U.N. secretary hits climate panic button
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September 12, 2018
U.N. secretary hits climate panic button

In a recent speech at U.N. headquarters, the United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General António Guterres stated that despite the commitments of almost all the nations of the world under the historic Paris Climate Accord, strong advances in renewable energy technologies, more than 130 of the world’s largest businesses switching their operations to 100 percent renewable energy, and other positive developments, the earth is losing its battle with climate change.

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Guterres also asserted that human society has the tools to change course by 2020, a date that he apparently views as the deadline for avoiding runaway climate change.

CO2 concentration passes threshold

Guterres’s speech was packed with descriptions of occurrences around the world to refute climate change deniers and skeptics. At the top of that list is the current concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

“This past May, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the planet marked another grim milestone: the highest monthly average for carbon dioxide levels ever recorded,” said Guterres. “Four hundred parts per million has long been seen as a critical threshold. But we have now surpassed 411 parts per millions and the concentrations continue to rise. This is the highest concentration in 3 million years.”  

Guterres spoke about record-breaking temperatures around the world, shrinkage of the Arctic sea ice faster than what was thought possible, wildfires, storms, and floods “leaving a trail of death and devastation.”

“Some [wildfires] are so big that they send soot and ash around the world, blackening glaciers and ice caps and making them melt even faster,” said Guterres. “Oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening the foundation of the food chains that sustain life. Corals are dying in vast amounts, further depleting vital fisheries. And, on land, the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is making rice crops less nutritious, threatening well-being and food security for billions of people.”

“In some situations, [these occurrences] are approaching scientists’ worst-case scenarios,” adds Guterres.  

Paris is one-third of what’s needed

Moreover, the historic Paris Accord is looking more and more like an ineffective solution.

“When world leaders signed the Paris Agreement on climate change three years ago, they pledged to stop temperatures rising by less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to work to keep the increase as close as possible to 1.5 degrees,” said Guterres. “These targets were really the bare minimum to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But scientists tell us that we are far off track. According to a UN study, the commitments made so far by Parties to the Paris Agreement represent just one-third of what is needed.”

A call for leadership

What Paris failed to provide and what is desperately needed, said Guterres, is leadership from many directions.

“Today, I am appealing for leadership—from politicians, from business and scientists, and from the public everywhere,” said Guterres, who added that there are several upcoming events in which that leadership can be expressed. The first is the next Conference of the Parties in Poland in December 2018, which is intended to work out and adopt a package of decisions ensuring the full implementation of the Paris Agreement.

“I call on leaders to use every opportunity between now and then—the G7, the G20 gatherings as well as meetings of the General Assembly, World Bank and International Monetary Fund—to resolve the sticking points,” said Guterres. 

Summit next year

Emphasizing that Paris is not enough, Guterres is planning a Summit in September 2018 to go beyond Paris.

“Only a significantly higher level of ambition will do,” said Guterres. “The Summit will focus on areas that go to the heart of the problem—the sectors that create the most emissions and the areas where building resilience will make the biggest difference. The Summit will provide an opportunity for leaders and partners to demonstrate real climate action and showcase their ambition. We will bring together players from the real economy and real politics, including representatives of trillions of dollars of assets, both public and private. I want to hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century.”

Specific actions Guterres wants to hear about include increased investments and innovation in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies across buildings, transport, and industry; the oil and gas sectors making their business plans compatible with the Paris Accord and the Paris targets; a strong expansion in carbon pricing; ensuring that we grow our food without chopping down large tracts of forest; and speeding up the trend towards green financing by banks and insurers.”

A transcript of Guterres’s speech is here.   

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