On 10 September 2018, António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, made a major address to warn of the global threat posed by climate change and to point to the massive benefits that climate action could and should generate. He called on political and business leaders to take up the challenge and expressed hope that today’s young people will usher in a new, greener future.
This is the most urgent plea the UN has ever made regarding global climate change and the urgent need for world leadership in addressing the many problems associated. The 30-minute address can be viewed here. For those Elders in need of more urgent enlightenment, the main points of the Secretary-General’s address are summarised below.
Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are now at a defining moment. Climate change is now moving faster than we are. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, which will have disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.
This past May the World Meteorological Organization reported the highest monthly average for global carbon dioxide levels ever recorded: 411 parts per million. This is the highest CO2 concentration the earth has experienced in over 3 million years. The critical threshold has long been seen as 400 parts per million. Concentrations continue to rise as you read this.
The world is experiencing record-breaking temperatures. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reports that the 18 warmest years since 1850 (when record-keeping commenced) have occurred within just the past two decades. This year (2018) is already shaping up to be the fourth hottest ever recorded., with extreme heatwaves, wildfires, storms and floods leaving a trail of death and devastation.
Last month the state of Kerala in India suffered its worst monsoon flooding in recent history, killing 400 people and driving 1 million more from their homes. Last year Hurricane Maria killed almost 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, making it one of the deadliest extreme weather disasters in U.S. history. Many of those people died in the months following the storm because they lacked access to electricity, clean water and proper healthcare because of the hurricane.
Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than it was imagined possible. In 2018, for the first time in history, thick permanent sea ice north of Greenland began to break up. This dramatic warming in the Arctic is affecting weather patterns across the northern hemisphere. Wildfires are lasting longer and spreading further. Some of these blazes are so extensive they send soot and ash around the world, blackening glaciers and ice caps and making them melt even faster. 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. Extinction rates will spike as vital habitats decline.
As climate change intensifies, we will find it harder to feed ourselves. 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. More and more people will be forced to migrate from their homes as the land they depend on becomes less able to support them.
What makes all of this even more disturbing is that we were warned. For decades scientists have been telling us of the growing risks from climate change. But far too many leaders have refused to listen. Far too few have acted with the vision the science demands.
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. These targets were really the bare minimum to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But scientists tell us that we are still far off track. According to a recent UN study, the commitments made so far by Parties to the Paris Agreement represent just one-third of what is needed.
The UN’s appeal now is for leadership from politicians, from business and scientists, and from the public everywhere. We have the tools to make our actions effective, but, even after the Paris Agreement we still lack the leadership and the ambition to do what is needed.
We urgently need to put the brake on deadly greenhouse gas emissions which drive climate action. We need to rapidly shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to replace them with clean energy from water, wind and sun. We must halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and change the way we farm. We need to embrace the circular economy and resource efficiency. Our cities and transport sectors will need to be overhauled. How we heat, cool and light our buildings will need to be rethought so we waste less energy.
We are experiencing huge economic losses due to climate change. Over the past decade, extreme weather and the health impact of burning fossil fuels have cost the U.S. economy at least 240 billion dollars a year. That cost will explode by 50 percent in the coming decade. By 2030 the loss of productivity caused by a hotter world could cost the global economy 2 trillion dollars.
So much of the conversation on climate change focuses on doom and gloom. While warnings are necessary, fear will not get the job done. We must focus instead on the vast opportunities afforded by climate action. Enormous benefits await humankind if we can rise to the climate challenge. Many of these benefits are economic.
Vested interests keep telling us that tackling climate change is expensive and could harm economic growth. This is simply not correct, in fact, the opposite is true. More and more studies also show the enormous benefits of climate action. The latest reports from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate Change show that that climate action and socio-economic progress are mutually supportive, with gains of 26 trillion dollars predicted by 2030 compared with business as usual. If we pursue the right path.
For every dollar spent restoring degraded forests as much as $30 dollars can be recouped in economic benefits and poverty reduction. Restoring degraded lands means better lives and income for farmers and pastoralists and less pressure to migrate to cities. Climate-resilient water supply and sanitation could save the lives of more than 360,000 infants every year. Clean air has vast benefits for public health.
The International Labour Organization reports that common sense green economy policies could create 24 million new jobs globally by 2030. In China and the United States, new renewable energy jobs now outstrip those created in the oil and gas industries. In Bangladesh the installation of more than four million solar home systems has created more than 115,000 jobs and saved rural households over 400 million dollars in polluting fuels.
