Global warming goal on 'life support,' UN chief says

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres says the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C is "on life support" as UN climate talks enter their final days, but he added that "until the last moment, hope should be maintained."

Negotiations at climate summit in Glasgow set to end Friday

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gestures during an interview at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Thursday. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres says the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C is "on life support" as UN climate talks enter their final days, but he added that "until the last moment, hope should be maintained."

In an exclusive interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Guterres said the negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, set to end Friday, will "very probably" not yield the carbon-cutting pledges he has said are needed to keep the planet from warming beyond the 1.5-degree threshold.

So far, the talks have not come close to achieving any of the UN's three announced priorities for the annual conference, called COP26. One is cutting carbon emissions by about half by 2030 to reach the goal Guterres alluded to.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: Your input helps inform our coverage.

The other two are getting rich countries to fulfil a 12-year-old pledge of providing $100 billion US a year in financial climate aid to poor nations and ensuring that half of that amount goes to helping developing nations adapt to the worst effects of climate change.

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it's known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

Guterres said the Glasgow talks "are in a crucial moment" and need to accomplish more than securing a weak deal that participating nations agree to support.

"The worst thing would be to reach an agreement at all costs by a minimum common denominator that would not respond to the huge challenges we face," Guterres said.

That's because the overarching goal of limiting warming since pre-industrial times to 1.5 C by the end of the century "is still on reach but on life support," Guterres said. The world has already warmed 1.1 C, leaving far less than a degree before the threshold is hit.

Nearing end of negotiations

Less than 36 hours from the scheduled close of the negotiations, Guterres said that if negotiators can't reach ambitious carbon-cutting goals — "and very probably it will not happen" — then national leaders would need to come up with new pledges next year and in 2023 during high-level meetings.

He said it is "very important" that nations update their goals and send top leaders to the climate talks every year, at this point. However, Guterres would not say at what point he thinks the 1.5-degree goal would have to be abandoned.

"When you are on the verge of the abyss, it's not important to discuss what will be your fourth or fifth step," Guterres said. "What's important to discuss is what will be your first step. Because if your first step is the wrong step, you will not have the chance to do a search to make a second or third one."

Guterres praised a Wednesday evening agreement between the United States and China to cut emissions this decade as a reason why he still hopes for some semblance of success in Glasgow. He said China promising that its carbon emissions would peak by 2030 represented a key change in the top emitter's outlook.

WATCH | China, U.S. will work together to meet COP26 goals:

China, U.S. will work together to meet COP26 goals

9 months ago
Duration 2:12


The UN chief said he hoped that two sticky issues that defied resolution for six years can be solved in Glasgow: creating workable markets for trading carbon credits, and transparency that shows that promised pollution-reducing actions are real.

"It is the moment to reach agreement by increasing ambition in all areas: mitigation, adaptation and finance in a balanced way," Guterres said in the 25-minute AP interview.

New proposals

Fresh drafts of the documents on regulating international co-operation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the carbon markets section, were released overnight, as were new proposals containing various options for assessing and tracking financial aid for developing countries.

Poor nations have insisted they will not back any deal that fails to address their need for funds to help cut emissions and adapt to the consequences of global warming, a problem they have contributed least to.

"We're still at the stage of options," a European negotiator told The Associated Press on Thursday. "But it's moving forward. We still need that push though."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to be quoted.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday urged fellow world leaders to call their negotiating teams in Glasgow and give them the political backing to clinch an ambitious deal.

Officials and observers have said the bar for success must be a strong affirmation of the goal set in Paris in 2015 of keeping global warming well below 2 C — ideally no more than 1.5 C — backed by credible policies from all nations to get there.

So far, scientists say the world is not on track.

The chair of this year's UN climate meeting called on negotiators from almost 200 countries to engage in "another gear shift" as they try to reach agreement on outstanding issues a day before the talks are scheduled to end.

WATCH | What cities can do to combat climate change:

How cities can confront climate change

9 months ago
Duration 8:15


British official Alok Sharma said Thursday that the drafts released overnight on a number of crunch topics "represent a significant step further toward the comprehensive, ambitious and balanced set of outcomes, which I hope parties will adopt by consensus at the end of tomorrow."

Sharma said he was "under no illusion" that the texts being considered would wholly satisfy all countries at this stage but thanked negotiators for the "spirit of co-operation and civility" they had shown so far.

"We are not there yet," he said, noting that he aimed to get a fresh draft of the overarching decision released early Friday.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?