‘Verge of the abyss': Climate change to dominate UNGA talks

© Provided by Al Jazeera Rescue workers evacuate residents following heavy rainfall in China’s Henan province in July [Aly Song/Reuters]

Pressure is building on world leaders to rapidly ratchet up efforts to fight global climate change, a topic expected to top the agenda at the United Nations General Assembly.

Leaders will hear pleas to make deeper cuts in emissions of heat-trapping gases and give poorer countries more money to develop cleaner energy and adapt to the worsening impacts of ever-increasing climate change.

“I’m not desperate, but I’m tremendously worried,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said told the Associated Press ahead of this week’s GA meetings. “We are on the verge of the abyss and we cannot afford a step in the wrong direction.”

On Monday, Guterres and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson host a closed-door session with 35 to 40 world leaders to get countries to do more leading up to crucial COP26 climate negotiations in Scotland in six weeks. Those negotiations are designed to be the next step after the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Forcing wealthy nations to honour their UN climate fund pledges this week will “be a stretch”, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted on Sunday, adding he saw the chance of getting it done before the COP26 summit in Glasgow as “six out of 10”.

“It’s going to be tough but people need to understand that this is crucial for the world,” Johnson told reporters as he travelled to New York to attend UNGA, according to PA news agency.

But Johnson said there were “real signs of progress” from China – the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide – even as COP26 President Alok Sharma said Chinese President Xi Jinping had not yet confirmed his attendance at the conference.

“We only have a short time left. World leaders must deliver on their climate commitments ahead of @COP26,” Johnson said in a tweet.

Summer of disasters

On Friday, US President Joe Biden convened a private forum on climate to coax leaders to act now.

“We are rapidly running out of time,” Guterres said at Biden’s forum. “There is a high risk of failure” of negotiations in Glasgow.

This week’s focus on climate change comes at the end of another summer of disasters related to extreme weather, including devastating wildfires in the western United States, deadly flooding in the US, China and Europe, a drumbeat of killer tropical cyclones worldwide, and unprecedented heat waves everywhere.

Achieving some kind of success in emission-cut pledges or financial help during the week of UN sessions would ease the path to an agreement in Glasgow, just as early announcements of pollution curbs did in 2015, especially those from China and the US, experts said. Now those two nations are key again. But, Guterres said, their relationship is “totally dysfunctional”.

Nigel Purvis, a former US Department of State climate negotiator and CEO of the private firm Climate Advisers, said the political forces going into Glasgow do not look as optimistic as they did four months ago after a Biden virtual climate summit.

But, he said, there is still hope. Countries such as China, the world’s top carbon emitter, have to strengthen their Paris pledges to cut carbon pollution, while rich nations such as the US that increased their emissions need to do more financially to help poorer countries.

“The Glasgow meeting is not shaping up to be as well politically prepared as the Paris conference was in 2015,” Purvis said.

Pete Ogden, vice president of the UN Foundation for Energy and Climate, cited “worrying mistrust between nations at a time when greater solidarity is needed”.

As the world’s leaders gather, activists, other government leaders, and business officials gather in New York City for Climate Week, a giant cheerleading session for action that coincides with the high-level UN meeting. And throughout the week the push is on the rich nations, the G20, to do more.

“It is true that the G20 countries bear the biggest part of the responsibility for carbon emissions. And in that regard, of course, it is absolutely crucial that we see them accelerating in a very important way their actions,” UN climate conference chief Patricia Espinosa said Friday as her agency announced emission pledges for the Scotland conference were falling far short of the Paris goals.

The most stringent one seeks to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. That translates to about 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from now because of warming that has already happened.

© Provided by Al Jazeera The US state of California saw some of its most devastating wildfires this summer [File: Ringo Chiu/Reuters]

‘Catastrophic’ rise

A UN report on Friday showed current pledges to cut carbon emissions set the world on a path towards 2.7C (4.9F) of warming since the pre-industrial era. That shoots way past even the weaker Paris goal of limiting warming to 2C (3.6F).

“That is catastrophic,” Guterres said in the interview. “The world could not live with a 2.7-degree increase in temperature.”

The overall goal is to have “net-zero” carbon emissions by the middle of the 21st century. That refers to a moment when the world’s economies are putting the same amount of carbon dioxide into the air as plants and oceans take out of it, thus not adding to global warming.

Guterres is pushing for rich nations to fulfil their longtime pledges of $100bn a year in climate aid to poor nations, with at least half of that going to help them cope with the impacts of global warming. So far, the world is falling about $75bn a year short, according to a new study by Oxfam. Funding to cope with climate change’s impacts fell 25 percent last year for small island nations, “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable”, he said.

Under the Paris agreement, every five years the nations of the world must come up with even more stringent emission cuts and more funding for the poorer nations to develop cleaner energy systems and adapt to climate change.

Activists have flocked to New York City to push world leaders to act.

“You’ve got the world leaders there, and so you can remind them about climate and get them focused on it,” said Helen Clarkson, CEO of The Climate Group, which is coordinating “climate week”.

What counts most is what happens in six weeks in Glasgow, said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of environment at the University of Michigan.

“[But] the more that can be agreed upon early, the easier it will be to get the commitments that are needed to put an end to climate change… We’re not yet on an emissions reductions path that is safe for our planet and its people,” said Overpeck.

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