UN secretary-general calls on world to declare ‘climate emergency’

Climate action summit saw new commitments from developing world countries, but big emitters failed to make more ambitious pledges

Daisy Dunne
Climate Correspondent
Saturday 12 December 2020 21:35
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<p>UN chief Antonio Guterres said the world was “still not going in the right direction” five years on from the historic Paris Agreement</p>

UN chief Antonio Guterres said the world was “still not going in the right direction” five years on from the historic Paris Agreement

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The UN secretary general called for all countries to declare a “climate emergency” until global CO2 emissions reach net zero at a key global summit at which the world’s top emitters held back from making ambitious new commitments.

Speaking at the start of a 2020 Climate Ambition Summit, Antonio Guterres said the world was “still not going in the right direction” five years on from the historic Paris Agreement.

“CO2 levels are at a record high. Today, we are 1.2C hotter than before the industrial revolution,” he said. “Can anybody still deny that we are in a climate emergency?”

Both China and India, the world’s largest and third-largest contributors to global emissions respectively, failed to significantly raise their ambition to tackle the climate crisis at the summit.

The talks, convened jointly by the UK, France and the UN, had been billed as a key “kick-off event” for Cop26, a major global climate summit which is to be hosted by the UK next year. Speaking at the end of Satuday’s summit, Alok Sharma, Cop26 president and business secretary, said that “real progress” had been made.

“However, [people across the world] will also ask if we have done enough to put the world on track to limit warming to 1.5C, and protect people and nature from the effects of climate change. To make the Paris Agreement is a reality.

“Friends, we must be honest with ourselves, the answer to that, is currently: no. As encouraging as all this ambition is, it is not enough. And the clock continues to tick.”

Forty-five countries pledged to reduce emissions in the short-term, and 24 outlined plans to reach net zero emissions, he said. However, analysts have noted that many of these pledges are repeats of previous commitments.

Mr Sharma called for every country to “step up” and set tougher climate pledges ahead of Cop26 next year. He also urged high-income countries to give more funding to low-income countries to help them slash their emissions.

He said: “The UK is doubling its contribution to international climate finance. I ask all donor countries to join us. Match our ambition.”

Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, said the talks made “clear how far away we are from seeing the kind of leadership we need”.

She said: “The meeting today was nowhere close to showing that leadership. Many countries contributing to the Climate Ambition Summit ignored the ‘ambition’ part and apparently still lack the moral courage to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a new pledge to cut his country’s CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by over 65 per cent by 2030 compared to levels in 2005.

But this pledge was described as only “an incremental step forward” by one analyst and “business as usual to 2030” by another.

The US was not represented at the event, after Donald Trump officially pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement in November.

However, during the summit, president-elect Joe Biden tweeted to repeat his pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement on his first day in the White House.

“We’re going to rally the world to push our progress further and faster and tackle the climate crisis head-on,” he tweeted.

Tim Gore, head of climate policy at Oxfam, said “developing countries deserve better and need more” than what was offered at the talks.

“The climate ambition summit lacked real ambition,” he said. “World leaders must step up in the next 12 critical months to pull the world back from the brink of catastrophic climate change.”  

“Commitments to near-term emissions cuts are still insufficient to limit warming to the 1.5C Paris goal, and the summit was all but silent on the question of new funds to lower income countries to help them adapt to climate change and decarbonise their economies.”

Some of the more ambitious new pledges were put forward by leaders from developing world countries, which historically have contributed the least to the climate crisis.

Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, pledged that the country would stop building new coal power plants.

Speaking at the summit, he said that Pakistan had historically caused less than 1 per cent of global emissions. “Yet, and sadly, we are the fifth vulnerable country to climate change,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Maldives pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2030, conditional on financial aid from wealthier nations. Peru, Rwanda and Kenya also made tougher pledges to tackle their emissions by 2030.

Both the UK and the EU repeated pledges they had made in recent days to up their efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  

In his opening talk, Boris Johnson repeated a pledge to reduce the country’s emissions by at least 68 per cent by 2030, when compared to 1990 levels. This commitment was first made on 3 December.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the EU would slash its emissions by 55 per cent by 2030, when compared to 1990 levels. This commitment was first made a day before the summit on 11 December.

Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts,  and a former UN climate envoy, said: “We have seen today from leaders in the UK, China, EU and Pakistan they are committed to the low carbon transition.

“We are not moving fast enough, but we are moving. We should heed the words of Antonio Guterres: all countries should declare a climate emergency, divert investments away from fossil fuels and ensure the poorest countries have access to support. We cannot hand to our children a mountain of debt and a broken planet.”

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