21 December 2020

It is safe to say that 2020 has been the most disruptive and challenging year in many decades. The emergence of COVID-19 and its gradual spread around the globe brought in its wake tremendous social and economic upheaval. In less than 12 months, nearly 70 million people have been infected and, regrettably, more than 1.6 million have died because of the coronavirus pandemic.[1] The economic losses have been staggering, as restrictions implemented to contain the virus held back economic activity, causing the most severe recession since the Great Depression, massive unemployment in many countries, and huge social costs that in most cases will take years to overcome.

In spite of those terrible adversities, the pandemic has also shown that the world is better prepared to respond to a global threat than ever before. Local and national strategies for combating the virus have been developed under the guidance of academic and professional bodies that provide reliable scientific and technical advice; have benefited from the constant assistance of multilateral institutions that promote sound, evidence-based policies; and have been supported by a more informed and engaged public. Without these three elements, the effects of the pandemic would have been even more devastating.

This most difficult and even overwhelming year has served to remind us of our ultimate dependence on the physical environment. It has confirmed the value of science as our most reliable instrument to understand and to overcome natural threats. It has proved that cooperation is the only way to address challenges that transcend borders.

The year 2020 should also serve as a wake-up call for individuals, communities and nations in the face of another equally grave and urgent threat to humanity: climate change. Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have shown that the world continues to advance towards a severe climate crisis of unforeseeable consequences. The unrelenting accumulation of greenhouse gases is causing a steady rise in global temperatures and a slow but seemingly inexorable disruption of climate patterns around the world.

For those of us at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was imperative not to allow the sanitary crisis to hinder multilateral climate action. In the midst of the pandemic, we continued to work vigorously, making intensive use of technology to continue vital negotiations, holding meetings and deliberations of technical bodies, and promoting compromises and agreements.

Above all, 2020 has been a year of enhanced ambition. This has meant raising awareness about the limited impact that previous commitments would achieve, falling short of the global goal of preventing a rise in average global temperature above 1.5°C. It has also required calling on every community, every company and every country to do much more and more quickly to reduce emissions and ensure better preparedness and resilience for the years and decades ahead.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the world with an unexpected opportunity to reassess earlier commitments, readjust previous policies and redirect the resources we have at our disposal so that they are consistent with our overriding aim of halting global warming. Over the past few months, governments and financial institutions have been channeling trillions of dollars to promote the recovery of national and regional economies. It is imperative that all investments aimed at rekindling economic activities do so in ways that promote a clean, green and sustainable economic renewal. The most severe social and economic crisis in nearly a century could then serve, paradoxically, as a turning point in global efforts to combat climate change, leading to action on an unprecedented scale, accelerating the transformational change that the world desperately needs.

Solar panels, a gift from India, are installed on the roof of the United Nations Headquarters. The panels are powered up to reach the max of 50 KW of generation power. 27 August 2019. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Next year in Glasgow, Scotland, the international community will have a new opportunity to prove its commitment with enhanced climate action. This is not only an important goal in itself but also an essential element of post-COVID-19 recovery. It would enhance the credibility of multilateralism in general and of the climate change process in particular. At the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties to UNFCCC (COP26), also known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Governments must demonstrate that they are willing and ready to fulfil commitments made at COP21 in Paris in 2015. This is essential to strengthening and rebuilding trust among and between parties and other stakeholders, but it is not enough. We still need to raise the level of ambition.

We have ambitious global goals that demand firm national commitments; and we need higher, much higher levels of ambition from individual nations to achieve those goals. Countries must submit as soon as possible—if they have not already done so—their revised or new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and their long-term emission development strategies (LTS). These must show a significant increase in climate ambition so that they can make a substantial contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the goals agreed in Paris.

All this demands resolute and bold leadership, not only in government but also in the private sector and civil society. Addressing climate change is, arguably, the most complex, wide-ranging and far-reaching collective action ever undertaken by the international community. Success is possible if we manage to bring together scientific insights with political will, and national interests with international cooperation.

In the last five decades, humanity has collectively made significant progress towards overcoming some of its greatest challenges, including slashing extreme poverty, eradicating major diseases, boosting vaccination levels, improving access to education for women and children, repairing the ozone layer, and more. When we are willing, our capacity for positive change is limitless.

Despite the magnitude of humanity’s current challenges, these days may represent the beginning of a transformational moment in human history, a pivotal moment that moved us away from the unsustainable exploitation of Earth’s resources towards a more sustainable, equitable and climate-friendly future.


1World Health Organization, “Weekly epidemiological update - 15 December 2020”, Emergency Situational Updates. Available at https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/weekly-epidemiological-update---15-december-2020 (accessed on 18 December 2020).

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