What’s your greatest fear for the future of our planet?
That the world is reaching the tipping point beyond which climate change may become irreversible. If this happens, we risk denying present and future generations the right to a healthy and sustainable planet – the whole of humanity stands to lose. On the other hand, climate change is an unprecedented opportunity for governments, investors, firms and citizens to work together to develop and deploy low-carbon technologies, which can sustain growth within our planetary boundaries. Shifting towards low-carbon energy systems can avert climate catastrophe while creating new opportunities for investment, growth and employment.
What would you like to see come out of the UN summit in Paris?
Governments have to conclude a fair, universal and binding climate agreement, by which every country commits to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. We need equitable and effective policies, which ensure that the world’s richer countries support the aspirations of developing countries to follow a sustainable development path. For example, and as my fellow Elders and I have repeatedly stressed, a tax on carbon emissions can make an important contribution to the fight against global warming. Another key policy issue is clear and reliable climate finance: governments committed to mobilise $100bn a year by 2020 to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change impacts and pursue green growth. The Paris summit must ensure that the promises are kept, because the only promises that matter are promises which are kept. Given that the Paris agreement will only come into force in 2020, we also have to make tangible progress on addressing climate change immediately and meeting adaptation needs.
What would you say to a climate change sceptic?
The world’s leading scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have found that human-induced climate change is already causing serious harm on every continent. Moreover, the World Meteorological Organization pronounced 2014 as the warmest year on record. We seriously have to question the motivation of those people referred to as climate change sceptics, who are denying the evidence of human-caused climate change and preventing us from moving forward by spreading disinformation and supporting unchecked carbon pollution.
What climate-change related experience left the greatest impression on you?
Last September, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, convened more than 120 world leaders in New York to prepare a global response to the worsening climate crisis. It left a particular impression on me that thousands of people were marching in New York and other cities across the globe to make their voices heard. The world witnessed possibly the largest ever demonstration on climate change in history. This showed that ordinary citizens, particularly young people, can catalyse positive change and make a difference. People sent a clear and unequivocal signal that failure to act will have consequences at the ballot box for politicians and for the bottom line of businesses. If leaders are unwilling to lead when leadership is required, people must.
Should we be encouraged to reduce their meat consumption?
The global livestock industry is indeed a major threat to the climate as it represents 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. A growing population and a rapidly growing middle class are increasing pressure on the traditional protein sources, beef and poultry meat, making it more difficult to meet demand. We cannot continue the way we are producing and consuming meat. Obviously, this should not go as far as governments telling people what to eat. However, keeping meat consumption to levels recommended by health authorities would lower emissions and reduce heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. And of course there are alternative sources of protein. For example, raising insects as an animal protein source. Insects have a very good conversion rate from feed to meat.They make up part of the diet of two billion people and are commonly eaten in many parts of the world. Eating insects is good for the environment and balanced diets.
What’s more important right now: reducing emissions or adapting to a new climate?
We cannot allow ourselves to choose between climate change mitigation and adaptation. We simply need both. All countries stand to lose if we fail to achieve the international goal of restricting global warming to 2C degrees above pre-industrial levels, and take the right measures to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. At the same time we have to adapt to the severe impacts of climate change already underway.
Should developing countries be encouraged to cut emissions?
It is important that developed and developing countries cut emissions. However, fairness demands that richer countries and those with the highest emissions take the lead. They must provide adequate financial resources and technologies to poorer countries and help them to cut emissions and adapt to climate change. While the climate risks are so severe, it is easy to lose sight of the opportunities. The 2015 Africa Progress Panel Report will argue that the climate change imperative is an opportunity for Africa’s energy-poor countries to leapfrog straight to clean energy, avoiding decades of inefficient spending on polluting energy sources.
Should mitigating climate change be a higher priority than other international goals such as defeating malaria?
I have repeatedly stressed that climate change is a global and all-encompassing threat to life, to our water and food supplies, to our health, security, prosperity and stability. It should be given highest priority. This does not mean that we should ignore other key priorities for international development, including global health and access to education. However, what we need is a holistic approach that takes account of the impacts of climate change. The Millennium Development Goal 6, for example, focuses on reversing the incidence of malaria, but a warmer climate would alter the areas where mosquitos can breed, thus exposing new human populations to the disease.
This interview appeared in The Guardian on May 3, 2015.
Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Observer