International climate politics

“Our Earth has high fever”

The former Foreign Minister of Ecuador and President of the UN General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, has a lot of experience in international climate and environmental diplomacy. Here, the Robert Bosch Academy Fellow explains why all the international agreements on environmental protection are not yet having enough impact and how civil society can help to change this.

Mia Raben
Getty Images, dpa Pictures
April 29, 2022

Almost 30 years ago, the Earth Summit took place in Rio de Janeiro, where the member states of the United Nations exchanged views on environment and development. It is seen as the starting point for global climate and environmental policy ...

María Espinosa: The idea of sustainability as we know it today is even older. In June this year, the Stockholm+50 meeting will be held in Sweden to commemorate the first World Environmental Conference organized by the UN. In 1972, representatives of 130 states and civil society discussed the damage that our human societies and economies were causing to the environment, and the need to do something about it at a global level. The declaration adopted at that time was the first appeal to mankind to strive for a development model that would preserve our life supporting systems. It was in a way, the founding moment of international environmental politics.

Was the Earth Summit not such a central milestone then?

The conference in Rio in 1992 brought about the key environmental agreements: the Declaration on Environment and Development, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity, and the Convention to Combat Desertification. There are now more than 250 multilateral agreements on environmental protection. We have no shortage of agreements. Some accounts speak about more than 2000 considering regional and sub regional instruments.


María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, 57, was Ecuador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense and President of the UN General Assembly. Member of the Group  of  Women Leaders, GWL.  She has been a Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy since 2021.

What then?

The key is compliance and accountability. Our production and consumption patterns have not changed fundamentally. It is the paradox of our time: We know that we our very existence as a species is under threat and yet we are unable to comply with the commitments and actions we have signed up to. I wonder sometimes about what has happened to our own sense of self preservation?

At the beginning of May, the Conference on the UN Convention to Combat Desertification will take place in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. As foreign minister of Ecuador, you experienced many such summits. How can we succeed in better implementing the agreement?

What we need now, above all, is cooperation and clear common goals. And better communication between the decision-makers in politics and business, the scientific community, and the people who work at grassroots levels. The voices of the people who are the dwellers, the caretakers must become louder – and the other groups must also want to hear them. We have a shared roadmap, the Sustainable Development Goals and literally hundreds of environmental agreements, we should now act. And act now.

What you need to know about COP15 in Abidjan

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the only binding international agreement on land use and degradation issues. Here, 197 contracting parties aim to establish methods and standards of good land use that also strengthen resilience to climate change and counteract biodiversity loss. The UNCCD has its secretariat in Bonn.

The theme of the 15th Conference of the Parties (CoP15) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is "Land, Life and Legacy: From Scarcity to Prosperity." The biennial conference will be held May 9-20 in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. "Caring for land is more than a conservation issue, it is an existential issue," says UNCCD Secretary-General Ibrahim Thiaw. COP15 is expected to adopt measures to increase investment in land restoration and drought management. Land rights, in particular those of women, will also be discussed. The official negotiations will be accompanied by a large number of side events, with the participation of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, among others.

The Robert Bosch Stiftung works with local and international partner organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa to support pathways to climate-resilient development and regenerative, equitable models of land use and food systems that create sustainable income opportunities in rural areas.

Our work focuses on restoring degraded areas, equitable access to land tenure and land use rights, and participatory formats to resolve conflicts of interest and enable synergies. More information.

The world's drylands are extremely complex, fragile, and constantly changing ecosystems. They produce large quantities of the world's food and are home to more than a third of the world's population. Local communities and local knowledge holders have great potential for developing approaches to climate resilient and sustainable land use. We want to ensure that the voices of these groups are represented at regional and international levels, including at the UNCCD and UNFCCC conferences, and are given the resources they need to implement local solutions.

How could such profound cooperation between the various "communities" be achieved?

The key is accountability and compliance mechanisms. The first thing is a global social pact for nature, with clarity on who has to do what. This is not just about governments. It is also about society, entrepreneurs, scientists, and activists, all of whom must take their share of responsibility. The second thing is liability mechanisms, such as climate litigation, in the administrative and constitutional courts, as well as the international tribunals. 

Thirdly, we need a holistic view of the environmental crisis. Currently, we look at marine ecosystems separately from forests, at desertification separately from a sustainable strategy against water scarcity, biodiversity policy separate from climate adaptation efforts – this is a very Western approach. Nature knows no such boundaries. Ecosystems are interconnected.

