An appeal to the UN secretary-general

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed dissatisfaction over the outcome of the recently held UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Photo: Reuters

The current secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guiterres, has already established himself as a champion for actions to tackle climate change to all countries and actors, and has recently been quite outspoken in his criticism of the poor outcomes of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), held in Glasgow last month. While there was no doubt that some incremental progress was made in Glasgow, it was nowhere near enough and he is absolutely right to point this out.

What makes this even more important is that, unlike all 25 COPs that preceded it, COP26 was the first climate conference in the new era of loss and damage attributable to human-induced climate change. In other words, it is no longer sufficient to try to prevent even bigger impacts of the future by keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, but now, it is even more important to deal with the inevitable losses and damages that are already happening due to the 1.1 degrees Celsius rise of global temperature due to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) since the first industrial revolution came about over a century ago.

In the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we have already seen Working Group 1 on science establish, for the first time, that human-induced climate change impacts are already happening and can be scientifically attributed in real time, which was not possible before.

As we anticipate the publication of the next report from Working Group 2 on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation, due to be published in early 2022, we can expect to see more scientific proof of losses and damages attributable to the temperature increases of over 1.1 degrees that has already happened.

Under these circumstances, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) needs to prepare for COP27, due to be held in Sharm el-Shaikh, Egypt in November 2022, as well as COP28 in Abu Dhabi the following year. It is also crucial for the convention to make it a point to have loss and damage higher on their agenda. However, going forward, it is not only the UNFCCC that has to take this issue seriously, but the entirety of the world’s humanitarian sector, including the UN agencies and other international bodies that deal with disasters on a regular basis, have to redirect their focus on this issue.

From now on, it is unfortunately a safe prediction to make that extreme weather events will only increase in both frequency and in terms of intensity. Hence, the humanitarian actors at national as well as global levels, such as the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and others, have to prepare themselves better to deal with what is coming.

This will also require enhancement of funds that are made available not only to avert and minimise losses and damages, but to also address such loss and damage after it occurs.

I was fortunate enough to have participated in a panel discussion recently, which included Selwin Hart, special adviser to the UN chief on climate action and assistant secretary-general for the Climate Action Team, whom I have known for many years. I took the opportunity to recommend to him that the UN secretary-general appoint a special envoy for loss and damage, who would be mandated to discuss options and possibilities to deal with the reality of climate change impacts—not only in the UNFCCC process, but also with the humanitarian sector actors and, indeed, with national governments and civil society actors over several years, and not just during COP each year. This is because while the UNFCCC’s and other actors’ inputs are appreciable, it often leads to more promises being unfulfilled every year, while the climate crisis worsens around us in real time. Such a special envoy would give the issue of loss and damage due importance over many years to come, and allow discussions to take place both inside and outside the COPs.

The UN secretary-general has the authority to make such an appointment, and I am sure that Antonio Guiterres has a personal belief in the importance of such an appointment. It could be his way of emphasising the vast importance of the issue.

Originally this article was published on December 15, 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).