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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Fixing climate change: the world leaders’ perspective


10 min read

Close up of Mary Robinson and Ban Ki-moon sitting in chairs on stage, with Mary speaking and Ban looking on Photo: Chatham House
Mary Robinson, former Ireland President (left) and Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary General (right), discuss the climate change threat in a Chatham House debate

Photo: Chatham House

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and former Ireland President Mary Robinson discussed climate change and related issues in a Chatham House panel discussion on 3 May. Both are now part of global advisory group The Elders, working as, respectively, Deputy Chairman and Chairman. Below is an edited and abridged account of the session, introduced and moderated by Bernice Lee, Chatham House Research Director – Futures.

Ban Ki-moon (BK-m): Rapidly-approaching climate phenomena will affect the whole spectrum of our daily life. While working as a Secretary General [2007–2016], I worked very hard to make sure that succeeding generations, including ourselves, should be able to live in peace, harmony and security without being hit by all of these natural disasters. That’s why we are here, to discuss how we can really join together to address the climate issues.


Mary Robinson (MR): I don’t think there’s any doubt that the climate and nature crisis should supersede everything else, because it is threatening our very existence. But unfortunately, we’re not putting science where it should be. During COVID we listened to Chief Medical Officers in every country, and we complied when we were told to mask up. We need somehow to have Chief Scientists in every country now to remind us, daily, of the impacts of climate change, because they’re evident now, everywhere.


I was very shocked when I was working in Africa to discover that climate change [disproportionately] affects the poorest countries, small island states and developing countries. I had been previously President of Ireland for seven years [1990–1997] and said nothing about climate change, because it wasn’t affecting us. I had to learn on the ground in Africa. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, women were saying to me: ‘Is God punishing us? We don’t understand. We have no rainy seasons anymore. We have flooding, then we have drought and sometimes flooding in one part of the country and drought in another part. We’ve never had this before. What is it?’ And of course, it was rich countries who had built their economies on fossil fuel causing this problem.


BK-m: I think the most important and urgent thing is how we can help many poor developing countries who have not contributed much, almost the least, to the causes of climate phenomena. We have to provide the necessary financial support and technological support. This is both a political and a moral responsibility for developed countries, such as the members of the OECD and European Union.


In the [latest UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme] Adaptation Gap report it is suggested that we have to increase what we have previously promised by 18 times. In terms of money, I think we have to provide at least $1.3tn. At the moment, the Green Climate Fund, which was established on the basis of this promise, is almost an empty shell. I’m urging European Union and OECD countries to provide those funds, and all necessary scientific and technological support.


Bernice Lee (BL): Why do you think governments are finding it so difficult to raise the bar when it comes to financing climate change adaptation?


BK-m: Political leaders always commit. But they have to be elected. It’s very hard to continue this kind of a dialogue with political leaders. There is no time to engage in that kind of discussion. We have to take action first. I sincerely hope that the leaders of the world, particularly the European Union, will really make a firm political commitment.


BL: How can we create an agenda for climate ambition?


MR: I think the very real issue that we come up against is short-term, populist decision making. Unfortunately, our world is very geared now to the short term, the impact of social media, the impact of the algorithms that drive us to the aggressive, angry, dark side, and then it impacts on politics.


We [The Elders] have focused on three existential threats: the climate and nature crisis, the pandemic crisis – because we’re still not prepared for the next pandemic, and the nuclear weapons crisis. And we also look at how artificial intelligence will affect all three.


We call for long-view leadership which is based on trying to resolve some of these problems in three ways. Firstly, through greater multilateral cooperation, taking that longer view for this generation, but also future generations. Secondly, based on evidence and reason. Thirdly – and this is the really compassionate side – listening to how people are affected, listening to the different ways in which countries or people are affected by different issues. We failed to do these things during COVID, because countries prioritised their own national self-interest.


BL: How would you recommend that the UK can unlock its leadership potential at this point?


