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OPINION: Looking to the G20 for climate leadership

Tony de Brum, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Pa Ousman Jarju, Minister of Environment, Climate Change, Water Resources, Parks & Wildlife of the Gambia, call for climate leadership from the G20 in this special editorial, released on the eve of the G20 Summit in Australia.

For those of us on the frontlines of the rising threats posed by climate change, there is no group of countries we look to more for climate leadership than the G20.

The world’s twenty biggest economies are responsible for 80 per cent of the carbon emissions that are rapidly warming our planet. These countries also have the economic weight and influence, as well as the responsibility, to turn the tide and accelerate the transition to the low-carbon economy.

Thankfully, we have all agreed that warming must be kept to less than two degrees Celsius, and the vulnerable among us want a more ambitious and precautionary target of 1.5 degrees. Worryingly, the science is telling us that we are on the way to four degrees of warming, a situation that not only puts the futures of our two countries in jeopardy, but one which promises to wreak havoc across the globe.

At the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September, we saw a glimmer of hope. World leaders, company bosses and 300,000 marchers in Manhattan stood up and said “enough is enough; this polluting madness has to stop”.  The task is difficult, but not impossible.  And it is in all of our interests to make it happen.

As we saw during the global financial crisis of 2008, G20 cooperation and leadership brings the potential and power to overcome economic adversity of the most serious kind. And while this year’s G20 Leaders’ meeting in Brisbane will focus on stimulating economic growth, there is simply no strategy for long-term prosperity that does not include a suite of policy measures to limit emissions, accelerate the deployment of green technology, and shift investment flows in favour of a carbon-neutral world by the middle of the Century.  If we do not tackle climate change, the pursuit of economic growth will quickly become a quixotic enterprise, replaced by regional and global insecurity, climate damage control and an imperative for some, including our two countries, to simply survive.

This message is not one driven simply by environmental zealotry, as some would have you believe. The world’s scientists have long warned us of the need to act, but some of the world’s most prominent economists and bankers are now singing from the same song sheet.  Henry Paulson, who as Treasury Secretary helped navigate the US through the 2008 financial crisis, recently labelled climate change “the single biggest risk to the global economy.”  And in a more positive tone, the recent ‘New Climate Economy’ report confirmed that climate action and economic growth are mutually supportive objectives.  Put simply, one cannot happen without the other.

The IPCC has already warned us that we could wipe more than two percent off the world’s economy by 2050 if we don’t quickly change our course. Pollution in China was linked to more than one million premature deaths in 2010, wiping up to 13 per cent off the country’s GDP.  And in New York, the estimated cost of the Hurricane Sandy clean-up was $50 billion, but a $20 billion investment in climate-proofed infrastructure would put the city well on track to protect itself from future climate emergencies.

The simple lesson is that cost of acting now is much less than the damage and loss that would be caused if we do not.

With this in mind, those of us whose countries are already suffering the economic, social and even territorial consequences of a warming world are concerned that this year’s G20 agenda will largely ignore the trials and opportunities posed by the climate change challenge. We hope and trust that wiser heads will prevail.  With just over one year to go until the deadline for a new global climate treaty in Paris, it is time for G20 nations to step up to the plate again.

Yes, we all need to contribute. The Marshall Islands and the Gambia are working to propose their emission reduction commitments by March 2015, as we agreed last December in Warsaw.  But our emissions are negligible, and our cuts will not put a dent in the problem.  We were pleased, therefore, to hear from China, the US and EU at the Major Economies Forum meeting in September that they too intend to respect this important timeline.  We expect all G20 members to commit to this timeline as well.

We have seen the power of the G20 when it chooses to lead. Delayed action allowed the credit bubble to burst, forcing the world economy into prolonged recession and recovery.  Our climate will not be so kind.  Any further delay in our efforts to reduce emissions will put a safe climate future beyond reach.  It is time for us to build the greatest climate change alliance the world has ever seen.  And the G20 must be at the heart of that alliance.


Image courtesy Panos.


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