In one of his most impassioned speeches on climate change to date, the secretary-general of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has warned that humanity is facing a new war, unprecedented in history, which is in danger of destroying our future before we have fully understood the risk. During a virtual address entitled The State of the Planet at Columbia University in New York, he stated: “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.”
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The stark message from António Guterres follows a year of global upheaval, with the coronavirus pandemic causing governments to shut down whole countries for months at a time. At the same time, wildfires, hurricanes, and powerful storms have scarred the globe.
Guterres said: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes … Human activities are at the root of our descent toward chaos. But that means human action can help to solve it.”
He listed the human-inflicted wounds on the natural world: the spread of deserts; wetlands lost; forests cut down; oceans overfished and choked with plastic; dying coral reefs; air pollution killing 9 million people a year, more than the current pandemic; and the fact that 75% of new and emerging human infectious diseases have, like Covid-19, come from animals.
Though Guterres, like his two predecessors, has frequently spoken on the dangers of the climate crisis, this was his strongest language yet. The UN was founded 75 years ago at the end of the second world war to promote world peace after two devastating global conflicts. Guterres made a deliberate invocation of that original mission, applying it to the climate and biodiversity crises.
Guterres said greenhouse gas emissions were 62% higher than when international climate negotiations began in 1990. A report from the World Meteorological Organisation, also published on Wednesday, found 2020 was on track to be one of the three warmest years on record globally, despite the cooling effects of the La Niña weather system, while the past decade was the hottest in human history and ocean heat was found to be at record levels.
However, Guterres also struck a note of hope. Many countries, including the biggest emitter, China, the EU, and the US president-elect, Joe Biden, have adopted targets of reaching net-zero emissions around the middle of the century. Renewable energy is now cheaper than coal in many regions, and new technologies such as electric vehicles are gaining pace.
He said: “I firmly believe that 2021 can be a new kind of leap year – the year of a quantum leap towards carbon neutrality. Sound economic analysis is our ally.”
Investors and governments must seize the opportunity to “flick the green switch” while there was still time, he said. He looked ahead to the vital UN Cop26 climate talks, to be hosted by the UK next year, as the moment when nations should make a decisive turn towards a green global economy.
In 10 days, Guterres, along with the French government and Boris Johnson, will host a summit of world leaders to prepare for the Cop26 talks that were postponed by a year to next November because of the pandemic. At the Climate Ambition Summit, which marks five years since the forging of the Paris agreement, governments are expected to affirm plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically in the next decade, in line with their long-term goals.
Guterres called for countries to put a price on carbon emissions, stop investing in fossil fuels, phase out fossil fuel subsidies, stop building new coal power plants, and shift their fiscal base from taxing incomes to taxing pollution.
He said financial assistance for developing countries would be essential to forging a global consensus on reaching net-zero emissions, as it was fundamental to Paris's success.