UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned today that the planet is waging a “suicidal” war on the natural world. We are facing a ‘moment of truth’, he declared in a key speech at Columbia University on the ‘State of the Planet’, where without drastic action we may be headed for a catastrophic three to five-degree temperature rise this century.
In a bold call to action Mr Guterres said every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for a transition to net zero emissions by 2050, put a price on carbon and shift the tax burden from income to carbon. In a statement that puts pressure on the UK government to declare an end to its own £6bn worth of export finance for fossil fuels overseas, he called for a phase out of fossil fuel finance and an end to fossil fuel subsidies which according to the IMF run at $10 million a minute globally.
Alarmingly he noted that global carbon emissions are 62% higher today than when UN climate negotiations began in 1991. Part of the reason is their failure to reduce the production and use of fossil fuels; a glaring oversight. It is significant then that the UN Secretary-General used this speech to lend his weight to calls to leave fossil fuels in the ground stating that “unless the world cuts fossil fuel production by 6% every year between now and 2030, things will get worse. Much worse.” The need to do this is highlighted by the Production Gap report, also launched today by the UN’s environment programme, leading a growing number of people to call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and a new and complimentary approach to fairly leaving large swathes of remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
In the speech he also highlighted the many positive gains to be made from bold climate action including $26 trillion in economic benefits by 2030, including the creation of over 65 million new low-carbon jobs. An investment of $1.8 trillion from 2020 to 2030 in much needed adaptation to the poorest on the frontline of the worst impacts of climate change meanwhile could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.
This is where climate justice has to be a guide to action. Though he called for the integration of the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions, the devil will be in the detail if governments and businesses use offsetting and carbon trading to avoid moving out of carbon themselves, or assume that large swathes of the world’s land can be set aside as carbon sinks rather for growing food. Richer countries such as the UK need to get their own house in order.
Protecting forests, oceans and all forms of biodiversity is of course key. But unless and until we accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels through an agreement to fairly leave remaining reserves in the ground, nature-based solutions can only go so far. In less than two weeks’ time UN Secretary General Guterres will host an ‘Ambition’ summit ahead of the critical climate COP in Glasgow next year on the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement. This is a key moment to get the world back on track and chart a definitive pathway away from fossil fuels.
Peter Newell is Research Director of the Rapid Transition Alliance. He is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on the political economy of low carbon energy transitions and global climate change politics. He is currently an ISRF Political Economy Research Fellow and is on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace UK and Carbon Market Watch in Brussels. His books include Climate for Change, Governing Climate Change, Climate Capitalism and The Politics of Green Transformations.