UN chief urges countries to stop 'addiction to coal' to tackle climate change

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres asked countries at the opening Monday in Madrid of a two-week climate summit to decide whether they "really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?"

Climate summit aims to lay the final pieces of groundwork needed to support the 2015 Paris Agreement

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in his opening speech at the UN climate change conference (COP25) in Madrid on Monday that levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases have hit a record high, according to new data. (Sergio Perez/Reuters)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged countries Monday not to give up the fight against climate change, as representatives from nearly 200 countries gathered in Madrid for a two-week meeting on tackling global warming.

In his opening speech, Guterres cited recent scientific data showing levels of heat-trapping gases have hit a record high, reaching levels not seen for at least three million years when sea levels were 10 to 20 metres higher than today.

Unless emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are sharply cut, temperatures could rise to twice the threshold set in the 2015 Paris accord by the end of the century, he warned.

"Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?" 

Guterres said new data show levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases have hit a record high.

Guterres called out big greenhouse gas emitters that are still building coal-fired power plants, saying that unless the world stops burning coal, "all our efforts to tackle climate change will be doomed."

He said that had countries started cutting emissions drastically long ago, reaching the Paris goal would have been much easier.

"Ten years ago, if countries had acted on the science, they would have needed to reduce emissions by 3.3 per cent each year," he said. "Today, we need to reduce emissions by 7.6 per cent each year."

"The impact on all life on the planet — including ours — would be catastrophic. The only solution is rapid, ambitious, transformative action by all — governments, regions, cities, businesses and civil society, all working toward a common goal."

UN secretary-general opens climate change conference

4 years ago
Duration 0:31
Antonio Guterres urges a more ambitious and creative fight to save the planet

Summit moved to Madrid from Chile

His appeal came after Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, said the meeting that ends Dec. 13 needs to lay the groundwork for moving toward carbon-neutral economies while being sensitive to the poorest and those most vulnerable to rising temperatures — something policymakers have termed "just transition."

"Those who don't want to see it will be on the wrong side of history," said Schmidt, chair of the meeting. She called on governments to make more ambitious pledges to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases ahead of a deadline to do so next year.

The summit was moved to the Spanish capital after Chile had to pull out amid anti-government protests. It aims to put the finishing touches to the rules governing the 2015 Paris accord, including creating a functioning international emissions-trading system, and compensating poor countries for losses they suffer from rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change.

"We have a common challenge but with differentiated needs and urgencies, which we can only overcome if we work together," said Schmidt.

Matthew Levin, Canada's ambassador in Spain, was among the delegation from Ottawa.

"Climate emergency is most acute in most vulnerable countries and populations," Levin tweeted. "Canada is supporting vulnerable countries through climate finance mechanisms."

Countries agreed in Paris four years ago to limit global warming to well below 2 C, ideally 1.5 C by the end of the century compared with pre-industrial times. Already, average temperatures have increased by about 1 C, leaving little room for the more ambitious target to be met.

To facilitate the goals of the accord, it was announced on the eve of the summit that former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney would serve as special envoy on climate action and finance beginning in January. Carney was most recently Bank of England governor.

Organizers expect around 29,000 visitors at the meeting, including around 50 heads of state and government for Monday's opening session.

Except for the European Union's newly sworn-in leadership, which was due to begin a five-year term by paying a visit to the summit, the rest of the world's largest carbon emitters — the United States, China and India — are sending ministerial or lower-level officials to the meeting.

The U.S. delegation is led by Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, a senior Department official, because the procedures to quit the Paris accord initiated last month by the administration of President Donald Trump won't be technically completed until Nov. 4, 2020.

But Democratic members of Congress led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the nation remains committed to the 2015 agreement's goals.

"We're still in it," said Pelosi, adding climate change poses a threat to public health, the economy and national security.

With files from CBC News