United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that “the planet is broken” and made an urgent appeal for a course correction to avert a climate catastrophe.
“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security. And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict,” Guterres said. “It is no coincidence that 70% of the most climate-vulnerable countries are also among the most politically and economically fragile.”
The U.N. chief spoke at New York’s Columbia University to an online audience, ahead of a virtual summit Saturday marking the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement. Nearly every nation signed up to the landmark accord which focuses on limiting global warming and includes commitments to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. The United States formally withdrew from the accord earlier this year, but the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden plans to rejoin it.
Guterres, who has made climate action a signature cause of his tenure, laid out his immediate priorities — creating a global coalition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and aligning public and private finance around that goal; raising financing for developing countries to mitigate climate impacts; and expanding funding for climate adaptation and resilience.
“Let’s be clear — human activities are at the root of our descent toward chaos,” Guterres said. “But that means human action can help solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.”
Getting to carbon neutral
The secretary-general welcomed commitments from more than 110 countries to become carbon neutral by 2050, including recently from Japan and South Korea. The incoming administration of President-elect Biden has also pledged to meet this target. China has said it will be there by 2060. The European Union has committed to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050.
“This means that by early next year, countries representing more than 65% of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70% of the world economy will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality. We must turn this momentum into a movement,” Guterres said.
But progress is dangerously lagging on keeping the rate at which the planet warms to below the goal of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This year is on track to be one of the three warmest on record.
“Today, we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent,” Guterres warned.
The secretary-general said the only way to limit the temperature rise is to decrease fossil fuel production by about 6% each year between now and 2030. But the statistics show the world is moving in the opposite direction — it is projected to increase annually by 2%.
He urged nations to think long-term and move toward renewable energy, saying it can be good for the environment and the economy, creating a net 18 million jobs by 2030.
“But a just transition is absolutely critical,” Guterres said. “We must recognize the human costs of the energy shift. Social protection, temporary basic income, reskilling and upskilling can help to support workers and ease the changes caused by decarbonization.”
He said recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for a course correction. “The trillions of dollars needed for COVID recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations — every last penny,” he said. “We cannot use those resources to lock in policies that burden them with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.”
Guterres said societies must not just reset the global economy but transform it into one driven by renewable energy.
“An inclusive world will help ensure that people can enjoy better health and the full respect of their human rights, and live with dignity on a healthy planet,” he said. “COVID recovery and our planet’s repair must be two sides of the same coin."