BK-m: First and foremost, the United Kingdom is one of the seven members of the G7 group of nations, so has a huge responsibility. But what is most urgently needed now is achieving carbon neutrality. I really appreciate that the European Union is taking a leadership role in this matter. We must make sure that the carbon neutrality target will be met by 2050. Before that, as the first step, carbon emissions should be reduced by 45% by 2030 [compared to 2010 levels; this was the Paris Agreement]. Many countries have committed to that, but in reality [it is unclear] whether they will be able to do that, with just six years to go.


I’m really urging political leaders to make up their minds. The number one priority is climate change, and as a technical follow up, that carbon neutrality will be met by 2050. It’s a very difficult, challenging issue. That’s why we have to really work together. I am working as Chairman currently at the Global Centre on Adaptation, which is headquartered in the Netherlands. It’s very important to invest wisely on adaptation. Our studies show that for $1 invested in adaptation, we can have $7 worth of future benefits effect. Infrastructures for adaptation, in water and sanitation, and health issues are the areas which will affect our lives and therefore affect the political leaders.


BL: How can government set ambitious finance goals that really reflect the needs and priorities of the receiving countries, especially on adaptation?


MR: The next COP, in Azerbaijan, has a particular focus on finance, which is very welcome. We need a just transition out of fossil fuel. That costs money. It costs money to the communities, the workers in coal and oil and gas. A just transition into affordable, renewable, accessible, clean energy, particularly in developing countries, costs money. We also need new forms of finance. We need new taxes. We need to tax those who are making millions from what’s harming us: fossil fuel. That needs to be taxed more effectively. Or [we should] tax billionaires, or tax aviation or tax maritime.


BL: What about you, Secretary Ban. What is your vision for the National Quantified Collective Goal on climate finance, which is due to finish this year?


BK-m: I was honoured and pleased to have been able to bring all the leaders of the world together, political leaders and business leaders and civil society leaders. And really, we have to use this tripartite partnership. No country in this world, no matter how powerful and resourceful, can do it alone. However, the European Union is in a unique position, which can really move this campaign.


Now, there are so many regional conflicts. Because of conflict in Europe and the Middle East, the United States is providing $60 or $70bn to Israel and to Ukraine. All this money should have been used for our actual climate action. Therefore, first of all, we have to try to resolve regional conflicts at the level of political leaders. Conflicts attract all of the political attention and resources available. They are just a waste of money. We have to make sure that political leaders focus more on climate issues. I think all our leaders from civil society, the academic and business community should challenge the leaders. Government cannot do it alone. And the UN cannot do it alone. That’s why we need some solidarity and partnership.


‘Now, there are so many regional conflicts. The United States, because of these Middle East issues, is providing $60 or $70bn to Israel and to Ukraine; all this money should have been used for our actual climate action.’ – Ban Ki-moon, Former UN Secretary General


BL: Is that chiming with you, President Robinson?


MR: What’s holding us back is misuse of money globally. Do you know the figure which The B Team of business leaders, which I belong to, has come up with about the amount we are spending on what is harming us every year? $1.8tn/y, on fossil fuels and bad use of agriculture and other land uses. So, if we switched even a proportion of that money, we can do the things we’re talking about; we can afford to have the transition out of fossil fuel and the transition into accessible, affordable clean energy for all. That covers the 600 million people in Africa that never switch the switch for electricity; the 900 million women [worldwide] who cook in dirty conditions. That will make for a much better, fairer, safer and far healthier world.


  • Further reading: ‘UN chief calls for a windfall tax and advertising ban for fossil fuels’. Speaking on World Environment Day on 5 June, UN Secretary General António Guterres called for a windfall tax on the profits of fossil fuel companies to help pay for the fight against climate change, as well as an outright ban on fossil fuel advertising. Meanwhile, newly published reports suggest no new fossil fuel projects will be needed in the transition to net zero; stronger plans are needed to meet the COP28 goal of tripling global renewable capacity by 2030; and Europe is in danger of missing its 2030 net zero targets.
  • Carbon pricing revenues reached a record $104bn last year, up from $95bn in 2022, but prices remain too low to meet the Paris Agreement goals, according to a recent report from the World Bank.