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Paris climate treaty goal on 'life support'

The world is "sleepwalking" towards ruin as the coronavirus and Russia's war in Ukraine put a 1.5 degrees C. limit further out of reach, the U.N. chief said.

Extinction Rebellion climate activists in Melbourne, Australia
Extinction Rebellion climate activists in Melbourne, Australia (AN/Matt Hrkac)

LONDON (AN) — The world is "sleepwalking to climate catastrophe" as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine put the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting Earth's warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels further out of reach, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday.

The global crises exacerbate nations' lack of willpower to limit climate-warming fossil fuels in line with their commitments under the 2015 Paris treaty, Guterres told the opening of the Economist Sustainability Summit, held virtually and in London.

The treaty's goal is to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible — though the world already has warmed by more than 1 degree, so the choice is between four-fifths or three-tenths of a degree more warming.

Nations also committed to mobilizing US$100 billion a year in climate financing for improving developing nations' adaptation and resilience amid rising temperatures.

"Well, there is no kind way to put it: The 1.5-degree goal is on life support. It is in intensive care. And we must tell it like it is. The world emerged from Glasgow with a certain naïve optimism," he said, referring to the "watered down" consensus agreement on a climate deal that was reached after an exhausting two weeks of U.N.-brokered climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.

The talks bogged down in disputes over aid for the most vulnerable nations, phasing out coal and setting rules for global carbon markets.

Nations committed to step up their efforts to wean themselves off fossil fuels, and richer countries are on the hook to make good on promises to provide substantial aid to more climate-vulnerable countries that lack the resources to deal with the catastrophic effects of rising seas, increasing droughts and floods, and other warming trends.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, however, slammed the results: "Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah. But the real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever."

More than four months since the summit, Guterres took a similarly dim view in his keynote address to the Economist-hosted summit. Now, he said, the challenges caused by the 2-year pandemic are even more considerable as nations rush to cut dependence on Russia's coal, oil and gas in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

"Recovery from COVID is scandalously uneven. Developing countries are getting slammed with record inflation, interest rate hikes and looming debt burdens. And the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine risks upending global food and energy markets with major implications for the global climate agenda," he said.

"As major economies pursue an 'all-of-the-above' strategy to replace Russian fossil fuels, short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence and close the window to 1.5 degrees," said Guterres. "Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use."

Fixing the 'broken global energy mix'

Instead of cutting carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, nations' energy policies bear a resemblance to Cold War-era concept of nuclear deterrence, according to Guterres.

"This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction," he said. "As current events make all too clear, our continued reliance on fossil fuels puts the global economy and energy security at the mercy of geopolitical shocks and crises."

Global emissions are set to increase almost 14% in the 2020s, according to U.N. tallies of national commitments. Coal emissions reached record highs as nations' energy-related CO2 emissions grew 6% — to the highest levels in history — last year alone.

Germany recently signaled it may extend the lifespans of its coal and nuclear plants to cut its dependence on Russian gas, while the United States indicated oil and gas producers may need to increase supplies.

Earlier this month, the Paris-based International Energy Agency issued a 10-point plan to reduce demand for fossil fuels. The plan mostly relies on changes in consumer behavior to lower oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day within four months, an amount equal to China's entire consumption of oil in cars.

"This would significantly reduce potential strains at a time when a large amount of Russian supplies may no longer reach the market and the peak demand season of July and August is approaching," IEA reported. "The measures would have an even greater effect if adopted in part or in full in emerging economies as well."

Guterres also said it is time to "fix the broken global energy mix" because the timeline for cutting emissions by 45% is extremely tight.

"The science is clear. So is the math. Keeping 1.5 alive requires a 45% reduction in global emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by mid-century," he said. "We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach. And that would be catastrophe."

He recommended the Group of 20 major economies, responsible for 80% of all CO2 emissions, form coalitions to spread resources and technology that can accelerate the transition from coal to renewable energy.

He also pushed for developed countries, multilateral development banks, private financial institutions and companies with technical capabilities to lend a hand to coal-intensive economies.

"We need an even greater sense of urgency around these mechanisms of cooperation between developed and emerging economies to make sure all G-20 countries deliver the emissions reduction that is needed," said Guterres. "That’s how we will move the 1.5 degree goal from life support to the recovery room."