Let’s not forget zero hunger is as important as zero emissions

With billions still reeling under poverty, unilateral solutions on climate change are simply impossible

By Gopika Nair

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Published: Sun 14 Nov 2021, 11:19 PM

Ahead of the COP26 Climate Change Conference, a photo of world leaders tossing a coin into Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain went viral.

It started with a post on Twitter by Portuguese politician Bruno Maçães, which was captioned: “World leaders toss a coin at Trevi for good luck fighting the climate emergency.” Naturally, the Internet did its thing and ran amok with memes, sarcastic comments and quick-witted criticisms.

On Reddit, one user wrote: “You know what’s better than luck? Effort.” Another wondered why US President Joe Biden was missing from the picture. “Where’s Joe? Taking a nap?” The ridicule and ensuing controversy may have been warranted if the narrative for the picture had been true.

But world leaders weren’t tossing coins into the Trevi for good luck fighting the climate emergency; they were participating in a photo-op to mark a centuries-old Roman tradition. Throwing a coin into the fountain — with your right hand over your left shoulder — means you will return to Rome, according to ancient legend.

Yet, underlining how fake news and misguided narratives are born, the Internet was quick to associate it with a false climate change narrative instead.

Then again, that’s understandable. Everywhere you turn, one statement is clamouring for attention, blaring louder than others — world leaders aren’t doing enough. Other variations, inspired largely by climate activist Greta Thunberg’s spirited protests, are also commonplace.

They’ve turned a blind eye to climate change for decades. They would rather profit from environmental destruction than leave behind a habitable Earth for the next generation. They — with their private jets and premium leather Oxford shoes — simply don’t care. In other words, everything they’ve spewed thus far is just a spate of “blah, blah, blahs.”

Thunberg and other activists are far from off-base; climate change is indiscriminately wreaking havoc all over the world.

Satellite images show that wildfires around Lake Baikal in southern Siberia have left burn scars that can be seen from space. Coastal cities in the Gulf could drown as sea levels rise. The Maldives, a tourism hotspot, is predicted to disappear by the end of the century. Just last year, the UK recorded some of the highest temperatures and rainfall. Of course, the time to take action is now, but no one — rich, poor, empathetic or tactical — was going to be able to trounce the crisis in two weeks.

Long before the summit ended, Thunberg declared COP26 a failure. For the most part, it was, especially because emerging economies didn’t get the funding they deserved. But even if COP26 fell short in many ways, we can’t forget that it was a spark that ignited global action.

The world has known about the climate crisis for decades. In 1988, Nasa scientist James Hansen told the US Congress that the greenhouse effect had arrived. His words marked the beginning of the end of the world as we know it, spurring the US to become a founding member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But more than 30 years went by and world powers showed little interest in tackling the climate emergency. At least we can say with some confidence that things have changed since then. COP26 brought climate change to the forefront — thanks, in part, to activists such as Thunberg. Some of the efforts may be too little, too late, but the summit did make a few waves.

For the first time, the Glasgow Climate Pact struck a deal to “phase down” coal, which contributes to about 40 per cent of annual carbon dioxide emissions. The very mention of fossil fuels in a climate agreement is a win for the COP26 presidency, even if the spirit had to be watered down.

An earlier draft of the pact included a commitment to phase “out” coal, rather than phase “down.” But India led the opposition, with climate minister Bhupendar Yadav questioning how developing countries could promise to phase out coal when they “still have to deal with the development agendas and poverty eradication.

The last-minute amendment had Alok Sharma, the British president for COP26, fighting back tears as he told delegates he was “deeply sorry” for how the events had unfolded.

Apparently, leaders, even the ones who are criticised, do care and understand the gravity of fighting the climate crisis. In his address, Sharma acknowledged that the win was a fragile one. “The hard work starts now,” he said.

Ultimately, the world is making a more concerted effort now than it has in decades. In particular, the UAE, which is set to host COP28 in Abu Dhabi in 2023, has stepped up to the plate.

Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and Special Envoy for Climate Change, summarised the UAE’s climate goals best when he told the Atlantic Council that the country views green energy not as a threat, but as a “unique opportunity” to capitalise on its strength and financial expertise.

What really matters, despite all the talk about COP being “blah blah blah” is that there are no quick fixes, especially when you consider the intrinsic link between climate and sustenance. With billions still reeling under poverty, unilateral solutions are simply impossible.

Thunberg and others are not wrong to fight for urgency, but the world cannot just halt fossil fuel burning like closing a tap.

When the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ first priority of “zero hunger” still remains unaddressed, what we need is a “solutions COP” of practical climate action linked to poverty and hunger eradication. The UAE’s promise to work towards that, therefore, makes headlines for the right reasons.


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