Ep70: Ban Ki-moon 'The Planet's Leading Diplomat'

“Climate change does not care where you are coming from, it’s nature versus humanity. Sea level is rising, climate change is approaching much, much faster [than expected]. Therefore, I'm urging political leaders: use your wisdom and think about the future of humanity and our planet earth. Let's work on that first – then let's talk about human rights.”

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the tradeoff between dealing with climate change and human rights violations.


Season 5 of Cleaning Up kicks off with the 70th episode, in which, Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary General of the United Nations (2007-2016) spoke with Michael Liebreich about the challenges facing the international response to the pandemic, climate change and human rights abuses.

The conversation begins with a look at the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It then zooms in on climate change, Sustainable Energy for All and COP26 in Glasgow, before moving to the US-China relationship. It explores the tradeoffs between dealing with climate change and addressing human rights issues, and whether the diplomatic boycott of the Olympics by the US, Canada, Australia and the UK is justified.


Below is an abridged version of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: When this terrible pandemic is eventually over, do you think the global system will have been strengthened by the experience, or do you think Covid-19 has exposed such fault lines, that they will hold back global action on everything from peace to climate change?


Ban Ki-moon: We are suffering this pandemic because the world's leaders have forgotten past experiences. I sincerely hope that when we get over this pandemic, that the whole world’s people – particularly political leaders – remember what we have been suffering, and that we don’t repeat again the same foolish mistakes.

In 2014, many West African countries suffered from Ebola, and the mortality rate was much higher than this coronavirus, 45%. I called Margaret Chan, then Director General of the World Health Organization, who told me that the Ebola crisis could not be handled by the WHO alone. So the United Nations, World Bank, CDC of America, all the organizations of the United Nations, worked together. The UN Security Council, acting on my recommendation, established the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) and the General Assembly was very quick to endorse everything I was doing.

Contrast this with 2020. I telephoned to Tedros at the WHO and said this seems to be a very serious situation, you may not be able to handle this crisis alone. But then, unfortunately, President Trump withdrew membership from the WHO rather than supporting it, and that was the beginning of the problems for the international community. The fight over where Covid-19 originated could have come much later – we should have addressed the pandemic first.

I'm not laying blame, but we have to learn from what has gone before. This is a very important lesson.


ML: If we go back to the Millennium Development Goals, energy did not feature. If you move forward to the SDGs, which of course were developed under your term as Secretary General, we've got SDG7, Sustainable Energy for All. And you've spoken in the past about why it was an issue that resonated for you.


BKM: Energy access is extremely crucial for everyone, including children, especially now when schools are closing because of the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, in many instances children have no light to do homework for work. This is exactly what I experienced during my time when I was a young child. We didn't have electricity, I had to study under dim candlelight. How, however, the overall need for clean energy access, for intensive usage including commercial production, should be in focus. Simply installing a solar light to read at night only eliminates poverty, but it does not tackle the systemic issues.


ML: I want to move forward to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which of course, was signed during your term as Secretary General, and some would say was one of your crowning achievements. What do you recall most vividly from that extraordinary two-week period in December 2015?


BKM: One of the most reproduce the images from that day is of course, everyone holding hands – [Head of the UNFCCC] Christiana Figueres, myself, [French Foreign Minister] Laurent Fabius, President Francois Hollande and Al Gore – and everyone was dancing, everybody was excited. I have never seen such a moment when everyone was jumping and dancing. That was, to my mind, one of the very few moments when the whole world was united. United for the people of the world, for our planet, and for the future of succeeding generations.


ML: I want to ask about COP26 in Glasgow. The Paris Climate Accords included a five-year ratchet – of course it turned out to be six years because of the pandemic – and the first ratchet period came up at COP26. Do you think that Glasgow built sufficiently on the success of Paris? Were you pleased or were you disappointed?


BKM: Half and half. I had much higher expectations for Glasgow. The UK Government officials led by Alok Sharma, as well as many other foreign ministers, invested the time and energy to make it a great success, but in the end there were some positive developments and some disappointing developments.

While some large emitters like Brazil, China, India and Russia were not there at a leadership level, we had some successes: South Africa’s deal with donor countries; Nigeria’s pledge to cut emissions to net zero by 2060. We were able to finalize a rulebook which has been pending for five years; China and the United States made an agreement on reducing methane; and the methane pledge, which more than 100 countries joined. Over 20 countries signed the statement on aligning international public finance with a clean energy transition – the first time a broad group of countries agreed on the need to shift overseas finance away from all fossil fuels and towards clean energy.

