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“Youth Demand Climate Action and Will Not Be Ignored” – Ovais Sarmad

Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, delivered a lecture on the urgency of tackling the climate crisis at the Qatar National Library in Doha today. He also talked about what young people can do to keep up the momentum for climate action. At the end of his talk, the audience had the opportunity to engage with Mr. Sarmad in an open Q&A session.

In his speech, Mr. Sarmad thanked the Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar for the invitation and said it was good to see so many young people present. He said the world’s youth are an essential voice at the discussion table, adding, “we are truly reenergized by your ideas, your enthusiasm and, most of all, we need your solutions to climate change.”

Mr. Samad told his audience that aside from enthusiasm, youth also bring a very clear message, namely that “they will not be ignored.” He urged young people to get involved in the fight against climate change and to seize the opportunities that lie in the transition to a cleaner, greener future.

The text of the speech follows:

I am greatly honoured to be here. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss the climate emergency we currently face.

In addition to ministers, industry stakeholders and others, it’s good to see so many young people here.

Having youth involved in our discussions is about more than just having “another voice”: we are truly reenergized by your ideas, your enthusiasm and, most of all, we need your solutions to climate change.

Youth have provided a breath of fresh air to the overall climate discussions and remind us of the urgency we face and what we are all working towards – a cleaner and greener future.

So, thank you to Arab Youth Climate Movement Qatar for the invitation.

It would be remiss of me to neglect to acknowledge the setting we are in today.  This incredible work of modern architecture, the Qatar National Library. acts as a repository of time. It houses over a million volumes, including material dating back to the 15th century when Gutenberg invented his printing press and changed forever the way humanity accessed and acted upon knowledge.

In facilitating our engagement with the greatest thinkers, ideas and movements throughout history, this space is a manifestation of empowerment through knowledge. 

And, when it comes to climate change, ladies and gentlemen, we have the knowledge. The path ahead of us is now of action.  

Ladies and gentlemen, humanity is in trouble. Every piece of scientific evidence at our disposal tells us that we are in a climate emergency, it is an existential crisis, and we face an enormous challenge ahead of us to address it.

The recent Special Report on 1.5C from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarized the scientific evidence very well. The report is unequivocal in its findings. Limiting warming to 1.5C requires major and immediate transformation across all sectors of society. We need to reduce annual emissions by half of their current level by 2030 to have a chance at limiting warming to 1.5C. 

Secretary-General António Guterres summed it up in a speech last month to the G-7 Summit:

“2015 to 2019 were the five hottest years on record. At the same time, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest during human life.”

Think about that for a moment: “the highest during human life.” Not recorded history, not since the Industrial Revolution – the highest since our species began.

If that’s not an emergency, I don’t know what is.

It’s clear. We must redouble our efforts—all of us—at all levels of society—and work towards one ultimate goal: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 C, as the IPCC stated.

Falling short would lock in climate impacts so catastrophic our world would be unrecognizable.

We can achieve the ultimate goal, but it won’t be easy.

It means we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and then achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

It will require all the ingenuity, expertise and determination that humanity can collectively muster.

It requires deep transformative policies and measures in the way we produce and use energy, in the way we feed our population, in the way we build and manage our cities, the way we make progress in industry, and more.

The year 2030 is only 11 years from now. If we want to achieve something by 2030, we need to start immediately. That timeline is miniscule.

It must begin with more ambitious national climate action plans—or NDCs as they’re called.

Right now, those plans simply aren’t strong enough.

According to the most recent UN Emissions Gap Report, NDCs, as they currently stand, will significantly increase global temperature rise, not decrease it. In fact, they will likely result in a doubling of the 1.5C goal. This will have enormous negative consequences.

Beyond the immediate danger to human life, it will take almost every significant challenge we currently face as a species and make those problems worse. It’s a threat multiplier.

I’ll get back to those NDCs in just a moment.

The point is that we have significant work to do – work that must be completed quickly.

At the end of last year we saw the finalization of the Paris Agreement Work Program at COP24 in Poland.

It may sound bureaucratic, but it was important.

It set out the guidelines for how the Paris Agreement would actually work and how nations would move forward under it.

If previous efforts were focused on defining the Paris Agreement, we’re now focused on getting the agreement implemented by all nations and unleashing its full potential to boost climate ambition.

And, as the Secretary-General said at the end of COP24: everything now is about ambition, ambition, ambition and ambition.

This means ambition to significantly boost climate action right across the board. Not just by nations, but by non-State actors as well, including businesses, investors and citizens.

