U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to world leaders on Wednesday to start fixing our “broken” planet by ringing in 2021 with a commitment among all nations to embark on a carbon pollution-neutral future.
It was the latest in a series of efforts by Guterres to call on governments to live up to their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which was intended to spare the planet of the worst effects of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases becoming too highly concentrated in our atmosphere mainly from fossil fuel burning.
“We are facing a devastating pandemic, new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation and new setbacks in our work towards global goals for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development. To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken,” he said in his “State of the Planet” speech at New York’s Columbia University.
“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal,” he said. “Nature always strikes back and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.”
Guterres cited a “collapse” in biodiversity — the variety of life in all forms — and 1 million species at risk of extinction, with ecosystems fast “disappearing before our eyes” along with huge losses in wetlands, forests and arable land.
The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity said in September that humans are trashing the planet so fast it would take 1.7 “Earths” to regenerate all of the resources used from 2011 to 2016. As a result, none of the United Nations’ 20 decade-long goals for protecting biodiversity were achieved, CBD’s secretariat said in its Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report.
Scientists also said last year that human actions are causing Earth’s natural life support systems to reach a breaking point, threatening 1 million plant and animal species with extinction in a challenge as huge as the climate crisis. The report from the 132-nation IPBES organization said it is the worst time for nature in human history, with more than a half million land species threatened by extinction and marine life also in bad shape.
“Oceans are overfished — and choking with plastic waste. The carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying. Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually – more than six times the current toll of the pandemic,” Guterres said in his speech, referring to the 65 million people infected and 1.5 million killed so far by the coronavirus.
“And with people and livestock encroaching further into animal habitats and disrupting wild spaces, we could see more viruses and other disease-causing agents jump from animals to humans,” he said. “Let’s not forget that 75 percent of new and emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic.”
'2020 was supposed to have been a “super year” for #nature but the pandemic has had other plans for us. Now we must use 2021 to address our planetary emergency.'@UN SG @antonioguterres issues a call to action in his State of the Planet address. Watch⬇️ https://t.co/qAzdoUYrPN
— Elizabeth M. Mrema (@mremae) December 2, 2020
‘Making peace with nature’
On Wednesday, Guterres’ speech coincided with two new reports from World Meteorological Organization and U.N. Environment emphasizing the stakes if nations do not take more climate action immediately. WMO said the past decade was the hottest decade in human history, while 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Niña.
WMO’s report also showed numerous extremes such as record low Arctic sea ice in April and August, a record 30 Atlantic named tropical storms and hurricanes and the deaths of more than 2,000 people from flooding in Pakistan and neighboring countries.
UNEP said national plans show oil, gas and coal producers are set to expand their output by 2 percent a year, which is more than double the amount that would be consistent with reaching the preferred temperature limit of the Paris climate treaty. Nations agreed under the treaty to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible.
To stick to the 1.5 degrees limit, fossil fuel production would need to decline by about 6 percent a year, UNEP said in its report which measures the “production gap” between the Paris treaty’s goals and nations’ planned oil, gas and coal production.
“COVID-19 lockdowns have temporarily reduced emissions and pollution. But carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs – and rising,” Guterres noted. “In 2019, carbon dioxide levels reached 148 percent of pre-industrial levels. In 2020, the upward trend has continued despite the pandemic. Methane soared even higher – to 260 percent. Nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, but also a gas that harms the ozone layer, has escalated by 123 percent. Meanwhile, climate policies have yet to rise to the challenge.”
Scientists with Climate Action Tracker, an independent analysis by two organizations, said the latest public commitments to reduce carbon pollution as of this month would limit warming to between 2.1 degrees and 2.6 degrees. That partly reflects the announcement by China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, at the U.N. General Assembly in September that it plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
Despite the lag in economic activity from the pandemic this year, WMO reported 2020 is expected to end about 1.2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels in the second half of the 19th century, the baseline for global warming models. WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said there is at least a 20 percent chance that global average temperatures will exceed the 1.5 degrees limit for a month, if not an entire year, by 2024.
“Every tenth of a degree of warming matters. Today, we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent. We are headed for a thundering temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century,” Guterres warned.
“Let’s be clear: human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can help solve it,” he said. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere. In this context, the recovery from the pandemic is an opportunity.”