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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gives press conference

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gives press conference

This article was written for the May newsletter of the Action on Climate Emergency (ACE) Settle and Area.

Many of us may have missed it, but Wednesday 22 April was Earth Day. Under normal circumstances climate change campaigners would have been holding demonstrations and other high profile events to mark the occasion. But we all know that we are not living ‘under normal circumstances’.

The point was well made by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his message to mark the day when he acknowledged that all eyes were on the COVID-19 pandemic, which he described as “an unprecedented wake-up call.” He recognised the “immediate and dreadful” impact of the coronavirus urging everyone to “work together to save lives, ease suffering and lessen the shattering economic and social consequence”. At the same time, he observed that climate disruption was approaching “a point of no return” and a “deep emergency” that long predates the pandemic.

“Greenhouse gases” he stated, “just like viruses, do not respect national boundaries. We must act decisively to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption”.

Emphasising the need to turn the recovery into “a real opportunity to do things right for the future”, he proposed climate-related actions to shape the recovery.

While spending huge amounts of money to bring economies back, Mr. Guterres asserted, “we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition”. And where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, he maintained that it needs to be tied to achieving green jobs and sustainable growth. He also underscored that to make societies more resilient, “fiscal firepower must drive a shift from the grey to green economy”.

He maintained that Fossil fuel subsidies must end, polluters must pay for their contamination and public funds should be invested in sustainable sectors along with pro-environment and climate projects.  Moreover, climate risks and opportunities must be incorporated into financial systems, public policy making and infrastructure. Finally, he stressed that we needed to work together as an international community.

“On this Earth Day, please join me in demanding a healthy and resilient future for people and planet alike”, he concluded.

So the question for us is will the current health emergency obstruct or aid the campaign against climate change?

We have all read reports about some pollution levels being down as a result of the health emergency shut down. A report in 2019 by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) found pollution to be the largest environmental cause of premature death on the planet. In India where in 2017 over one million people died from ambient air pollution, it is said that the Himalayan peaks can now be seen from a distance of 500 kilometres. Nearer home pollution levels in Paris are down by 40 per cent while London is seeing clearer skies as pollution levels hit five-year low amid the coronavirus crisis. Flights from the UK’s 10 Airports are down from 7,865 in the week before lockdown to 711 in the week to 21 April. None of us would have chosen to limit emissions in this way and it is clear that these levels will not be maintained once the lockdown is eased and eventually lifted. The economic price being paid for the health emergency is considerable; with suggestions that a three month lockdown could lead to a 35 per cent decline in GDP in the second quarter of this year (Gross Domestic Product is the monetary value of all finished goods and services). Behind these figures are people, many of whose livelihoods have been put at serious risk. Our first task must be the welfare of all, coupled with the need to get the economy moving again without the previous emissions levels and without a rush to deregulation and a relaxing in environmental rules.

At the start of this article I referred to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres message to mark Earth Day on 22 April. What he is saying is that every possible effort must now be made to ensure that the recovery, when it comes, is as green as possible; that any and every stimulus package is directed towards renewable energy and zero- or low-carbon infrastructure and transport. The task facing us in ACE is to translate these aspirations into local action. It has never been more important to keep up the pressure both locally, nationally and internationally.