Technology is on our side in the battle to address climate change. The rise of renewable energy has been tremendous. Today, it is competitive with, or even cheaper than, coal and oil, especially if one factors in the costs of pollution. Last year, China invested 126 billion dollars in renewable energy, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year. Sweden is set to hit its 2030 target for renewable energy this year – 12 years early. By 2030, wind and solar energy could power more than a third of Europe. Morocco is building a solar farm the size of Paris that will power more than one million homes by 2020 with clean, affordable energy. Scotland has opened the world’s first floating wind farm.
There are many other signs of hope. Countries rich in fossil fuels, like the Gulf States and Norway, are exploring ways to diversify their economies. Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in renewables to move from an oil economy to an energy economy. Norway’s 1 trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund – the largest in the world – has moved away from investments in coal and has dropped a number of palm and pulp-paper companies because of the forests they destroy.
There are also promising signs that businesses are waking up to the benefits of climate action. More than 130 of the world’s largest and most influential businesses plan to power their operations with 100 per cent renewable energy. Eighteen multinationals will shift to electric vehicle fleets. More than 400 firms will develop targets based on the latest science in order to manage their emissions. One of the world’s biggest insurers – Allianz – will stop insuring coal-fired power plants.
More than 250 investors representing 28 trillion dollars in assets have signed on to the Climate Action 100+ initiative. They have committed to engage with the world’s largest corporate greenhouse [gas] emitters to improve their climate performance and ensure transparent disclosure of emissions.
These are all important strides, but they are not enough. The transition to a cleaner, greener future needs to speed up. We stand at a truly “use it or lose it” moment.
Over the next decade or so, the world will invest some 90 trillion dollars in infrastructure. We must ensure that the infrastructure is sustainable, or else we will lock in to a high-polluting dangerous future.
The private sector is poised to move, and many are doing so. Now the leaders of the world need to step up. A lack of decisive government action is causing uncertainty in the markets and concern about the future of the Paris Agreement.
Existing technologies are waiting to come online – cleaner fuels, alternative building materials, better batteries and advances in farming and land use. These and other innovations can have a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so we can hit the Paris targets and inject the great ambition that is so urgently needed.
Governments must also end harmful subsidies for fossil fuels, institute carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of polluting greenhouse [gas] emissions and incentivizes the clean energy transition.
There is another reason to act — moral duty.
The world’s richest nations are the most responsible for the climate crisis, yet the effects are being felt first and worst by the poorest nations and the most vulnerable peoples and communities. We already see this injustice in the incessant and increasing cycle of extreme droughts and ever more powerful storms. Women and girls, in particular, will pay the price – not only because their lives will become harder but because, in times of disaster, women and girls always suffer disproportionally.
Negotiations towards implementation guidelines for operationalizing the Paris Agreement ended yesterday in Bangkok with some progress — but far from enough. The next key moment is in Poland in December. The time has come for our leaders to show they care about the people whose fate they hold in their hands.
I call in particular on women’s leadership. When women are empowered to lead, they are the drivers of solutions.
Next September the UN will convene a Climate Summit to bring climate action to the top of the international agenda. Luis Alfonso de Alba, a well-respected leader in the climate communit has been appointed Special Envoy to lead those preparations. His efforts will complement those of the Special Envoy for Climate Action, Michael Bloomberg, and Special Advisor Bob Orr who will help to mobilize private finance and catalyze bottom-up action.
The Summit next year will come exactly one year before countries will have to enhance their national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement. Only a significantly higher level of ambition will do. To that end, 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. We will bring together players from the real economy and real politics, including representatives of trillions of dollars of assets, both public and private.
We need increased investments and innovation in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies across buildings, transport, and industry. We need the oil and gas industry to make their business plans compatible with the Paris agreement and the Paris targets. We need a strong expansion in carbon pricing.
We must get the global food system right by ensuring that we grow our food without chopping down large tracts of forest. We need sustainable food supply chains that reduce loss and waste. We must halt deforestation and restore degraded lands.
We must speed up the trend towards green financing by banks and insurers and encourage innovation in financial and debt instruments to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable nations such as small island states and bolster their defences against climate change.
We want governments to fulfill their pledge to mobilize 100 billion dollars a year for climate action in support of the developing world. We need to see the Green Climate Fund become fully operational and fully resourced.
But for all this, we need governments, industry and civil society reading from the same page – with governments front and centre driving the movement for climate action. We want all leaders to come to next year’s Climate Summit prepared to report not only on what they are doing, but what more they intend to do when they convene in 2020 for the UN climate conference and where commitments will be renewed and surely ambitiously increased.
As the ferocity of this summer’s wildfires and heatwaves shows, the world is changing before our eyes. We are careering towards the edge of the abyss. It is not too late to shift course, but every day that passes means the world heats up a little more and the cost of our inaction mounts. Every day we fail to act is a day that we step a little closer towards a fate that none of us wants — a fate that will resonate through generations in the damage done to humankind and life on earth. Our fate is in our hands.