Ukraine crisis must not delay action on global warming, says UN climate chief

As Patricia Espinosa prepares to step down as UN climate chief, she has a warning to the world: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must not distract leaders from escalating of the climate crisis.

Even as war causes “so much suffering”, global warming remains “the fastest growing threat to the human species on the planet”, Espinosa told Reuters.

Espinosa said she plans to step down as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) when her second three-year term ends in July.

The UNFCCC is the treaty of 196 countries that organizes global negotiations on the fight against climate change.

War could accelerate the transition to clean energy

“This is a program that cannot be postponed,” she said, noting that energy security concerns brought about by the war – Russia is a major global supplier of fossil fuels – could accelerate countries towards a clean energy.

Wind turbines are seen at a farm in the countryside near the Sicilian town of Trapani, southern Italy, September 29, 2009. The European Union will release plans on Tuesday to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels for reasons of security. (Giuseppe Piazza/Reuters)

The European Union will release plans on Tuesday to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, citing security concerns. Germany – Europe’s largest economy – has also advanced its switch to renewable energy. Europe gets 40% of its gas from Russia.

“It’s a very significant shift in how the issue of energy transition is approached,” Espinosa said.

Coal use could increase

However, steps taken by countries to escape dependence on Russian energy could spur greater use of domestic coal. Since the invasion, Germany has also announced its intention to build terminals to receive gas from other countries.

But climate analysts have echoed Espinosa’s hope that the geopolitical crisis will mark a pivot for global climate action.

There is no evidence so far that “climate will be pushed off the political or fiscal agenda of governments,” said Alex Scott, head of climate diplomacy at think tank E3G. Governments can “manage the responses to these two crises”.

What has happened since Patricia Espinosa took office

When Espinosa took office in 2016, global climate action was at its peak. Months before, UN climate negotiations had resulted in the Paris Agreement, committing countries to limit warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures and aim for 1.5°C.

In the years since, millions of people around the world have mobilized for climate action. Countries whose two biggest polluters – China and the United States – have increased their emission reduction targets. Over 80% of new electrical capacity added in 2020 was renewable.

Uniper’s Staudinger coal-fired power plant is seen at sunrise in Grosskrotzenburg, 30 kilometers from Frankfurt, Germany, February 13, 2019. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Yet global CO2 emissions continue to climb. Funding promised by rich countries to help poor countries fight climate change has not arrived. And the 1.1°C warming already observed has worsened extreme weather events – from deadly heat waves and downpours to catastrophic wildfires. A UN climate science report last week warned of escalating destruction if countries fail to cut emissions and prepare for a warmer planet.

“We have moved in the right direction,” Espinosa said. “But at the same time…of course I wish we had done more.”

The UN climate summit, COP26, in November reached an agreement that countries will update their emission reduction pledges this year as current plans will fail to limit warming to 1.5 °C.

Espinosa’s plan for his final months in office

Espinosa said she will focus her remaining months on calling for more ambitious pledges ahead of the upcoming UN climate summit, COP27, in Egypt in November.

It will also advance controversial discussions on how to deal with the “loss and damage” caused by climate-related disasters in the poorest countries. Demands from vulnerable countries for disaster compensation funding have so far met resistance from wealthy countries at UN talks.

Agiro Cavanda looks at his flooded house in the aftermath of Cyclone Kenneth, in the village of Wimbe in Pemba, Mozambique, April 29, 2019. Requests for funding from vulnerable countries for disaster compensation have so far been resisted by wealthy nations at the UN talks. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Espinosa said she has no specific plans for after her resignation, but hopes to continue contributing to environmental sustainability. The UN has not yet started the process of appointing his successor.

The biggest challenge facing her successor at the UNFCCC, she said, is speed — a test for a process that can take years to broker a single deal among its nearly 200 countries.

“What’s really important is to have a sense of urgency in this process,” Espinosa said. “We don’t have time for incremental progress anymore.”

Teresa H. Sadler