Sometimes we need a little reminder of what really matters. We get bogged down with our daily worries, the stresses of work and the struggles of modern life. We never raise our gaze to the horizon and consider the bigger picture. Earth Day, which takes place on April 22 every year, asks us to do just that by looking beyond our own lives to the fate of the planet and the myriad people and species that live upon it.
This Earth Day, more than any other, we can lift our heads and look at this bigger picture with new hope, for today the world is gathering at UN Headquarters in New York to sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It is no exaggeration to say that this agreement, alongside the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, can transform our world.
“In Paris, the world’s nations agreed that climate change is a threat to planetary well-being,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Having over 160 countries sign the Paris Agreement in New York on its opening day is proof positive that the world is committed to a global response.
"More than this, the signed Paris Agreement is evidence of an epochal shift in global mentality toward how we interact with our environment. What the Paris Agreement can do is inspire action, safe in the knowledge that we do not act alone, but with a global unity of purpose.”
The Paris Agreement commits nations to working toward limiting temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius this century, which will head off the worst impacts of climate change and protect vulnerable developing nations. Even better, world leaders have also agreed to strive for the ambitious target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The need for such global commitment has never been more evident, as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which along with UNEP established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has pointed out.
A powerful El Niño has contributed to high temperatures and extreme events in recent months, but human induced climate change is the main culprit. Each of the past several decades has been warmer than the previous one, and 2011–2015 was the hottest period on record. The first three months of 2016 also broke temperature records, according to preliminary data from the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency.
Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere reached 403.28 parts per million in February 2016, the maximum Arctic sea ice extent, recorded in March 2016, was the lowest on record for the second straight year, and a devastating coral bleaching event worsened in 2016 because of record sea surface temperatures. This isn’t even the full list of current impacts.
“The state of the planet is changing before our eyes,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “If the international community acts immediately to halt the rise in CO2 emissions, we can still hope to stabilize global warming over the coming decades. If not, the negative consequences will last for tens of thousands of years.”
These consequences are well-documented, from more extreme weather events, to rising seas to fundamental shifts in rainfall that will damage agriculture. In Africa alone, climate change could reduce crop yields by up to 20 per cent by 2050 as the population nearly doubles. With such an overarching impact on the globe, unchecked climate change will make achieving sustainable development impossible. Progress on goals such as those on poverty, inequity, ending hunger, protecting biodiversity and improving human health will be seriously hampered if we allow our planet to warm to a point where the dire predictions become reality.
“More carbon in the atmosphere equals more poverty,” said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “We cannot deliver sustainable development without tackling climate change, and we cannot tackle climate change without addressing the root causes of poverty, inequality and unsustainable development patterns.”
This is where the Paris Agreement, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), enters the picture. Through these global targets, the world is putting itself on the path to rethink and reshape the fossil-fuel based economy that has brought us to this point. Nations must now focus on how they will meet their pledges – by increasing investment in renewable energy, by targeting greater energy efficiency and by addressing the many other areas that can reduce emissions, such as promoting sustainable consumption and production at all levels of society.
We are already seeing movement in this direction. Last year, for the first time, renewables accounted for a majority of new electricity-generating capacity added around the world, at an investment of $286 billion, according to research by UNEP, Bloomberg and the Frankfurt School. The Paris Agreement also sends a strong signal to markets, which we need to throw their capital into the investment required for a sustainable future, that they should be part of the solution. This will both preserve their bottom lines in a world where consumers are increasing making sustainable purchasing choices and meet the moral imperative of behaving responsibly in a world where the lifestyle choices of the wealthiest segments of society can impact negatively on the lives of the poorest.
Fundamentally, though, we must remember that each of us has a role to play – as private individuals and in our workplaces – instead of looking to our governments to fix it for us alone. We can make energy-efficient choices. We can stop wasting food. We can think more carefully about our investments and their impacts. We can look at our carbon footprints and decide whether to be part of the problem or part of the solution.
UNEP has long been part of the solution, bringing science to policymakers through reports such as the Emissions Gap series, helping communities around the world adapt to climate change, and playing a leading role in transformative global partnerships such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the en.lighten initiative on energy-efficient lighting.
On the Paris Agreement and the 21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties where it was adopted alone, we made a strong contribution. We assisted 36 countries who submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the UNFCCC to develop and complete their plans. We mobilized institutional investors, who promised to decarbonize $600 billion of investments under the Portfolio Decarbonization Coalition. We helped facilitate over $10 billion in pledges to the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative. Through the Global Adaptation Gap Report 2014, we contributed to 97 countries including adaptation components in their INDCs – a crucial measure, as climate change impacts will still harm the poorest communities come even if we limit global temperature rise.
We are also working to raise public awareness of the Paris Agreement through our #Sign4Climate campaign, which lets you show your support by donating your signature to support the Paris Agreement. We will feature the most creative contributions on UNEP’s social media accounts.
Today’s ceremony in New York is only the beginning. We look forward to working with our partners to implement the Paris Agreement and prompt stronger and wider action. We will do this through supporting the expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, promoting fuel efficiency measures, guiding the world toward sustainable consumption and production patterns, and helping countries adapt to a changing climate. Action on all of these issues will be strengthened at the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2), taking place May 23-27 at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, where hundreds of key players will assemble to chart a new way forward.
“Signing the Paris Agreement was but a step on a long journey to make our world a better place,” said Steiner. “A large step, yes, but many more remain to be taken in our efforts to address the risks of climate change, reduce pollution and increase access to clean energy. By continuing to cooperate, as the world did in Paris, we can achieve our goals sooner than we expect. UNEP, as part of the United Nations family, is committed to supporting nations and citizens in making this transition towards a greener future.”