Urgent and Ambitious Climate Action is Needed as We Recover from COVID-19

This month’s focus is Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

As we consider the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of this month of December 2020 - SDG 13 – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts - we are reminded of the great words of the late Mahatma Gandhi: “The earth, the air, the land and the water are not am inheritance from our forefathers but on loan from our children. So, we have to handover to them at least as it was handed over to us.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest battle faced by the world today is the climate change crisis, for: what do we have without an inhabitable planet? It is the duty of everyone to ensure a healthy planet for the future generation to prosper as had our forefathers ensured for us.

Despite the immense disruption and suffering it has caused, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an incredible sense of global solidarity and unity. The world has come together, in many ways, to fight a common enemy in the coronavirus. It is with this same spirit that we must work to protect our planet, as we all share the same home in our mother Planet.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose to new records in 2019, which  was the second warmest year on record and the end of the warmest decade (2010- 2019) ever recorded. 

Climate change is affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives. Weather patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, and weather events are becoming more extreme.

Although greenhouse gas emissions are projected to drop by about 6 per cent in 2020 due to lockdowns, travel bans and economic slowdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, this improvement is only temporary. Climate change is not on pause. Once the global economy begins to recover from the pandemic, emissions are expected to return to higher levels.

Saving lives and livelihoods requires urgent action to address both the pandemic and the climate emergency.

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The agreement also aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change, through appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework.

Despite the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, resultant from global lockdowns and border closures, greenhouse gas concentrations remain at their highest levels in three (3) million years and continue to rise. Temperatures are in record-breaking territory; polar ice is retreating; and sea levels are rising. In fact, 91 percent of geo-physical disasters are climate-related, killing 1.3 million people and injuring 4.4 billion between 1998 and 2017.

While the world seeks to recover better from the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot afford to return to our destructive environmental habits prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to a necessary, yet excessive, demand for the production of plastic-based personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, gowns, bottled hand sanitiser and takeaway food packaging. During the early efforts across the globe to stop the spread of the coronavirus, an estimated 89 million masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million sets of goggles were required each month.

It is time for a renewed focus and ambitious commitment to the environmental crisis: a war that affects each and every human being living on the planet.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant environmental improvements therefore serve as an example of the positive effects of immediate and ambitious action. With less than  ten years left to achieve Agenda 2030 and SDG 13, which seeks to mobilise USD 100 billion by 2020 to assist developing countries to adapt to climate change and invest in low-carbon development, immediate and ambitious action are a necessity. In solidarity, and with the same determination shown during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can create a prosperous world for the future generation.

In the Kingdom of Eswatini, 80 percent of the country’s surface area is dedicated to agriculture, with the production of commercial crops and forestry contributing significantly to the country’s GDP. Cattle, goats and fowl are important sources of income and food for many Swazis, with 70 percent of the rural population dependent on agriculture for subsistence and livelihoods. However, the local environment is suffering immensely from climate change, as seen in the risk of extinction of the indigenous Nguni cow: a breed of cow better adapted to the existing environmental conditions of Eswatini than exotic breeds. Thus, the urgent protection of the environment and its biodiversity is paramount to ensuring a prosperous Eswatini.

We applaud all actors, including Eswatini National Trust Commission (SNTC), the Eswatini Environment Authority (SEA), the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Tourism and Environment Affairs, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) as well as the private sector who continue to increase conservation efforts in the Kingdom.

The United Nations Development System in Eswatini continues to stand in solidarity with the Government and the people of Eswatini. The United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF) 2021-2025 recently signed by the Government and the UN family in Eswatini has three strategic priorities: (1) Prosperity; (2) People and (3) the Planet; and aims to contribute to “a prosperous, just and resilient Eswatini where no one is left behind”.  The overarching themes under the Planet Strategic area are climate change resilience and adaptation; water management; food security and renewable energy.

The outcome statement under this strategic area reads as follows: “By 2025, Eswatini is on an inclusive low-carbon development pathway that is resilient to climate change and in which natural resources are managed sustainably, and community adaptation to climate change is enhanced, for improved livelihoods, health and food security, especially for vulnerable and marginalised communities.”

In 2017, the Kingdom of Eswatini became the first country in the South African region to completely remove Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), an ozone depleting substance (ODS), from the manufacturing process of air-conditioning and refrigeration products, receiving the prestigious Montreal Protocol 30th Anniversary award in recognition of these efforts. This achievement was supported by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

As part of enhancing climate action in Eswatini in line with its commitment to the Paris Agreement, the Government - with support from the UN Development System and other development partners - has embarked on the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) revision process under the Climate Action Enhancement Package and UNDP climate promise initiative. The revision process launched by the Minister of Tourism and Environment Affairs, Hon. Moses Vilakat on 14th of October 2020 aims to strengthen political and society ownership at national and sub-national levels; align and integrate NDC targets in national strategic plans; raise ambition through nature-based solutions and additional mitigation sectors; and establishment of monitoring, reporting and verification systems.  The revised NDC commitment will be submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat in June 2021.

Investment in a greener and sustainable economy is key to protecting the planet and the people, and realising SDG 13, as repeatedly stressed by the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. António Guterres. Shifting to a greener economy could yield a global economic gain of at least USD 26 trillion by 2030. Investing in renewable energy will generate three times more jobs than those in fossil fuels; approximating nine (9) million jobs annually in the next three years.

As the United Nations marks the fifth anniversary of the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change, during an unprecedented year, in a 12 December 2020 OP-ED published on ‘Carbon neutrality by 2050; the world’s most urgent mission’, the Secretary-General calls for a renewed ambition to recover better, stronger and healthier, whilst protecting the planet and the people. By early 2021, countries representing more than 65 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70 percent of the world economy will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality. However, commitment is nothing without action. The Secretary-General urges in this regard the building of a truly global coalition for carbon neutrality by 2050; the alignment of global finance with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, “the world’s blueprint for a better future”; and a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience to help those already facing dire impacts of climate change. 

As stressed by the UN Secretary-General Pandemic recovery gives us an unexpected yet vital opportunity to attack climate change, fix our global environment, re-engineer economies and re-imagine our future. […] COVID and climate have brought us to a threshold.  We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality and fragility; instead, we must step towards a safer, more sustainable path.  This is a complex policy test and an urgent moral test.  With decisions today setting our course for decades to come, we must make pandemic recovery and climate action two sides of the same coin”.It is up to Member States, you and me, and every actor to commit each day to fight the war against climate change and environment deterioration. Small changes in every day habits will contribute significantly to the protection of our planet and its people. Let us take with us the lessons learned in the COVID-19 pandemic into the future, for indeed, earth is on loan to us and must be safe for our children to prosper.


Written by
Nathalie Ndongo-Seh
Resident Coordinator
Nathalie Ndongo-Seh
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme