The United Nations has placed the Climate Crisis squarely in the centre of its operations. The UN General Secretary António Guterres gave an address titled “The State of the Planet”, declaring that “Humanity is waging war on nature.” The address was a stark and impassioned plea to the countries of the world: we must “transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world […] and we must do so together.”
The average global temperature has risen by 1.2 °C compared to pre-industrial times. This warming is inextricably linked to human activity. As we exploit nature’s resources, we release trapped carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates.
In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established. Over 30 years later, society is still critically dependent on exploitative and self-destructive practices. This needs to change.
Guterres laid out “three imperatives in addressing the climate crisis”: carbon neutrality, global finance aligned with the Paris Agreement, and a “breakthrough on adaptation and resilience.”
Very few countries have made their pledges legally binding and even fewer have policies in place to actually achieve their goals
The address calls for global carbon neutrality by 2050. In terms of commitments, many have pledged neutrality: 110 countries including the UK, the EU, and the incoming US administration by 2050, and China by 2060.
But pledges mean nothing if they are not binding and backed up by evidence-based policies and action. Very few countries have made their pledges legally binding and even fewer have policies in place to actually achieve their goals.
The Climate Change Performance Index concluded many countries will “fail to reach carbon neutrality by 2050” and that even if every country met their pledges it would still result in “2.5 – 2.7 °C of warming.”
With the United Nations calling for carbon neutrality, we can perhaps be hopeful for stronger actions to be taken. It is difficult to make any meaningful progress towards global carbon neutrality unless the top emitters take serious action.
Building new renewables is often cheaper than running existing coal power plants
Thankfully, the top historical polluter (the United States) will soon see the Biden Administration take over and bring back scientifically informed policy making. Combined with China, they should set the precedent for large-scale action.
Guterres calls for “Every country, city, financial institution and company [to] adopt plans for transitioning to net zero emissions by 2050.” Only through concerted action at global, governmental, local, and business levels will carbon neutrality be possible.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels needs to be done yesterday. Given that we missed that deadline we need to start today. Building new renewables is often cheaper than running existing coal power plants. And that’s before one accounts for the indirect cost benefits associated with healthcare and environmental clean-up.
Moving to green energy will not only eliminate a lot of carbon emissions; it will create “18 million jobs by 2030.” Those working in the fossil fuel industry already have many of the skills required, so it is possible to transition without creating joblessness.
Green finance goes well beyond how we fund the green transition. It refers to a fundamental rethink of the financial institutions and mechanisms that have relentlessly lined the pockets of those destroying our planet.
Financing and subsidising fossil fuels needs to stop immediately. There is no hope for the future if our governments do not take decisive action against the major polluters. This means no more funding for new coal power plants to be built and no more support for fossil fuel extraction.
A key part of Guterre’s green finance imperative is “to put a price on carbon.” That is to assign a monetary price to greenhouse gas emissions, and to require that price to be paid by the polluter. The tax burden must be shifted “from income to carbon, and from taxpayers to polluters.” In other words, we should not be paying for the fossil fuel industry’s destruction of our home.
Pension funds invest our money on our behalf to grow its value. Often, this money is invested in dirty companies with no regard for the planet. This needs to change. With a value of $32 trillion, pension funds are “in a unique position to move the needle […] and lead the way.”
The deadline for starting a gentle transition passed long ago. We must act now
Adaptation and Resilience
The Climate Crisis isn’t some distant possibility. It is here. It is a lived reality for hundreds of millions of people, often in the global south. Extreme weather events are already happening with increasing frequency as a consequence of a changing climate.
We must adapt. We must invest in the infrastructure required not only to prevent further warming, but to protect us from what is already happening. It also makes economic sense to act. Guterres explains that “every $1 invested in adaptation could yield almost $4 in benefits.”
I think a level of caution is required when discussing adaptation. It is not an excuse to pull back on measures to reduce carbon emissions, nor is it about buying ourselves time. The deadline for starting a gentle transition passed long ago. We must act now to prevent and reverse climate change, simultaneous to protecting ourselves from the very present implications.
Resilience is more than protecting ourselves from the worst. It’s about strengthening our position from which to revive our dying planet. It is here that climate justice must play a central role in the transition.
In a message at the Finance in Common Summit in November, Guterres said, “we need to invest massively in public health, food security and education for all; in empowering women, girls and the most vulnerable; in supporting productive investment and employment; in access to energy; and in promoting human rights in general.”
By committing ourselves to promoting human rights for all, we are committing ourselves to leaving fossil fuels in the ground. There is simply no way to exploit land and resources in the way we have been without continuing to exploit people and communities.
We are on track for over 3 – 5 °C of warming this century
Can it be done?
Given that the UN has been talking about this for decades it is reasonable to be sceptical that this will change anything. However, Guterres said in an interview for Covering Climate Now with Tony Dokoupil, “Now we are not alone,” referring to the youth climate movement led by the likes of Greta Thunberg and “entrepreneurs gaining conscience.” These movements are putting pressure on companies and governments to take decisive action.
And it must be done now. The “way we are moving is a suicide in relation to the future and all future generations,” Guterres said. We are on track for over 3 – 5 °C of warming this century which would lead “conditions of living in our planet [to] be severely undermined.” But he remains optimistic that we will succeed if countries act together.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that rapid deployment of billions of pounds worth of government funds is possible to tackle an issue facing everyone on the planet.
Now we must save that planet.
Transcript of the interview between Tony Dokupil and Antonio Guterres provided by Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Featured image courtesy of Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.
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