Pope Francis today called on world leaders to seal a strong agreement at the upcoming UN climate change conference (COP21), stating that transforming current development models is a “political and economic obligation”, as he visited the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, Kenya.
Speaking to an audience of thousands, which included UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner and United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON) Director-General Sahle-Work Zewde, Pope Francis placed particular emphasis on the need to adopt low-carbon energy systems and end the “throw-away culture” that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
“In a few days, an important meeting on climate change will be held in Paris…It would be sad, and I dare say even catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good,” Pope Francis told the crowd. “In this international context, we are confronted with a choice which cannot be ignored: either to improve or to destroy the environment.”
He said COP21 represents an important stage in the process of developing a new energy system which depends on a minimal use of fossil fuels, aims at energy efficiency and makes use of energy sources with little or no carbon content. “We are faced with a great political and economic obligation to rethink and correct the dysfunctions and distortions of the current model of development,” he stressed.
UNEP’s Emissions Gap report, released in early November, showed that the expected Paris commitments from Member States will cut up to 4 to 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year from global emissions in 2030. This, however, is 12 gigatonnes short of the level that will keep the world on track to stay below the “safe” limit of a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise this century.
Meanwhile, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner praised Pope Francis’s moral leadership on the environment, which the Pontiff has already displayed with his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ calling on the faithful to embrace their responsibilities to the environment. Mr. Steiner said this added global momentum to efforts to close this emissions gap and implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“Addressing the world just a few days before the Paris climate conference, with the future of this planet hanging in the balance, you [Pope Francis] remind world leaders, business leaders and individual citizens that we each have not only a responsibility, but an obligation to act on what our conscience tells us to be right,” Steiner said.
“In this pivotal year, your powerful notion of the ‘globalization of indifference’ speaks to the heart of the practical and ethical challenges ahead: both to reach a climate change agreement in Paris and to deliver it within the much broader, holistic spectrum of sustainable development that must leave no one behind.”
Pope Francis also touched upon the need to create a world in which unsustainable consumption and production patterns, which contribute to pollution, ecosystem degradation and climate change through the wasteful use of resources in the production of food and other goods, are ended. “This calls for an educational process which fosters in boys and girls, women and men, young people and adults, the adoption of a culture of care-care for oneself, care for others, care for the environment-in place of a culture of waste, a ‘throw-away culture’ where people use and discard themselves, others and the environment,” he insisted.
As a further symbol of his environmental commitment, Pope Francis planted an Olea capensis, an indigenous tree found across the continent of Africa, on the grounds of the UN headquarters before his talk. “Planting a tree is first and foremost an invitation to continue the battle against phenomena like deforestation and desertification,” he said. “Planting a tree is also an incentive to keep trusting, hoping, and above all working in practice to reverse all those situations of injustice and deterioration which we currently experience.”
Steiner took Pope Francis on a tour of the UNEP offices, a sustainable facility powered largely by solar panels, to demonstrate renewable energy and energy efficiency in practice. There, Mr. Steiner presented Pope Francis with an elephant created from discarded flip-flops-a product designed to draw attention to the issue of marine litter and plastic waste-as a token of his appreciation for the Pope’s commitment to the environment.