All eyes are on 2020. Why? Because this is the year nations must revise or submit new climate action plans—those NDCs I was talking about earlier.

This is important because nations revise these only once every five years. This is perhaps our last best chance to make sure national action is ambitious enough to address the emergency we face.

What are we doing in 2019? The short answer is: as much as possible.

2019 is about setting the stage. Everything we’ve been doing—all our climate weeks, all our discussions, all our addresses to events such as these—are about the need to raise climate ambition and get those NDCs boosted in 2020.

Two crucial events are on the horizon for this year. In less than two weeks, the Secretary-General’s Climate Summit will be held at UN Headquarters in New York. COP25 in Santiago, Chile, follows three months later.

The purpose of the Climate Action Summit is clear: to get nations and businesses to send a strong political signal of their determination to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and to significantly boost climate ambition.

The Secretary-General is asking leaders to “please don’t come with a speech; come with a plan.” He is calling for “concrete, realistic plans to put us, once and for all, on a sustainable path.”

Then, in short order, we will convene COP 25 in Santiago. This is where we will incorporate the results of the Summit and continue building towards more ambitious NDCs in 2020.

Each of 2019’s key moments are opportunities for nations to take more significant climate action, reflecting the deep transformation we need throughout society.

So, ladies and gentlemen, what does all this mean for you, for the Arab world, the region and all of us? 

We know national governments cannot solve climate change on their own. Non-state actors are essential. That includes youth. That includes many of you.

We need ideas, best practices and lessons learned from every segment of society, whether businesses, investors, regional and local leadership, and everyday people.

The world’s youth are an essential voice at the table.

Earlier, I talked about the enthusiasm that youth bring to the table. But they also bring a very clear message.

I find it interesting that if your child ran into the room and said there was a fire in the kitchen – you’d run like mad to the kitchen and do everything you culd to put out that fire before it burned down the house. What the kids are saying is that the house is burning!

Youth have made it clear: they will not be ignored and they are coming together like never before to be heard.

For an encouraging example, we don’t have to look any further than the Arab Youth Climate Movement – the AYCM.

Started in Doha in 2012 and encompassing 15 Middle East and North African countries, this generation-wide movement accepts that the climate crisis requires urgent action.

Such actions include educating and mobilizing youth to advance international negotiations on climate change.

We at UN Climate Change are committed to fostering the meaningful engagement of young people in the intergovernmental climate change process and in climate action.

The Qatar chapter of AYCM, one of the co-hosts of this event, is such an example.

Recognizing the urgency of international action, and recognizing the vulnerabilities of Arab nations, including Qatar, AYCM is backing the Qatar National Vision 2030 plan.

This plan pledges to balance economic growth and environmental stewardship while building a sustainable environment to be achieved by public involvement.

UN Climate Change is also working to both raise awareness and work directly with youth.

In fact, we have a direct mandate under the Paris Agreement—specifically, Article 12—to raise awareness about climate change. This is one reason I’m here today. But we have many events happening throughout the world each year.

The second way is through Action for Climate Empowerment—or ACE—which also springs from COP18 held here in Doha in 2012.

ACE covers the six elements of Article Six of the Convention on education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and international cooperation.

Since 2012, the lessons learned in implementing ACE have provided valuable inputs for the review of the Doha work program and aided in the preparation of the new framework on ACE that Parties will negotiate in 2020.

Each country is encouraged to name an ACE focal point and prepare an ACE national strategy. So far there are more than 100 national ACE focal points. I encourage Qatar and other Arab states which are not yet in that list to join that roster.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve made it clear that we face a climate emergency, I’ve discussed the road ahead, the role of youth as well as other stakeholders, and the role of UN Climate Change.

As you can see, we face a lot of tough issues. And I recognize that at times they can seem overwhelming.

But I want to share some good news with you. We’ve done this kind of thing before. 

We have seen, many times throughout history, the global community come together, in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, to make a change, to decide against continuing on the path we were on because the results that path yielded were intolerable.

Through collective action we changed the trajectory of smallpox, polio, AIDS, and closer home to the climate crisis – the degradation of the ozone layer.

Next week we will commemorate the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.

In 1987, nations signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Scientists had discovered that the ozone layer – that thin shield of gas that protects the Earth from harmful solar radiation – was shrinking.

After identifying certain manufactured gases as the cause of the depletion, the Protocol was written and ratified to remove these gases from production.

As of 2018, the Montreal Protocol has led to the phase-out of 99% of ozone-depleting chemicals in refrigerators, air-conditioners and many other products.

