Tackling the world’s many problems

Rains in several cities of Pakistan brought destructive floods that took lives and did billions of rupees of damage


Shahid Javed Burki September 28, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

There was no shortage of divisive issues as the world leaders gathered in New York to talk about, if not actually settle, the differences that set them apart. This is the 76th meeting of the United Nation’s General Assembly where the leaders spoke about the pandemic that continues to acquire new strains while science is trying to keep pace with the evolving disease by improving vaccines to tackle it. There is economic strife on many continents where the have-nots have begun to challenge those who have all they want. The confidence is long gone that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union when many believed that ideological conflicts had ended. European Communism and Nazism had been beaten back. However, a competing ideology is now emerging which strongly believes that global governance must follow the word of God, not that of man. This is the ideology that has brought the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and may influence the countries in its neighborhood.

Only five weeks are left until an important global climate summit is scheduled in Scotland, in November, when world leaders would face a great deal of pressure to act actively and collectively to bring under control global warming. “We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate actions,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned before the formal opening of the United Nations meetings. “The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted. We must act now to prevent further irreversible damage.”

On September 20, Guterres and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will be the host of the Glasgow summit, held a closed-door gathering involving several dozen national leaders including a mix of the world’s largest and most powerful nations alongside poorer countries hit the hardest by climate change. They agreed that the Glasgow meeting should make a serious effort to get large emitters of global warming gasses to meeting the ambitions spelled out in Paris in 2015. Then it was pledged that working together the world would limit the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial level. This was a relatively weak commitment since the target did not involve any penalties for under-performing. Even, then president Barack Obama worked hard to get Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, to agree to this mild version of global commitment. Negotiations with the Chinese lasted for more than a year and involved Obama and John Kerry, his Secretary of State. An agreement was signed in Paris in 2015 and came to be called the Paris Accord. Nations promised to present at agreed time-intervals, the actions they were taking to reach this target.

At present, rich nations also agreed to provide financial assistance to poor countries so that they could also meet their commitment to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. Very little was done to provide this kind of help. At the planned summit to be held in Glasgow — it was delayed by a year because of the restrictions on travel resulting from the Covid pandemic — there is expectation that participating nations will show up with bolder, tangible promises six years after having agreed to commitments at Paris. Unfortunately, whether the Paris Accord could begin to roll, there was a serious setback when Donald Trump, placed in the White House in 2017 by the elections in 2016, decided to take the United States out of the agreement. The only reason for this step was his pledge to his constituency that America would go alone, unbound by international agreements. That was the only way America could be “Made Great Again”. MAGA became the Trump political slogan.

The world is drawing a great deal of comfort from the way President Joe Biden, Trump’s successor in the White House, is moving on the world scene. His slogan, ‘America is Back’, has been read as Washington’s pledge to work with the world on all issues that need global action. There was action as President Biden headed to New York to give the annual address to the General Assembly. On September 17, the United States and the European Union agreed to a ‘global methane pledge’ that would cut emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by nearly a third by 2030 compared to the 2020 level. In addition to the EU, the United Kingdom signed on the initiative as did Argentina, Mexico, Indonesia, and Mexico along with several other nations.

The world has changed in several dramatic ways since the accord was signed in Paris in 2015. Developments in climate diplomacy and in climate science have made it clear the human’s greenhouse emissions are feeding intense fires in many parts of the world; that intense rains are causing floods; that heatwaves and other extreme weather events are claiming lives and making people to migrate in large numbers.

Unlike the preparations that were made for the Paris agreement, nothing similar has been carried out for the forthcoming Glasgow summit. This was in part because then President Donald Trump called climate change a ‘hoax’, possibly conceived by the Chinese to hurt the American economy. The coronavirus pandemic did not help either. It diverted the world’s attention to something that was urgent instead of climate change that was still at some distance. The Biden administration is now trying to make up for the loss of time. On the first day in office, the new president rejoined the Paris Accord. He brought in John F Kerry into his administration as the ‘climate czar’ and charged him to travel the globe in an attempt to come with a more ambitious deal than the one signed six years earlier at Paris. Biden pressed the fellow G7 leaders to give greater attention to the climate problem. On the domestic front, he began working with Congress to approve a $3.5 trillion spending bill that would include far-reaching climate actions critical for the United States to make progress toward its 2030 emissions target.

Biden went to New York for the September 21, 2021 address to the General Assembly to make palpable advance on the part of world’s major powers. “I think it’s important that there be major announcements about taking steps forward,” said David Sandalow, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations and now a fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy. “That needs to include actions on the part of major emitters but also from major institutions, financial groups and others.” One major action should be the commitment by developed nations to provide $100 billion annually to help poor countries build greener economies and deal with climate induced catastrophes.

On the eve of the annual General Assembly session, Secretary General Antonio Guterres reminded the world that the past five years are among the hottest on record, and that fossil-fuel emissions are rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. Greenhouse gas concentrations are hitting highs, and extreme weather events have become more common and costlier. No country was spared. Rains in several cities of Pakistan brought destructive floods that took lives and did billions of rupees of property damage. One impressive initiative taken by the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan is the billion-plus tree tsunami that is likely to increase measurably Pakistan’s forest cover. Trees capture carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2021.

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