alone, new UN publications have warned that 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record globally – even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Niña. In addition, this past decade has also the hottest in human history.
Current NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions – the rate by which countries are reducing their national emissions) put the world on a dangerous course to experience 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius of temperature rise, well above the 1.5 degrees C limit that scientists say we need to stay below for preventing the worst effects of climate change. Leaders must take this into account and make urgent choices NOW to tackle the climate crisis and steer their countries towards achieving better health, a safer society and more sustainable growth for their populations.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by the United Nations in 2015, address the environmental, economic, and social challenges that the world needs to overcome by 2030 in order to ensure a sustainable future. SDG 13 calls on countries to ‘take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’, by implementing commitments to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as by improving public awareness of the need for Climate Action. Crucially, SDG 13 also calls on countries to integrate effective Climate Action measures into national policies.
What does this mean for Sri Lanka?
As an Island State, Sri Lanka faces the threat of rising sea levels, floods, landslides, prolonged dry spells and other recurrent natural disasters which cause destruction, displacement and economic loss. Only last week, cyclone storm Burevi brought heavy rains over the Northern and Eastern parts of the island, causing thousands to evacuate into safety centers. These threats stand as a reminder of the serious flooding in 2016 and 2017 and the Indian Ocean Tsunami that had such a devastating impact on Sri Lanka.
According to the World Bank, Sri Lanka on average experiences 313 million dollars in economic losses to disasters. This increasing recognition of Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to climate change has ranked Sri Lanka 6th on exposure to extreme weather events in the 2020 Global Climate Risk index of the organization ‘German Watch’.
The Government of Sri Lanka, on its national policy framework (“Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour 2020”) has included several measures, notably a key policy on Sustainable Environmental Management, which aims to integrate the SDGs fully into the framework. It is encouraging that this ambition has been put into practice with the announcement by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday (8 December) that the Government will look to generate 80% of energy through renewable sources by 2030 and the approval of Cabinet for several renewable power projects this week.
UN Partnership with Sri Lanka
Enhancing resilience to climate change and disasters and strengthening environmental management is one of the main objectives of the United Nations’ Strategic Plan in Sri Lanka. A number of UN Agencies are already working with the Government of Sri Lanka to implement a wide range of programmes, focused on areas including Sustainable Technologies, lowering Greenhouse Gas emissions, Sustainable Water and Land Management, and Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation.
The UN has supported the National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change Impacts 2016-2025 in Sri Lanka, which has been prepared in line with the broad set of guidelines set forth by the UNFCCC. The Adaptation Plan has helped outline a methodological framework through which Sri Lanka is set firmly on the path to becoming a resilient, vibrant and sustainable country, and which provides a solid foundation with which information management, technological development, policy and governance, coordination and resource mobilisation can be strengthened.
As UN Secretary-General Guterres said at the Petersburg Dialogue, “They say it’s darkest just before the dawn. These are dark days, but they are not days without hope. We have a short and rare opportunity to change our world for the better.”
Even with the glimpse of some rays of hope, we are still squarely immersed in a pandemic that has challenged all countries. We must use the experience of COVID-19 as an impetus to speed up our efforts to secure a safe and sustainable future for all. It’s time to reinvent and re-energize the way we cooperate and reach decisions, with a renewed sense of solidarity and urgency and the next Conference of Parties to the Paris agreement (CoP 26) in Glasgow will be the perfect platform for this. It aligns perfectly with the central objective of the United Nations for 2021; to build a truly Global Coalition for Carbon Neutrality.
What steps can we take to move towards this ambitious goal?
We need to put a price on carbon.
To shift the tax burden from income to carbon, and from taxpayers to polluters.
To integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions.
Funding should flow to the green economy, resilience, adaptation and just transition programmes.
We need to align all public and private financial flows behind the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Multilateral, regional and national development institutions, and private banks, must all commit to align their lending to the global net zero objective.
Companies need to adjust their business models – and investors need to demand information from companies on the resilience of those models.
The UN in Sri Lanka continues to offer its hand in partnership to the Government of Sri Lanka. We will endeavour to work with the Government, Private Sector, Civil Society, Donors, Academia and other stakeholders invested in bringing about the transformational shift required to make the profound changes needed to reduce the impact of climate change on Sri Lanka, where the lives and livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable in this country are protected. As we journey towards sustainable development that leaves no one behind and benefits both people and the planet, let us work together as if our lives depended on it, because they do!