The latest Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion in 2018 shows that, as a result of the Protocol, parts of the ozone layer have recovered at a rate of 1-3% per decade since 2000.

At projected rates, Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone will heal completely by the late 2030s. The Southern Hemisphere will follow in the 2050s and Polar Regions by 2060.

Ozone layer protection efforts have also contributed to the fight against climate change by averting an estimated 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from 1990 to 2010.

The bottom line? We can do it if we try. We have proof that we can collectively succeed when we are truly united.

Ladies and gentlemen, even armed with all the science, all the evidence, we know people will still say that it’s all too tough…that people will suffer financially if we respond to climate change.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

It is time to lay to rest the myth that going green will lead to economic decline. As Secretary-General Guterres recently put it—this is complete nonsense.

The simple truth is that those businesses that are not preparing right now for more sustainable growth, reducing emissions and working towards climate neutrality, will be out of business in the future.

On one hand, it’s obvious that nobody can do business in a world decimated by climate change, sea-level rise and the reverberations from the global economy.

But on the other hand, it’s simply baffling to me why there are still companies out there who don’t—or won’t—see the obvious advantages of adopting more sustainable business models, reducing their emissions and capturing the related opportunities in doing so.

According to the New Climate Economy Report, transitioning to a low-carbon, sustainable growth path could deliver a direct economic gain of $26 trillion through to 2030 compared to business-as-usual.

Taking ambitious climate action could generate more than 65 million new low-carbon jobs in 2030.

And whose jobs will those be? Your jobs. By moving forward, we are talking about jobs that each of you could be doing in the future. So you have a vested interest in making sure this transition happens.

You won’t be alone in this work. Many companies have seen the writing on the wall and are leading the transition. For example, more than 250 investors representing $28 trillion in assets have signed on to the Climate 100+ initiative.

It’s a commitment to improving their climate performance and ensure transparent disclosure of emissions. Yes, they are doing it because they care about the climate. But these people did not achieve their leadership roles by accident. They know business. And they are positioning themselves for the future. And those who aren’t will not be around in the future. 

Now, I recognize that this is a particularly difficult transition in your region. You face unique challenges that are unique to this particular region of the world.

We understand that fossil fuels have literally fueled the prosperity we currently enjoy today—all of us. I did not swim here! I took a plane that uses jet fuel.

Nor are fossil fuels going to disappear overnight. That is simply unrealistic and it would lead to a collapse of the global economy. Bottom line? Fossil fuels will be around for the foreseeable future.

But there can be little doubt that our overreliance on fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has had consequences on the environment and we cannot continue to do business as we have. In a world decimated by climate change, nobody prospers. 

This leads me to a final point. That we see the oil and gas—indeed the energy sector in general—as being part of the solution to achieving climate neutrality and hitting our climate change goals.

But again, this won’t happen overnight. It is a transition, and one with several factors to consider.

For example, we cannot forget about those employed in these businesses. We must recognize their unique needs and ensure that we plan properly to ensure they make this transition in a fair manner.

Yet it’s a transition we must make—not just here in Qatar but throughout the world.

The costs of not taking more ambitious climate action is ultimately the more detrimental one—to businesses, to communities—to all of us. We therefore must work together at all levels to ensure a just transition for all.

Part of this transition will include economic diversification. Again, we recognize this is much easier said than done, but it will be necessary. Many of the youth sitting in this room will be responsible for doing that.

And yet, as I mentioned before, there is an enormous amount of opportunity—and prosperity—just waiting for those who can capture those opportunities.

Ladies and gentlemen, in all the topics I’ve covered today—whether it’s addressing our climate emergency, getting those national climate action plans raised, developing better business models—none of this happens without you.

Just as one nation can’t address climate change alone, one group or one organization can’t do it alone either. We need your voices. We need your support. We need you to get involved. To the youth here today, again, that may include working here in Qatar on economic diversity, planning and individual climate action.  And it also includes creating partnerships across the world, tackling the climate challenge from a global perspective, and taking climate action beyond borders.

This is why I began the speech by telling you that we see youth as more than just another key group to consult.

While the previous generation has no doubt left you with a challenging legacy related to climate change, they have nevertheless built an incredible foundation for success.

As you move on and assume leadership roles, you can build upon this foundation, expand it, and modify it for the needs of the 21st century.

And what we know is that this century will be defined by those building with an eye towards sustainability, resilience. A future that is clean, green and prosperous for all.

I thank you again for the opportunity to speak today and I look forward to working with you to build that future.

Thank you.