Fact Box

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Walk the talk


To reach the environmental targets that have been set, countries must take real actions as a matter of urgency

Climate change is no longer a looming threat of the future but a destructive reality that is already happening and threatening all humanity.

The international community has paid growing attention to the climate change issues since the early 1990s by formulating and adopting various strategies, conventions and treaties to address the challenges. But we might have been simply too obsessed with formulating and joining international treaties with too ambitious goals as targets that have never been fully realized.

It is encouraging to note that an increasing number of countries and companies are making a commitment to the Net Zero 2050 initiative. But setting that ambitious target does not guarantee that the desirable outcomes will be achieved. To reach the targets we have set and make real changes, we must take real actions.

Our actions to tackle climate change have unfortunately taken a back seat to the pressing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it appears that the efforts are concentrated on addressing social and health issues and reviving economies that have been severely disrupted by the pandemic.

The challenges before us are unprecedented. Historically, economic policies have mainly focused on stimulating economic growth while controlling inflation and unemployment. This time, however, we have to revitalize the global economy while managing the massive social crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and also pursuing decarbonization.

The challenge we are facing now is, in fact, operationalizing the concept of sustainable development. The idea of sustainable development was adopted in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where the international community unanimously welcomed the idea of enhancing economic growth while protecting the environment as well as promoting social development.

But despite this, the climate crisis has been exacerbated. Social disparities have widened and income and wealth inequalities have been aggravated. The pandemic and climate crisis are wake-up calls that we do not have any more time to spend in formulating strategies and setting goals, we have to initiate immediate and practical actions to operationalize the concept of sustainable development.

Although countries are well aware of the needs for increasing investments in climate actions, they are still hesitant to decarbonizes their energy and industry, believing that it might damage their economies and might lead to job losses. It is a sheer manifestation that understanding of the sustainable development as well as the interactions among economy, social and environmental development still remain rudimentary and not well established.

But we can no longer remain timid and hesitant. Deep decarbonization of industry and transformation of the energy system toward renewable energy should be viewed as an opportunity to promote green economic growth and job creation, while increasing investment in public health systems and social protection schemes should be regarded as a foundation for dealing with the current challenges and building back better from the COVID-19 crisis.

Although we understand the need for investing in a green economic recovery, we are still seeking the best way to operationalize the concept into real actions. Previous theories and knowledge can offer a very limit insight on how to do this.

This is why we have to pool our wisdom and share best practices through international cooperation. Unprecedented challenges such as the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic call for even stronger international collaboration and partnership.

Carbon neutrality is not just a matter of energy transformation. Realizing the Net Zero 2050 objective requires a drastic departure from the traditional economic system where the price of carbon emissions is neither considered nor paid. We have to rebuild our economies and industry by taking into account the price of the carbon we are emitting.

Carbon neutrality requires innovations in energy technologies and industrial policies. Among others, carbon pricing should be introduced in the energy market, industrial restructuring and tax reform. We can no longer depend on the conventional approach of exploiting cheap fossil fuel without paying the price of carbon for rapid economic development. Investments in renewable energy and transformation for decarbonization are the drivers for achieving green and sustainable economic growth.

The paradigm shift toward a post-pandemic green recovery based on renewable energy and deep decarbonization has to be pushed by concerted and collective actions among major economies of the world. Peer pressure and collaboration among major economies mean they can lead on climate change, as they correct the market distortions caused by fossil fuel exploitation, and thus construct more favorable conditions for our carbon neutral future.

Collaboration among major economies for green recovery and decarbonization is necessary but not sufficient. Substantial support for the many developing countries lacking the capacity for energy transformation and green recovery is essential. It has to be effectively institutionalized through the Green Climate Fund and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Many important issues have to be extensively addressed and agreed at the upcoming COP 26 in Glasgow to be held in November this year. The United Kingdom, the host country, has an ambitious goal of accelerating actions for the mitigation of carbon emissions and scaling up of finance and support for developing countries.

We have spent enough time since 1992 when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was first signed, and learned enough to know that setting ambitious targets and delivering real climate actions to reduce emissions are two different things. In this regard, I sincerely hope that the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference does not make the mistake of confusing enhanced National Determined Contributions targets with the real climate actions.

I have seen too many COPs wasted by simply being obsessed on haggling over the target numbers, but missing the core issues such as carbon pricing and fiscal reform for decarbonization and mitigation. It is very important that the Glasgow COP act as a platform to implement real actions for decarbonization and to deploy concerted global actions for mitigating carbon emissions as well as to provide financial support to climate actions of developing countries.

The author is co-chair of the International Finance Forum and former prime minister of Republic of Korea. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.