Good point. Poor management of land as a resource plays a role in all three Rio Conventions. How can a holistic approach be achieved?

There is this interesting initiative about a Global Pact for the Environment. A mandate from the UN General Assembly to advance its negotiation was adopted in 2018, but the process has frozen, and I really hope it takes form and shape again. This would provide a sort of normative and coherence umbrella for  all the existing conventions. It will ease the policy, planning and investment efforts that countries make . Unfortunately, world leaders did not heed the call of the UN General Assembly to take further steps in this direction. I hope that Stockholm+50 will revive the Global Pact. I always say climate change isn’t a problem, it's a symptom. Like a fever. When you have a  fever, something is  wrong with your body. And the earth is our body. What is really not working is our high carbon, high consumption high inequalities development and economic models.

How can we heal the earth in the absence of political will?

It's true that political will is often lacking. But think for a moment about a country like my native Ecuador. Over 40 percent of its exports are related to the oil industry. If you were president of Ecuador and had to pay teachers and doctors, invest more in infrastructure, wouldn't you increase oil exports in the light of skyrocketing prices due to the Ukraine war? Poorer countries and the Global South have to make very difficult decisions here. At the same time, the G20 countries are spending trillions of US-dollars in Covid-19 recovery initiatives, and very little of these resources are going to the poor countries in the Global South and the much needed ecological transition.

According to the OECD, only 17% of the recovery budget of industrialized countries can be called “green”. My point is twofold: First, it is now up to the G20 countries to muster the political will for more climate investment in their own countries but also in the Global South, especially in the most vulnerable countries; and second, the climate crisis is also a symptom of global transectional inequalities that we have to address from an integral interconnected perspective.

COP26 talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
Indigenous activists demonstrate for more climate protection around COP26 in Glasgow.
Exchange and protests: In 2021, politicians and climate activists met at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

What role can local communities and indigenous peoples play in this?

Early in my career, I had the privilege of living with indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Many solutions involving sustainable water management, biodiversity conservation for example, come from these communities. But the opportunities for these communities to be heard on national and international stages are very limited. Yet we very much need their voices and experiences to inform decisions at all levels. So, we need to create spaces for participation at an international level. Nearly 170 countries of the world are now affected by drought and aridity. We need to act and act swiftly.

Where in the world can you see the extent of this drought most clearly?

I was in the region of the drying Lake Chad, which is located between Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger. This lake is dying as a result of climate change. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing the drought, especially women And with drought comes hunger and conflict. Here you can see the gender dimension of climate change. In general, where you have water scarcity, women have to carry their heavy water containers for miles. It hurts to watch this, and the world, We, are not doing enough.

How do you respond to people who say it's now too late for the big changes anyway?

I don't think we can afford the luxury of pessimism. It's a bleak scenario and a difficult moment for humanity. But, we need hope and resolve. We need the voices and power of people, responsible leadership, responsible and caring politicians thinking about the next generations and not the next elections.

Do you think that the majority of people are aware of the scale of the crisis?

Believe me, the women in Niger or Burundi  know better than any scientist what is happening to their environment – and why they have to walk so far to get water. We know what needs to be done. The resolve and the pace to do it is really fueling a catastrophe both social and environmental.

In addition to the environmental crisis, we are dealing with a crisis of values. Too often today, decisions are guided by greed, personal interest, and selfishness. But what we need is solidarity, empathy, generosity, basically the concept of “radical love” that I learned from a wise person recently. We urgently need a new narrative, to better explain and understand what is happening to our societies in this era of the Anthropocene. Only after that can we take the right decisions. I firmly believe in the power of words. What distinguishes us as humans from other species is language. Our ability to translate feelings into language. Even our anger. We need to use that power to create a different reality. I read Maya Angelou's poetry often. Once at a reading in New York she said, "If you want to change the world, try never to be normal."

Do you ever lose hope?

There are moments of disappointment and even depression. A quarter of a billion people live in extreme poverty. When I see how many people are starving, while at the same time tons of food are wasted. The vaccination rate in Africa is still at seven to eight percent, while I'm about to get my fourth vaccination. Sometimes I think of all the hours I've worked to contribute with my grain of salt to this dystopian world of chaos and I wonder if it is worthwhile. The moral and ethical dimensions of inequality scare me. How can you justify or explain people dying in conflicts old and new, dying from preventable diseases, or hunger? But we should not allow despair to paralyze us. We all have the responsibility to act and keep hope and a moral compass to continue the journey.

And what helps you in such moments?

Poetry. It’s the most effective painkiller for me.


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