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World must exit 'highway to climate hell' as temps head above 1.5° limit

The U.N. chief urges a tax on fossil fuel profits and ban on fossil fuel ads amid new climate reports of breaching 1.5°.

The U.N. chief delivered a special climate address at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The U.N. chief delivered a special climate address on World Environment Day at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (AN/J. Heilprin)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for vastly more ambitious climate action – and a tax on the "windfall" profits of oil, coal and gas producers – ahead of the G-7 summit at Italy in mid-June as experts forecast an 80% chance of 1.5° Celsius global warming by 2028.

He also urged a ban on fossil fuel ads, similar to those for tobacco, the tobacco industry – and said news media and technology companies should stop running those ads. In 2o21, Amsterdam banned ads from fossil fuel and aviation companies. A year later, France did the same with some fossil fuel ads.

Guterres compared planet-wrecking humans to species-wrecking meteors in a special climate address on Wednesday, the U.N.'s World Environment Day, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

"Humanity is just one small blip on the radar. But like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, we’re having an outsized impact," he said. "In the case of climate, we are not the dinosaurs. We are the meteor. We are not only in danger. We are the danger. But we are also the solution."

Ahead of this year's COP29 U.N. climate summit in in Baku, Azerbaijan, he called on governments to end deforestation, double energy efficiency and triple renewable energy sources, and to submit national climate action plans that include absolute emission reduction targets for 2030 and 2035 and cover all economic sectors and greenhouse gases.

"But none of this will be enough without new, innovative sources of funds. It is time to put an effective price on carbon and tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies," Guterres said. "By COP29, we need early movers to go from exploring to implementing solidarity levies on sectors such as shipping, aviation, and fossil fuel extraction to help fund climate action."

The most advanced G-20 economies also must align their national climate action plans, energy strategies, and fossil fuel production and consumption with a 1.5° degree future, he said, while G-7 and other OECD countries end coal use by 2030 and create fossil-fuel free power systems to reduce oil and gas supply and demand by 60% by 2035.

The U.N. chief noted the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reported last month was the hottest May in recorded history – and each of the past 12 months set a new record. "For the past year, every turn of the calendar has turned up the heat. Our planet is trying to tell us something. But we don't seem to be listening," he said.

His speech coincided with an update from the World Meteorological Organization, or WMO, and a separate scientific report that humans caused more than nine-tenths of the Earth's record warming last year.

The separate report by a team of authors found last year was 1.43° warmer than the 1850 to 1900 average, with 1.31° or 92% of that caused by human activity, according to findings in Earth System Science Data. The other 8% was mainly due to the El Niño climate event that warms the central Pacific.

WMO reported there is an 80% likelihood that the annual average global temperature will temporarily exceed 1.5° C. above pre-industrial levels for at least one of the next five years.

The U.N. weather agency, based on an update by the United Kingdom's Meteorological Office, called it a stark warning that we are getting ever closer to a key threshold set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which refers to a long-term temperature increase over decades, not over one to five years.

The global mean near-surface temperature for each year between 2024 and 2028 is predicted to be 1.1° to 1.9° higher than the 1850 the 1900 baseline, according to the WMO report, which says it is 86% likely at least one of these years will set a new record and beat 2023 as the warmest year.

WMO also reported that Arctic warming over the next five extended winters from November to March, relative to the average of the 1991 to 2020 period, is predicted to be more than three times as large as the warming in global mean temperature. It said predictions of sea ice for March 2024 to 2028 also suggest further reductions in sea ice concentration in the Barents Sea, Bering Sea, and Sea of Okhotsk.

“Behind these statistics lies the bleak reality that we are way off track to meet the goals set in the Paris Agreement,” said WMO's Deputy Secretary-General Ko Barrett.  “We must urgently do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions, or we will pay an increasingly heavy price in terms of trillions of dollars in economic costs, millions of lives affected by more extreme weather and extensive damage to the environment and biodiversity.”

'We are playing Russian roulette with our planet'

There is a 47% likelihood the global temperature averaged over the entire five-year 2024 to 2028 period will exceed 1.5° above the pre-industrial era, says the WMO's global annual to decadal update, which represents a jump from the 32% forecast in last year’s report for the 2023 to 2027 period.
The 80% chance of at least one of the next five years exceeding 1.5° rose steadily since 2015, when it was close to zero. From 2017 to 2021, there was a 20% chance, which rose to 66% between 2023 and 2027.

“WMO is sounding the alarm that we will be exceeding the 1.5° level on a temporary basis with increasing frequency," said Barrett, a former senior climate advisor for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We have already temporarily surpassed this level for individual months – and indeed as averaged over the most recent 12-month period," she said. "However, it is important to stress that temporary breaches do not mean that the 1.5 ° goal is permanently lost, because this refers to long-term warming over decades."

Rising temperatures will likely result in the collapse of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, with catastrophic sea level rise, climate scientists say. They also will lead to destruction of tropical coral reef systems, collapse of the Labrador Sea Current that impacts weather patterns in Europe, and widespread permafrost melt that will release devastating levels of heat-trapping methane.
The International Energy Agency reports clean energy investments in developing and emerging economies beyond China need to reach up to US$1.7 trillion a year by the early 2030s. Financing that will be a focus of the U.N.'s Summit of the Future to be held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Guterres took aim at the subsidies that many nations provide for fossil fuels to keep consumer prices to a minimum. “Climate change is the mother of all stealth taxes paid by everyday people and vulnerable countries and communities,” he said. “Meanwhile, the godfathers of climate chaos — the fossil fuel industry — rake in record profits and feast off trillions in taxpayer-funded subsidies.”

Humanity faces "a moment of truth," he said, with the Paris climate treaty's 1.5° goal hanging by a thread while nations keep spewing 40 billion metric tons a year of climate-altering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"Global emissions need to fall 9% every year to 2030 to keep the 1.5° limit alive. But they are heading in the wrong direction. Last year they rose by 1%," he said.  "We are playing Russian roulette with our planet. We need an exit ramp off the highway to climate hell."

Guterres emphasized, however, that all is not lost. "Stepping over the threshold for a short time does not mean the long-term goal is shot," he said. "It means we need to fight harder. Now. The truth is the battle for 1.5 degrees will be won or lost in the 2020s under the watch of leaders today."

He also encouraged youth and student activists to keep demanding climate action worldwide. "You are on the right side of history. You speak for the majority. Keep it up. Don’t lose courage. Don’t lose hope," he said. "It’s time for leaders to decide whose side they’re on. Tomorrow is too late."