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Countries must not forget Paris Agreement during Covid-19 recovery

COVID-19 stimulus spending must put the climate emergency at its very core – argues Rt Hon. Christopher Loeak of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. This opinion piece first appeared in The Independent.

Even as the world grapples with the ongoing public health emergency of Covid-19, responsible leaders are looking ahead to plans for a swift recovery. Coronavirus stimulus spending must put the climate emergency at its very core. In “building back better” to ensure our planet’s long-term sustainability, we have an obligation not to waste this opportunity.

While the challenge of Covid-19 is unprecedented, we already have the international architecture in place for an effective and equitable response. Created in 2015, in a moment of profound global solidarity, the Paris Agreement was the product of years of careful negotiations by the global community. The Republic of the Marshall Islands was proud to play a key role in that process, convening a “High Ambition Coalition” of developing and developed countries in Paris, an alliance that has continued to lead the way on climate ambition in the years since.

In the next few months, governments must implement the substantive commitments they have already signed up to. Three of these commitments are particularly important.

The first is the requirement in Article 2 of the Paris agreement for “making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development”. In other words, making sure money is spent in a way that allows us to remain within the all-important 1.5-degree temperature goal that scientists tell us is essential for my country to survive. This is the standard against which all stimulus spending must be assessed.

Unfortunately, it is a standard that many of those who were proud to ratify the Paris Agreement are failing to meet. Recovery packages that use public funds to prop up polluting industries without imposing the conditions necessary to secure emission reductions do not live up to the letter or spirit of what was agreed in Paris.

The second critical Paris Agreement obligation is for countries to update their emission reduction pledges, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), every five years – beginning in 2015. 2020 is also the year countries are to submit 2050 climate strategies, setting out their long-term path to decarbonisation. NDCs and 2050 strategies can function not only as statements of political intent, but as investment plans for the projects necessary to mitigate emissions and adapt to climate impacts.

The World BankUNDP, and the regional development banks have all established programs to help accelerate this process. The Republic of the Marshall Islands’s 2050 strategy Tile Til Eo, for example, describes investments in renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency, transportation and waste management that are necessary for mitigating climate change – and, equally importantly, adapting to the changes that we are already experiencing. It also contains concrete policy proposals, such as a commitment from the US Department of Defense to power its naval base on the Marshallese atoll of Kwajalein using Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, a potentially game-changing renewable energy technology for the entire region.

As finance ministries usher in stimulus plans, they have to make sure they’re aligned with their climate commitments – those in Article 2, their NDCs and 2050 strategies, and their adaptation plans. Governments should also look ahead, updating those targets to reflect the greater availability and affordability of clean technology since 2015, as well as ever clearer scientific evidence of the need for an urgent transition. Developing countries like mine, as well as Rwanda and Jamaica, have already done this – major economies with far more resources than us must do so, too.

Finally, vulnerable countries have faced the triple threat of Covid-19, its economic impact and an escalating climate crisis. We need the developed world to come together in solidarity to help us recover for a more resilient future – not to look inwards and away from their responsibility. Those of us that are most vulnerable need support through debt relief, bilateral support, and urgent action by multilateral bodies. It is also critical that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) remains well financed during this critical period for international development.

It is clear that the world will emerge from this pandemic fundamentally changed. At the individual level, I believe that people all over the world will emerge from lockdown with a renewed enthusiasm to rebuild their world better, stronger and safer. It is this entrepreneurial spirit – a vision that exceeds immediate resources, matched by a determination to bring it to realisation – that will drive the most exciting and inspiring innovations that emerge in the post-pandemic world. Governments must not shy away from their financial role in unleashing this wave of human creativity, and draw on the international infrastructure created over decades of work to do so effectively and equitably. We must not let this time go to waste.

Christopher Loeak is the Minister in assistance to the President and also Minister for Environment in the Republic of the Marshall Islands

Image: small fishers, Asia Pacific, credit WorldFish

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