At risk of ending without agreement, the U.N. climate summit was jolted towards a potential compromise by urgent appeals for unity from the U.N. secretary-general and Fiji's prime minister.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the world had arrived at "a moment of truth" as he delivered his second major address to the summit in Katowice, Poland. It was a measure of the talks' polarized views that he felt compelled to remind major holdout nations of their past climate pledges.
The summit is supposed to work out a "rulebook" for nations as they fulfill their Paris Agreement pledges. The 2015 treaty committed the world to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
That will require cutting industrial carbon emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, then reducing emissions to net zero output by 2050, according to United Nations estimates. If the summit fails to work out how to implement the treaty, the world will be put on an “immoral” and “suicidal” path, Guterres told representatives of nearly 200 nations at the United Nations-led conference.
"We recognize the complexity of this work. But we are running out of time," he said. "So, I urge you to find common ground that will allow us to show the world that we are listening, that we care."
Guterres and Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama spoke as part of the summit's Talanoa Dialogue, a diplomatic procedure the Fijians began last year in the belief that the power of storytelling can subdue the difficulties of a polarized climate process. The U.N. chief emphasized that all the sacrifices made individually by nations "will benefit us all collectively" in the pursuit of lower greenhouse gas emissions.
"To waste this opportunity in Katowice would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change. It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal," he said. "This may sound like a dramatic appeal, but it is exactly this: a dramatic appeal."
A generational responsibility
At the outset of the summit, Guterres delivered his first major speech in which he called the rise in global average temperatures “the most important issue” facing humankind.
The summit's goals were repeatedly challenged by the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, including a measure to officially endorse a recent scientific report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. U.S. President Donald Trump, hostile to international organizations and treaties, announced in 2017 he plans to withdraw the United States out of the Paris treaty.
The IPCC report warned that nothing can protect the world against all of the most dangerous projections for global warming and said that huge cuts in fossil fuel-burning will be needed by 2030 to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Carrying that out will require governments to make five-fold increases in their pledges to cut industrial carbon dioxide emissions, Bainimarama noted.
If they fail, he said, current government leaders will be known as “the generation that blew it — that sacrificed the health of our world and ultimately betrayed humanity because we didn’t have the courage and foresight to go beyond our short-term individual concerns: craven, irresponsible and selfish."
Soon after Guterres' second speech, dozens of nations pledged to do more to keep the talks on track, despite the challenges of balancing "historic" climate responsibilities with current inequities in wealth.
“Many political divisions remain. Many issues still must be overcome. But I believe it’s within our grasp to finish the job," said Patricia Espinosa, executive director of U.N. Climate Change, the secretariat for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, that is a platform for the summits.
As host of the summit, the Polish government released a condensed draft text that was far from a consensus document.
"We are all aware," said Poland’s environment minister, Michal Kurtyka, who presided over the talks, "that the capacity to act on climate change and cope with its consequences varies among the countries."