We are on the ‘highway to climate hell’, says UN chief Guterres

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator,” he told attendees.

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The UN secretary-general issued a stark warning on Monday, telling participants at the COP27 summit that the world was losing the battle against climate change, while also reiterating his call to phase out coal by 2040.

“We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing,” Antonio Guterres said.

“Greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, global temperatures continue to rise and our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible,” added Guterres, who spoke in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

“We are on the highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

Expanding on his point, Portugal’s former prime minister said the war in Ukraine and other conflicts had “caused so much bloodshed and violence and had dramatic consequences all over the world.”

“But we cannot … accept that our attention is not focused on climate change.”

While cooperation was necessary to strengthen peace efforts and end “immense suffering,” climate change was “on a different timeline and a different scale.”

“It is the defining issue of our time. It is the central challenge of our century. It is unacceptable, scandalous and self-destructive to put it on the back burner.”

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Many of the conflicts taking place around the world, Guterres said, were “linked to growing climate chaos.”

The war in Ukraine had exposed “the profound risks of our dependence on fossil fuels,” and today’s crises, he argued, could not be used as an excuse for “backsliding or greenwashing.”

The climate problem was caused by human activity, so the solution lay in human action, Guterres said.

“The science is clear: any hope of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees means achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050,” he later added. “But the 1.5 degree target is on life support – and the machines are rattling.”

The reference to 1.5 degrees is a nod to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.”

Reducing anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050 is seen as crucial when it comes to reaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

Guterres told those attending COP27 that the point of no return was now dangerously close. “To avoid that dire fate, all G-20 countries must accelerate their transition now.”

“Developed countries must take the lead, but emerging economies are also critical to bending the global emissions curve,” he added. He called for the creation of a climate solidarity pact “between developed and developing economies, and especially developed and emerging economies.”

Among other things, Guterres said the pact would see countries undertake extra efforts to reduce emissions this decade and also “end dependence on fossil fuels and the building of new coal plants – phasing out coal in OECD countries by 2030 and everywhere else by 2040.”

Guterres has previously called for a phase-out of coal, a fossil fuel that has a significant impact on the environment.

The US Energy Information Administration lists a number of emissions from coal combustion, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulates and nitrogen oxides. It has been described by Greenpeace as “the dirtiest, most polluting way to produce energy.”

Coal has proven to be a contentious topic at climate conferences.

At last year’s COP26 summit, India and China, both among the world’s biggest coal-burners, insisted on a last-minute change to the fossil fuel language of the Glasgow Climate Pact – from a “phase-out” of coal to a “step-down”. After initial objections, the opposing countries eventually conceded.

Back in Egypt, Guterres said the United States and China both had “a special responsibility to join efforts to make this pact a reality.”

“Mankind has a choice,” he later added. “Cooperate or perish. It’s either a climate solidarity pact or a collective suicide pact.”

—CNBC’s Sam Meredith contributed to this report

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