But there were also disappointments. I was disappointed that they were not able to agree on the roadmap for funding $100 billion a year [of climate investment in developing countries], as agreed in 2009 in Copenhagen. I certainly had hoped that the big donor countries would have agreed on this. Another disappointment was that they were not able to agree on carbon neutrality 2060, because of an objection by India, which means it can go to 2070.


ML: Let me ask about the US-China relationship which played such an important part in enabling both the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow Climate Pact to be signed. Is it possible to be optimistic given the rising tensions between those two countries?


BKM: Despite the political confrontational relationship between the US and China, I think they achieved positive cooperation on the climate in Glasgow, and that is the most important part. As you know, the US government and others were saying there was three big C’s: Confrontation, Cooperation, and Competition, and climate is in the cooperation area.

I was happy to see a high-profile presence at COP26 for the US, including President Biden himself and Special Envoy John Kerry, who had a very good meeting with his counterpart of China. While there is clearly a political risk, it is also disappointing that the US did not enter negotiation with the financial stamina to back this up.

It was a positive surprise to see the US and China creating their Glasgow declaration on enhancing climate action in the 2020s, which sets a good example and shows dedication from the two countries towards combating climate action. I have said in the past, If President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping had not worked together, the Paris Climate Accord would not have happened. It was at the G20 meeting in Hangzhou in September 2016, where President Xi Jinping took the initiative to invite President Obama and myself into a room. Ratification of the Paris Agreement required 55 countries and 55% of global greenhouse gas emission – it was a huge task. But with China and the US making up 42%, it was easy. So that's why the Paris climate change became effective on 4 of November 2016, 2016. Just imagine if that had not happened: two months later President Trump came into power, and he withdrew from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. I'm still sighing a deep sigh of relief – a deep sigh of relief!


ML: The great success of Paris and Glasgow was built on the fact that renewable energy has become so cheap, and that is because of Chinese manufacturing. A lot of solar grade silicon comes from Xinjiang province, the epicenter of China's abuse of its Uyghur minority. The US has now passed legislation saying that companies’ supply chains must be certified free of slave labor. Are we not on a potential collision course between the goals of climate action and various foreign policy and human rights priorities?


BKM: I'm not saying this because I'm trying to support what China is doing. I'm just saying that I think we need we need to show wisdom in addressing political, economic and global challenges as well as human rights issues.

Some things need to be done first, others we can do later. When there is a fire, you must first put out the fire, otherwise you cannot save people may who may be stuck. Human rights are inalienable rights, but climate change does not care where you are coming from, it’s nature versus humanity. The sea level is rising, climate change is approaching much, much faster [than expected].

Therefore, I'm urging political leaders: use your wisdom and think about the future of humanity and our planet earth. Let's work on that first – then let's talk about human rights.

You know, as a former Secretary General, I have been vocal in criticizing those countries who do not support human rights. And I'm still doing same thing. But at this point we have to put out the fire first, we have no time, we cannot negotiate with nature.


ML: There are some who would say that human rights is the fire rather than climate change, which is a decadal problem. As part of your role as chair of the ethics committee of the International Olympic Committee, you will be going to Beijing for the Olympics in February this year, while the US, the UK, Australia and Canada have declared a diplomatic boycott. Is that an appropriate way of dealing with these two issues at the same time? Do you think they should put that aside, go and celebrate the Olympics, deal with climate change and then come back to human rights issues?


BKM: Let there be no misunderstanding, I don't want it to be said that I'm not paying attention to human rights. I'm going to Beijing because I am the chairman of the Ethics Commission of the IOC, I have to be there. During the games, it is mandatory – I'm doing my own job as a chairman of the Ethics Commission. What about the IOC President? Why he's going there? What about all these sports people, athletes?


ML:  You not recall, I am also an Olympic athlete. I agree with what you said about the athletes, but I probably come down in a different place on the diplomatic boycott. But I also appreciate that your role as chair of the IOC Ethics Committee is very different and you have professional responsibilities. We could do a whole programme on the Olympics and climate, but sadly we're out of time.


BKM: Thank you very much, it has been a great pleasure. And thank you for your leadership, continuing leadership on working on energy, and climate and all human rights issues. Let us work together to make this world sustainable and better for all, that's our moral responsibility. I do not have any political and legal responsibility now, but I'm going to continue until we can declare that we have done something to make this a sustainable world.