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Break from the past

Rachel Kyte
Vice-President and Special Envoy for Climate Change, the World Bank

Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Henry Ford.

Policy-makers are looking to the first session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) – as a freshly minted global environmental authority – to set a global sustainable development agenda that integrates the social, economic and environmental drivers of change and prioritizes actions that will have the greatest impact.

While climate change is not formally on the agenda, its impacts and opportunities must run through all discussions. The momentum of climate impacts intensifies the threat to ecosystems and economies, and the costs of failing to act are staggering. Globally, weather-related losses and damage have risen from an average of about $50 billion a year in the 1980s to close to $200 billion a year in the last decade, making climate-resilient and disaster-resilient development critical.

In the poorest countries, the World Bank Group estimates, climate change will increase the cost of development by 25–30 per cent. The impacts could roll back decades of developmental gains and push millions of people back into poverty within our lifetimes.

The world’s top scientists have warned of increased risks of a rapidly warming planet to our economies, environment, food supply, and global security in the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Despite efforts at reduction, global greenhouse gas emissions rose faster in the last decade than in the previous three, threatening a temperature rise of 3.7ºC to 4.8ºC above pre-industrial times by the end of this century.

The IPCC says that with substantial technological, economic, institutional, and behavioural change, we can still limit that increase to 2ºC, but the sooner we start to tackle the problem, the better our chances of fixing it and, importantly, the lower the cost.

The good news is that this sense of urgency is increasingly being shared by key decision makers beyond the environmental community. Finance ministers attending a recent meeting with the leaders of the World Bank Group, International Monetary Fund and United Nations, didn’t quibble about the science – they talked about risks to economic and financial stability, policy tools they could use to ramp up their low-carbon growth, and the help they need in investing in resilience. They know that they must lead action at home that secures low-carbon, resilient growth and delivers jobs.

This is a decisive year. In September the Secretary-General of the United Nations will host a climate summit in New York to build the political momentum and ambition needed to reach a global agreement in 2015. At the World Bank Group, we are working with others to identify key actions that can begin to match the magnitude of the challenge.

• We are encouraging countries, sub-national jurisdictions, and companies to join a growing coalition of first movers to put a price on carbon, a necessary signal for investment in low-carbon, resilient growth. Such a price should be part of any package of policies to scale up mitigation. Without it, getting the response we need across the private sector will be very hard.

• As part of getting prices right, countries need domestic fiscal and regulatory policies that drive energy efficiency through economies, including through building, lighting and fuel-efficiency standards

• The world needs critical investment in low carbon, resilient and livable cities. Ministers should promote fiscal policies that provide consistent and predictable fiscal transfers to city governments and vibrant local capital markets. Whenever possible, cities should be given autonomy to access private financing flows, allowing mayors – already acutely aware of the risks and opportunities of climate change – to go further, faster.

• We are asking countries to join us to work on goals for making agriculture climate-smart, by enhancing agricultural productivity, bolstering farmers' resilience and reducing greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture. We especially hope that international organizations and donors will support African governments who are leading the way on this.

• We are challenging governments and oil companies, national and independent, to join industry leaders and commit to zero gas flaring worldwide by 2030. This would reduce emissions by about 350 million tons annually, equivalent to taking some 70 million cars off the road.

• We are calling for a doubling of the green bond market to $20 billion by September, followed by even bigger targets set for Lima and Paris.

Last November, at the climate conference in Warsaw, governments agreed to seal a new international agreement by 2015 that would be applicable to all countries and would start bringing global greenhouse gas emissions down. Current emission-reduction pledges are not enough to prevent a 2ºC temperature rise, which will impact growth and development for many of our client countries.

Throughout this year and next, the World Bank Group will be working closely with governments to provide the data, evidence, and analysis necessary for them to set meaningful national emission-reduction targets within their low-carbon growth and resilience planning – and for developed countries to step up support for the most vulnerable.

Two years ago at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – where UNEA was born – the World Bank Group made the case for inclusive green growth as the pathway to sustainable development. In Our Planet's Rio+20 issue I described a tale of two Rios where – outside the formal negotiations – countries, companies, civil society organizations, the scientific community, and cities acted on their own, with aligned interests towards benefiting the poor and the environment. This practical and independent leadership can also be seen today in the climate agenda.

The past two years have seen bold leadership from countries and companies, but emissions are still rising and the poor are still suffering. Our action and ambition is still not commensurate with the challenge.
The current pathway of carbon pollution is a mass failure of global markets and global governance. Environment ministers gathering at UNEA must work with finance ministers to bring this agenda to the centre. Many partners are waiting to help address this issue of future economic and financial stability.

In more than 20 years of sustainable development and climate diplomacy there have been many successes and watershed moments. But there has been a perpetual struggle over how to communicate risk and opportunity, urgency and action to other constituencies, especially those that can spur behavioural change at scale. Time is running out. With evidence of the need for change and even many of the steps we need to take clearly delineated, communicating “why act?” or even “why wouldn’t you act?” must become fundamental.

UNEA offers us a potential break from our past. Part of its sustainable development leadership must be a disciplined focus on the policy measures that will have the greatest impact, for all of us.

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