UN to world leaders: To curtail warming, you must do more
Published Monday, September 20, 2021 3:50AM EDT Last Updated Monday, September 20, 2021 2:04PM EDT
Pressure keeps building on increasingly anxious world leaders to ratchet up efforts to fight climate change, and officials report slight but vague signs of encouragement from ongoing talks at the United Nations.
For the second time in four days, this time out of UN headquarters in New York, leaders heard pleas Monday to make deeper cuts of emissions of heat-trapping gases and give poorer countries more money to develop cleaner energy and adapt to the worsening impacts of climate change.
In a private session of more than two hours, about 40 of the world's leaders provided "encouraging declarations" on the money end, but "there is still a long way to go" on emission cuts, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters afterward. He gave no specifics.
"We need decisive action now to avert climate catastrophe and for that we need solidarity," Guterres, speaking at a news conference after the session Monday, said he told world leaders. "There is a high risk of failure" at huge climate negotiations in six weeks.
Earlier, in a weekend interview with The Associated Press, he characterized himself as "not desperate, but I'm tremendously worried."
U.S. President Joe Biden, who hosted a similar closed-door climate meeting Friday, will address that issue and U.S. obligations when he goes to the United Nations on Tuesday, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the president's remarks. The upcoming climate negotiations in Scotland this fall are designed to be the next step after the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
"We all agree that `something must be done'," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the leaders, according to a statement released by his office. "Yet I confess, I'm increasingly frustrated that `something' to which many of you have committed is nowhere near enough. It is the biggest economies in the world that are causing the problem, while the smallest suffer the worst consequences."
Johnson said the leaders should "rid the world of coal-fired power and internal combustion engines" and stop deforestation, while rich nations need to live up to their commitment to spend $100 billion a year to help poorer nations deal with climate change.
"It is the developing world that is bearing the brunt of catastrophic climate change," Johnson said in a news conference Monday. "We're the guys that created the problem. ... I understand the feelings of injustice in the developing world and the passionate appeals we just heard from Costa Rica, the Maldives and other countries."
If all the planned coal power plants are built, Gutteres said, "the Paris targets would go up in smoke."
This week's focus on climate change comes at the end of another summer of disasters related to extreme weather, including devastating wildfires in the western United States, deadly flooding in the U.S., China and Europe, a drumbeat of killer tropical cyclones worldwide and unprecedented heat waves everywhere.
Achieving some kind of success in emission-cut pledges or financial help during the week of UN sessions would ease the path to an agreement in Glasgow, just as early announcements of pollution curbs did in 2015, especially those from China and the United States, experts said. Now those two nations are key again. But, Guterres said, their relationship is "totally dysfunctional."
Nigel Purvis, a former U.S. State Department climate negotiator and CEO of the private firm Climate Advisers, said the political forces going into Glasgow don't look as optimistic as they did four months ago after a Biden virtual climate summit.
"The Glasgow meeting is not shaping up to be as well politically prepared as the Paris conference was in 2015," Purvis said. And Pete Ogden, vice president of the United Nations Foundation for Energy and Climate, cited "worrying mistrust between nations at a time when greater solidarity is needed."
As the world's leaders gather, activists, other government leaders and business officials gather in New York City for climate week, a giant cheerleading session for action that coincides with the high-level UN meeting. And throughout the week the push is on the rich nations, the G-20, to do more.
"It is true that the G-20 countries bear the biggest part of the responsibility for carbon emissions. And in that regard, of course it is absolutely crucial that we see them accelerating in a very important way their actions," UN climate conference chief Patricia Espinosa said Friday as her agency announced that emission pledges for the Scotland conference were falling far short of the Paris goals.
Touting Europe's green recovery plans, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the opening climate week crowd that rich countries have to give financial help "to support developing countries not to fall into the trap of the fossil fuel economy but to leapfrog" into an economy based on renewable energy.
The most stringent one seeks to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. That translates to about 0.4 degree Celsius (0.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from now because of warming that's already happened.
A UN report on Friday showed that current pledges to cut carbon emissions set the world on a path toward 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming since the pre-industrial era. That shoots way past even the weaker Paris goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
"That is catastrophic," Guterres said in the interview. "The world could not live with a 2.7-degree increase in temperature."
The overall goal is to have "net zero" carbon emissions by the middle of the 21st century. That refers to a moment when the world's economies are putting the same amount of carbon dioxide into the air as plants and oceans take out of it, thus not adding to global warming.
Guterres is pushing for rich nations to fulfill their longtime pledges of $100 billion a year in climate aid to poor nations, with at least half of that going to help them cope with the impacts of global warming. So far, the world is falling about $75 billion short through 2025, according to a new study by Oxfam. Funding to cope with climate change's impacts fell 25% last year for small island nations, "the most vulnerable of the vulnerable," he said.
Under the Paris agreement, every five years the nations of the world must come up with even more stringent emission cuts and more funding for the poorer nations to develop cleaner energy systems and adapt to climate change.
While the leaders convene for the UN meetings, activists, business leaders and lower-level government officials will be part of the climate week series of events. Planners include big-name corporations announcing billions of dollars worth of commitments to fighting climate change, lots of talk by big names such as Bill Gates about climate solutions, and even all seven late-night U.S. talk show hosts focusing on climate change Wednesday night.