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9 February 2021

Net zero alone is not enough to tackle climate crisis, says UNEP chief

We must stop encroaching on nature to keep global warming below two degrees, Inger Andersen tells the New Statesman’s Global Policy Forum. 

By Samir Jeraj

Countries must “stretch” their climate commitments to keep global warming under 2.0°C, Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has warned, saying that net zero policy must be accompanied by a focus on safeguarding biodiversity.  

Opening the New Statesman and New Statesman Spotlight’s Global Policy Forum on sustainable post-Covid recovery, Andersen said the commitments in the 2015 Paris Agreement will lead to a 3.0-3.5°C increase in global temperatures, while the policies adopted by the “Net Zero Club” – a reference to countries or organisations with net zero targets, which she urged everyone to join – will keep warming to 2.5°C, a scenario that would still lead to devastating impacts from climate change.

As US President Joe Biden rejoins the Paris climate accord, and is expected to present his administration’s strategy for reducing carbon emissions by 2030 ahead of the COP26 UN climate conference in November, Andersen told delegates “we have to really stretch our commitments”, adding that “that was the nature of the Paris agreement: stretch every five years”.

New targets are due to be set in 2026, a year later than planned due to Covid-19. Andersen voiced her fears that the impacts of climate change will reflect those of the pandemic, affecting everyone but having the greatest impact on the poorest people in the poorest countries. “Let’s understand that nobody has immunity [from climate change] because wherever we live this will impact us,” she said. Andersen, who described herself as an “eternal optimist” called for an “integrated solution” to climate change, to restore ecosystems and “rapidly change our sources of energy”.  

View this and other sessions at the Global Policy Forum

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She also warned that further pandemics may also become more likely if humans continue to “encroach” on the environment and damage ecosystems. In particular, Andersen highlighted the risks from encroaching on wild areas, the illegal trade in wildlife, and the transportation and breeding of species outside of their habitats. She also called for a better-prepared response to pandemics, including research into antimicrobial resistance. “We speak about one health – human health, animal health and planetary health – and we can’t treat them separately. We have to treat them together,” she told delegates.

Andersen concluded by calling for a shift in the economy towards a more circular system of “sustainable production” and “sustainable consumption” to address the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises. This in turn will enable individuals to make better and more sustainable choices. “It is entirely doable if only we work together,” she said.

On Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated the UN’s push for countries and companies to set credible targets for reducing emissions ahead of COP26. “The drive to net zero must become the new normal for everyone, everywhere, for every country, every company, city, financial institution, as well as the key sectors such as aviation, shipping, industry and agriculture,” he said. “At the same time, all commitments to net zero must be underpinned by clear and credible plans to achieve them. Words are not enough.”