The latest spate of natural disasters – from the floods in Libya, Greece and Spain to the wildfires in Hawaii and Canada – has further underscored the need for early warning systems to help the world cope with the realities of the climate emergency, Spain’s environment minister has said.
Speaking to the Guardian as she prepared to travel to New York to take part in the UN’s climate ambition summit and sign a landmark treaty to protect the high seas, Teresa Ribera said the calamities laid bare the challenges the planet faced.
Ribera, who also serves as a deputy prime minister in Spain’s socialist-led caretaker government, urged those attending the summit to heed the UN secretary general’s calls for life-saving early warning systems to be put in place across the world over the next four years.
Given that 95% of the world’s population has access to mobile broadband networks – and nearly 75% own a mobile phone – experts say that harnessing cellular networks to deliver early warnings of impending disasters has the potential to save lives and significantly reduce damage.
A UN report last year found that countries with “substantive-to-comprehensive early warnings coverage” had a disaster mortality eight times lower than those with limited coverage.
A 2019 report from the Global Center for Adaptation found that giving just 24 hours’ notice of storms or heatwaves could reduce damage by 30%, while spending $800m (£645m) on such systems in developing countries would avoid $3bn-16bn a year in losses a year.
Ribera said: “[The] commitment for early warning systems in every country before 2027 is key after what we’ve seen in many parts of the world – even in rich countries that have a high level of institutional development, such as the US, Hawaii or Canada, where cities have had to be evacuated.”
“Or look at what’s happened in Greece recently, or what happened in Madrid two weeks ago. You also have what’s happened in Libya and in other countries that have less institutional capacity. It’s obvious that that’s all had a very big impact on people’s lives and on the capacity to produce development or economic activity.”
When fierce storms and torrential rain hit the Madrid region at the beginning of September, people in the area were alerted to the emergency by a loud alarm and a text message, telling them to stay indoors, that was sent to their mobile phones. It was the first time the authorities had used the mobile phone alert system.
While conceding that the efforts to push for action, such as Wednesday’s summit and the UN climate change conference at the end of the year, were being complicated by the uncertainty caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ribera said it was vital that the transition away from fossil fuels continued in order to try to meet the goals set out in the 2015 Paris agreement.
A recent UN report found there was a “rapidly narrowing window” for governments to move faster as global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 at the latest, and then be reduced rapidly, to limit temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. But emissions are still rising.
“I think the information we already have confirms that we’re not on track to meet the Paris goals,” said the minister. “And I think that means we have three alternatives. One is to say, ‘We’re not on course. Full stop’. We don’t need a meeting or a multilateral process to arrive at that conclusion.
“The second alternative, which is dangerous, is to ask who’s responsible and why. Of course, there’s responsibility to be borne – the whole world should actually have done much more on reducing emissions, on making finance available, on coherent policies, on regional and sub-regional cooperation.”
But instead of a blame game, said Ribera, countries could instead choose to act jointly and meaningfully to meet the Paris agreement targets as quickly as possible. “We don’t need a deafening noise; we need a well-orchestrated symphony to get all the pieces together and get them moving in the same direction,” she said.
Ribera hailed the high seas treaty as proof that the international community could reach historic agreements on seemingly intractable issues.
“I think the fact that we’ve been working on this for more than 20 years shows just how difficult all this is,” she said. “It’s a commitment by the international community designed to avoid the destruction of the marine biodiversity that is key when it comes to ecosystem services and to things we don’t even know about yet because the ocean remains a great unknown.”
She added: “It’s very symbolic that what is perhaps the most important global treaty since the Paris accords is being signed at UN headquarters. We’re once again seeing how issues related to global assets – in this case the ocean – can be motors to help the international community progress.”