A year after thousands of young people marched to the United Nations (UN) headquarter in New York demanding climate action, some things have changed. During this year’s General Assembly that is taking place remotely, climate action is a part of the conversation. But some things have remained the same. When it came to allocating money and announcing drastic systemic changes that climate action needs, world leaders fell short.
On Tuesday as representatives from around the world discussed ways to help finance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – targets aimed at improving access to health, education and sanitation, among others – the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the conversation.
The high-level meeting convened by UN secretary-general António Guterres on September 29, together with the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, involved talks about policy actions and solutions to advance the devastating social and economic impacts of COVID-19.
Nearly one million people lost their lives due to the pandemic and there are over 32 million confirmed cases globally. It is expected to drive close to 100 million to extreme poverty, the first such increase since 1998. An estimated additional 265 million people could face acute food shortages by the end of 2020, according to the UN.
Even for developing countries that have not been directly affected by the virus, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the financial distress as export, tourism and remittance receipts have all dried up. This threatens their ability to meet existing debt payments.
Of the $11 trillion spent globally to respond to the financial impacts of the pandemic so far, 88% has been disbursed by high-income countries, compared to 2.5% by emerging and developing economies.
“They [developed nations] can afford it,” said Guterres. “But we need to ensure that the developing world does not fall into financial ruin, escalating poverty and debt crises. We need a collective commitment to avoid a downward spiral.”
Dual impact of COVID-19, climate crisis
The world is also facing record heat and climate extremes. 2019 was the second warmest year in recorded history and the planet has already warmed 1.1 C compared to average temperatures during the pre-industrial era, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). August 2020 was the fourth warmest August on record. Summer storms caused flooding in a number of European countries including Greece, Ireland and Italy while tropical storms affected Caribbean and parts of the US, according to Copernicus, the European climate agency.
The urgency is clear with both COVID-19 and the climate crisis.
“At this moment, we have the opportunity to reimagine our economic systems, reaffirm our common understanding of a more sustainable and inclusive recovery and re-establish momentum toward achieving the SDGs to build back better,” said Trudeau.
The discussions focused on producing actionable policies to create jobs, inclusive growth and sustainability, among other issues.
“We are at a critical point where now, more than ever, global cooperation and collaboration are essential to recovery. Our approach must therefore be purposeful and strategic,” said Holness. “Clear achievable objectives, timelines and systems must be defined if we are to achieve truly resilient, inclusive and sustainable recovery.”
The world is not on track to meet the SDGs and Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson of the SG, said that this isn’t a test about which issue gets how much attention explaining that COVID-19 recovery, SDGs and the climate crisis are all linked. The pandemic has pushed back progress and the focus, Dujarric said, would be to minimize the damage while pushing for green recovery.