Caribbean ‘Ground Zero’ for Global Climate Emergency, Says Secretary-General, Addressing Government Heads at Regional Conference

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ opening remarks to the forty-third regular meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), in Paramaribo, Suriname, today:

It is my great honour to join the forty-third regular meeting of the CARICOM Conference.  Thank you to the people of this beautiful country for welcoming us.

President [Chandrikapersad] Santokhi, like CARICOM itself, Suriname is an example of unity in diversity.  Your national anthem beautifully exemplifies a melding of cultures and this country’s diverse roots:  as the distinguished Prime Minister of Bahamas said, quoting the anthem “wherever our ancestors came from, we should take care of our country”.  A very beautiful and meaningful sentence, and this is precisely what you are doing.

I salute the Government’s ambitious goal of preserving its 93 per cent rainforest cover.  I saw this for myself when I flew over Suriname’s magnificent rainforest, and visited this country’s less-well-known, but incredible, mangroves.

Rich in diversity, uniting land and sea, and protecting fragile coastal ecosystems, mangroves are a fitting symbol of Caribbean nations — facing challenges, seizing opportunities, preserving natural gifts.

This year’s CARICOM summit comes at a moment of maximum peril — for people and planet alike.  The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated lives and livelihoods across the region, and exposed deep structural fragilities.  Health systems are underfunded, understaffed and underequipped — hit hard by a “brain drain” of Caribbean medical and health professionals.

Your tourism industry is struggling to recover from the loss of billions of dollars in revenue, and average Caribbean growth is expected to reach just 4.7 per cent this year.  Much less than what the true recovery would require if resources had been made available to your countries.

Inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) declined by a staggering 74.5 per cent last year, and many of your countries are unable to access debt relief or concessional finance to spur recovery and invest in your people and the systems they need.  You are victims of the myth that middle-income countries do not need concessional financial support — a need that completely disregards vulnerability to external shocks.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has aggravated these challenges — and is coming on top of high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, and the difficulties that come with importing more than 80 per cent of food and being net importers of fuel.  At the same time, the lack of economic opportunities is amplifying existing challenges.

And against this backdrop, the small island and low-lying coastal States of the Caribbean are especially vulnerable to what is perhaps the biggest challenge facing our world today — the climate crisis.  And the Caribbean is ground zero for the global climate emergency.  Across all these areas, we need to gather around bold solutions.  And allow me to highlight three dimensions.

First, we need climate action that matches the scale and urgency of the crisis.  That means urgent and transformative emissions reduction efforts to halt warming at 1.5°C, support for adaptation from climate impacts, and financial assistance to secure a climate-resilient future.  We have no time to lose.

I thank Caribbean leaders for helping to show the way.  I am inspired by your many efforts to safeguard your incredible biodiversity and natural gifts, including by the efforts of the indigenous communities.  But, more ambition and climate action are needed by all, especially with the G20, who account for 80 per cent of global emissions.  And the war in Ukraine cannot lead to a short‑sighted group of decisions that shut the door on 1.5°C.

With the commitments presently registered, emissions are still predicted to grow by 14 per cent through 2030.  This is simply collective suicide — and it must be reversed to keep the 1.5°C goal alive.

Developed countries must lead the way to a just and equitable renewables revolution and provide developing countries with much needed finance and technology.  And adaptation and climate finance also require urgent and transformative progress.

Wealthier countries must finally make good on the $100 billion climate finance commitment to developing countries, starting this year.  It was promised in 2020, it did not happen in 2021 and it might not happen if a huge effort is not made now for 2022.  And we also need clarity in 2022 on the Glasgow commitment to double adaptation finance, as well as ensuring your eligibility and access to that finance.

Partners must drive changes at the multilateral development banks to facilitate your transition to a renewable energy and climate-resilient future.  And it is time for a frank discussion and space for decision-making regarding the loss and damage that your countries are already experiencing.  At the same time, one third of the world remains without early warning systems that save lives and livelihoods.  I’ve asked the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to mobilize a plan to ensure universal coverage within the next five years.  All these steps — and more — are vital to tackling the existential climate crisis.

Second, we need a reform of the morally bankrupt global financial system and spur sustainable recovery across the region.  Developing countries need access to financing at no or low costs, as well as debt relief and restructuring.  On the debt side, we need immediate relief for developing countries whose debt is about to become due.  This includes renewing the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, pushing back maturities for two to five years and suspending all International Monetary Fund (IMF) surcharges during this period.

But, that does not replace the need for an effective debt relief framework including vulnerable middle-income countries.  And let’s be clear, the framework that was approved by the group of G20 simply does not work.  In the longer-term, efforts are also needed to create sovereign debt workout mechanisms that can significantly reduce the disproportionate burden placed on developing countries, while bringing all creditors to the table.

For example, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) is pursuing liability-management strategies to bring creditors and debtors together to extend debt repayment periods while reducing interest costs.  Innovative approaches, such as the integration of disaster clauses into debt contracts already adopted by countries like Barbados, should also be scaled up, to ensure that countries receive immediate debt standstills in times of future shocks.  I also would like to underline the recent development by Jamaica on the catastrophe bonds.

Countries also need access to new financing.  And this requires immediately re-channelling all unused special drawing rights, including into regional development banks with the right expertise, such as the Inter-American Development Bank to support developing countries.

Efforts are also needed to lower the cost of borrowing, while helping countries leverage affordable finance through public-private partnerships.  And in this regard, I fully support the creation of a Caribbean Resilience Fund.  More broadly, we need to reform the international financial system to lay the groundwork for a new architecture that can better respond and prevent massive vulnerability to external shocks and ensure that financing goes where it’s needed most.

And I want to reassure the Prime Minister of Barbados that the United Nations will be fully supportive of the initiative that you are taking this summer in this regard.  It’s also high time to move beyond the financial system’s preoccupation with per capita income as a sole measure of a country’s economic strength.  That’s why I strongly support the establishment of a multidimensional vulnerability index that takes into account all of the challenges and circumstances that factor into determining access to concessional support.  For your countries, this would mean ensuring that the complex and interdependent factors of debt and climate change impact are captured in any eligibility analysis for debt relief and financing.  Clearly, our old metrics have failed us.  It’s time to change them.

Third, we must keep up our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’re not out of the woods yet.  We need Governments, global and regional organizations, and pharmaceutical companies working better together to deliver and especially to create conditions for the local production of tests, vaccines and treatments.  There are important initiatives taking place in Africa today, with new vaccine production units in South Africa, Rwanda and Senegal.

And we need to continue working closely together to stop the spread of the virus across the Caribbean through proven public health measures and prepare for future pandemics through bold investments in preparedness and training.  We must never be caught unprepared again.  Across all these areas, the United Nations country offices, field teams and agencies proudly stand with your countries, together also with ECLAC.

We are working with communities to bolster security, spur development and strengthen national institutions that are inclusive, firmly anchored in human rights and the rule of law.  And we are with you to help develop policies and laws that protect minorities, migrants, refugees and women and girls.  And we are honoured to support communities during times of disaster and crisis.

As we look ahead, I pledge my full support, and my enthusiastic commitment, as this region builds a brighter and more sustainable and peaceful future for the people of your region and to the benefit of the whole world.

For information media. Not an official record.