Covid-19 and climate change: World leaders must tackle both

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak speaks at a meeting of finance ministers from across the G7 nations. Photo: Reuters

In past weeks, there have been a number of significant events which may seem unconnected but are actually deeply connected in terms of whether the world is able to successfully come out of the current Covid-19 pandemic and also deal with the looming catastrophe of climate change. The first event was Cyclone Yaas, which hit India more than Bangladesh but nevertheless caused significant overtopping of many parts of our coastal embankments, as the cyclonic surge coincided with high tide. This has shown that the existing coastal embankments are no longer fit for purpose against the more severe cyclones that will come with climate change. These, therefore, need to be strengthened to withstand cyclones and the fiercer tides of the future.

The second event was the visit by the President-designate of COP26 Alok Sharma from the UK, who met with PM Sheikh Hasina and held meetings with different government and non-government stakeholders, including the youth. He also visited the Sundarbans. I had the opportunity to meet him while he was in Dhaka and was impressed by his level of understanding of the human-induced climate change impacts that the people and habitats of Bangladesh are having to face. He promised to ensure that Bangladesh’s concerns, both of the government as well as of the people, are heard and taken forward to COP26, which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland in November this year. We sincerely hope that he is able to do so.

The third and perhaps most important event was the just-completed meeting of finance ministers of the G7 countries in London, UK, where they made commitments to both ensuring the global rollout of vaccines against Covid-19 and to finances for tackling climate change. The G7 environment ministers had already met earlier and agreed to phase out all future investment in coal power around the world, in another positive development.

The next major event to look forward to is the meeting of the G7 presidents and prime ministers in the UK this weekend, which will be followed by a meeting of the leaders of G20 countries in Italy a month later. Now is the time for global leaders to become more effective at tackling global problems like the pandemic and climate change, where no single country, no matter how big or powerful, can hope to tackle the problem alone. In fact, often trying to protect one’s own citizens while neglecting other countries can be counterproductive. This is clearly true for Covid-19 vaccinations—even if every single citizen in a developed country gets vaccinated, they remain at risk from new variants if citizens elsewhere remain unvaccinated. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

Our problem is that although we have the UN, where all 200 or so countries are represented, we have no functional global government. So, the G7 and G20 leaders are important decision-makers when it comes to taking concrete steps to tackle global issues. These can be tackled successfully, but only if world leaders think of their primary responsibility as keeping the entire world safe rather than only their own citizens.

The twin global emergencies of the pandemic and climate change have been well studied by scientists who have come up with solutions, such as the vaccines, as well as recommendations for leaders. What world leaders have failed to do so far is act collectively in the global interest as opposed to their own narrow national interests. The meeting of the G7 and G20 leaders will thus be critical to whether they can exhibit true global leadership. While they talk about the need to build back better, greener and more equitably, they are still failing to deliver on their promises.

An example of this failure is the promise by developed countries to provide USD 100 billion a year, starting from 2020 onwards, to support developing countries tackle climate change via mitigation and adaptation actions. However, 2020 has already passed and the promised amount was not delivered. This amount is no longer sufficient to tackle climate change either, but as Alok Sharma said in a meeting in Dhaka, it is a totemic figure whose non-delivery has tainted any future promises made by these same leaders.

Going forward, the world economies collectively need to not just allocate finance to tackle the pandemic or climate change in separate amounts in the tens, or even hundreds of billions—but rather direct the hundreds of trillions of investment being made in the wrong things (such as fossil fuels) to the right things, such as renewable energy, as just one example.

World leaders in the G7/G20 meetings and the upcoming COP26 have to demonstrate that they can indeed be worthy of being called world leaders, as opposed to just national leaders. This time, they need to represent their children and grandchildren and not just themselves, as the very future of the planet is at stake and time is running out. We shall see if they are able to rise to the challenge.

Originally this article was published on June 09, 2021 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).