Climate change should be our priority in the post-pandemic era

As we prepare to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, governments trying to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 are digging us deeper into the climate crisis.

FILE PHOTO: The Eiffel tower is illuminated in green with the words "Paris Agreement is Done", to celebrate the Paris U.N. COP21 Climate Change agreement in Paris
The Eiffel tower is illuminated in green with the words "Paris Agreement is Done", to celebrate the Paris UN COP21 Climate Change agreement in November 2016. [Jacky Naegelen/Reuters]

Today, people on Scotland’s picturesque Uist islands are living in fear as rapidly rising sea levels threaten to destroy their low-laying fertile fields and unique way of life. On the other side of the world, inhabitants of Pacific Islands are still trying to get back on their feet after being hit by a severe tropical cyclone that destroyed their homes and left many of them homeless some eight months ago. These are not unrelated, unpreventable natural disasters – they are the sad and very real consequences of climate change.

Climate change is not affecting everyone equally. Vulnerable Indigenous and minority communities in the West and the peoples of the Global South already facing myriad developmental problems are sadly on the front line of this global emergency – they are the ones suffering the worst and most immediate effects of climate change, from slow-onset events like rising seas and desertification to sudden disasters like hurricanes and floods.

COVID-19 made fighting against climate change more difficult for these communities. People who have been suffering from climate-related disasters are now also trying to mitigate the consequences of a deadly pandemic that not only ruined countless lives and livelihoods but also made richer nations more reluctant and less able to help them adapt to a changing climate.

Five years ago, nations around the world came together in a show of global solidarity to bring an end to the climate emergency. By adopting the Paris Agreement they made a commitment to take the necessary steps to limit the increase in global average temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to reduce the risks and effects of climate change.

On December 12, the United Nations, the United Kingdom and France are going to co-host a virtual “Climate Ambition Summit” to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the adoption of this landmark treaty. The Paris Agreement was undoubtedly a turning point in our race against time to prevent a climate catastrophe. However, its fifth anniversary would only be a moment worthy of celebration if developed nations most responsible for climate change renew their commitment to the deal, align their COVID-19 recovery plans with climate goals, and agree to provide poorer countries on the front line of this crisis with finance and development aid.

Right now, the world is understandably focused on ending the COVID-19 pandemic. But in trying to mitigate the effects of one crisis, our leaders are digging us deeper into another.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, governments of the world’s 20 richest economies that are responsible for some 80 percent of global emissions have committed more than $230bn to supporting fossil fuel, prioritising the wellbeing of polluting industries over the future of our planet.

All parties to the Paris agreement agreed to make regular nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to reduce national emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. With updated targets due by the end of 2020, only 16 countries, responsible for merely 4.6 percent of global emissions, have officially submitted better targets so far. Recent climate target announcements from the UK and China should definitely push other countries to meet the 2020 deadline.

Moreover, while many developed countries have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the lack of near-term targets based on principles of fair-share and equity risk making these pledges a smokescreen for inaction. For small island nations in the Pacific, empty promises about what may happen in 30 years, however, do not mean much, as they are already struggling for survival today.

In 2010, developed nations committed to providing $100bn annually to developing nations to help them mitigate the effects of climate change. Oxfam’s Climate Finance Shadow Report 2020, however, demonstrated that donors reported just $59.5bn a year on average in 2017 and 2018 – the latest years for which figures are available. Moreover, the report also showed that the true value of support received by developing nations for climate action may be as little as $19-22.5bn a year once loan repayments, interest and other forms of over-reporting are stripped out.

Climate justice can only be achieved if developed nations compensate the developing nations for loss and damage and provide them with the necessary financial means to adapt to a changing climate. Developed countries must now commit to long-term finance that addresses the compounding vulnerabilities of developing nations in a post-COVID-19 world, to bridge the massive gap between what has been promised/delivered and what is actually needed.

As we prepare to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement, we need to remember that our fight to build a just, safe and sustainable world is only beginning. To finally end the climate emergency and save our planet, we need empathy, solidarity, trust and multilateral cooperation.

We can all breathe a little easier now that the United States voted in an administration that appears to understand the gravity of the climate crisis. But we still need to ensure this new administration commits to doing its fair share globally to address the problem. We cannot leave this fight for survival solely in the hands of politicians – whether they say they understand what is at stake or not.

We need to keep pressuring our governments to keep the commitments they made in the Paris Agreement to end fossil fuel dependence and enable a just transition to renewable energy, drastically cut emissions by the next decade, and deliver finance for those on the front lines of the climate emergency.

We do not have any time to waste – for millions around the world, from Scotland to Kiribati, environmental break-down is not looming on the horizon, it is already here today.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.