Take it from our planetary chief

“Six climate action decisions countries can make to recover better from Covid-19:
• Invest in green jobs • Don’t bail out polluting industries • End fossil-fuel subsidies • Take climate risks into account in all financial and policy decisions • Work together • Leave no one behind.”

~ António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations – in a tweet on 6 September 2020

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Climate emergency central question facing the world

As world governments recover from Covid-19 shutdowns, it is essential that stimulus spending combat the climate crisis, United Nations secretary general António Guterres in an exclusive interview with Covering Climate Now partners.

His comments came on the eve of a new report by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, which said that the last five years have been the hottest on record, pushing global temperatures 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Among a cascade of alarming findings, the WMO also stated that sea level rise continues to accelerate and now averages 4.8 millimeters a year, a trend that threatens to submerge vast stretches of coastal areas later this century.

So far, Guterres said, too much stimulus spending has gone to reinforce the carbon-centric status quo. “Do not use taxpayer money to subsidise fossil fuels,” Gutteres told Al Roker of NBC News. “I don’t like to see my money as a taxpayer, in my own country [Portugal], being used to melt the water of glaciers, to increase the sea level, or to accelerate the number and the intensity of hurricanes in the Caribbean.”

“The climate emergency is the central question facing the world,” Guterres told Vanessa Hauc of Noticias Telemundo. “Currently, we are on track for a temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, which would be an utter catastrophe. … We need much more ambition towards reducing emissions.”

We all want to go back to normal, the secretary general told AFP, adding, “But I don’t want to go back to a world where biodiversity is being put into question, to a world where fossil fuels receive more subsidies than renewables. … We need to have a different world, a different normal, and we have an opportunity to do so.”

“This has been an unprecedented year for people and planet.”
~ António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

Global temperatures between 2016 and 2020 are expected to be the highest they have ever been during a five-year monitoring period. The UN report found temperatures were, on average, 1.1°C higher than records in pre-industrial times, meaning human influence is behind the spike in the world’s heating each year.

Cooperate on climate or we will be ‘doomed’: UN chief

World powers must pull together and retool their economies for a green future or humanity is “doomed”, UN chief Antonio Guterres has warned, telling Covering Climate Now that failure to control the coronavirus pandemic illustrates the danger of disunity.

Before the virus struck, 2020 was billed as a pivotal year for the plan to dodge the bullet of catastrophic global warming, with high profile summits planned to catch a wave of public alarm over the future of the planet. 

The coronavirus crisis may have shunted climate into the sidelines as nations launched unprecedented shutdowns to try to slow its spread, but Guterres said the need for climate action was more urgent than ever.    

In a searing assessment of the international response, Guterres said the pandemic should sharpen governments’ focus on cutting emissions, urging them to use the crisis as a springboard to launch “transformational” policies aimed at weaning societies off fossil fuels. 

“I think the failure that was shown in the capacity to contain the spread of the virus — by the fact that there was not enough international coordination in the way the virus was fought — that failure must make countries understand that they need to change course,” he told Covering Climate Now. 

“They need to act together in relation to the climate threat that is a much bigger threat than the threat of the pandemic in itself — it’s an existential threat for our planet and for our lives.” 

The UN chief said “pollution and not people” should be taxed and renewed calls for nations to end fossil fuel subsidies, launch massive investments in renewables and commit to “carbon neutrality” — net zero emissions — by 2050.

“We need to have a number of transformational measures in relation to energy, in relation to transportation, in relation to agriculture, in relation to industry, in relation to our own way of life, without which we would be doomed,” he said.

His comments come as the landmark Paris climate deal goes into effect this year, kicking off efforts to cap the rise in temperature to “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. 

The accord was already on a knife edge before the pandemic, with doubts over commitments from major polluting nations and concerns that it is still far short of what science says is needed to avert disastrous climate change.

US President Donald Trump shocked the world in 2017 when he said the United States — history’s largest emitter — was withdrawing from the Paris deal. It is due to leave on November 4, just after the country’s presidential election.  

The pandemic has further dented hopes that a diplomatic whirlwind could sweep foot-dragging nations into announcing bold climate action plans, as major summits were postponed and nations focused inwards. 

Guterres said there was currently no clear sign that a United States government recovery policy would align with Paris goals, but he said he was hopeful that states, businesses and individuals “will compensate for the lack of political commitment that exists at the present moment”.

He said much now rests on the actions of the six biggest emitters — China, the US, Europe, Russia, India and Japan — ahead of the United Nations General Assembly, which will be held virtually this month.

“We have never been as fragile as we are, we never needed as much humility, unity and solidarity as now,” he added in a series of interviews with AFP and other members of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets committed to increased climate coverage. Guterres blasted “irrational demonstrations of xenophobia” and the rise of nationalism. 

‘Wake up’
Climate change warnings are no longer predictions of a distant future. Earth’s average surface temperature has gone up by one degree Celsius since the 19th century, enough to increase the intensity of droughts, heat waves and tropical cyclones.

Burning fossil fuels has been by far the main driver of rising temperatures, with concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere now at their highest levels in around three million years. 

The last five years were the five hottest on record, while ice sheets are melting at a rate that tracks scientists’ worst case scenarios, prefiguring devastating sea level rises. 

“The expectations that we have in relation to the next five years about storms, about drought and about other dramatic impacts in the living conditions of many people around the world are absolutely terrible,” Guterres said, ahead of a multi-agency climate report on Wednesday. 

The United Nations says it is still possible to reach a safer goal of a 1.5°C cap in temperature rise, but to get there global emissions must fall 7.6 percent annually this decade.

While the shutdowns implemented during the pandemic could reduce global emissions by up to eight percent in 2020, scientists have warned that without systemic change in how the world powers and feeds itself, the drop would be essentially meaningless.

A different world
There are concerns that massive Covid-19 stimulus packages being devised by governments could fall back on bad habits and provide a crutch to polluting industries.   

Guterres has used recent messages to Japan, India and China to speak out against their continued reliance on coal. 

China — the world’s biggest polluter — has invested heavily in renewable energy, but it has also reportedly stepped up coal production.

But the UN head said he was hopeful the EU would make good on its green commitments after it announced its 750-billion-euro ($885 billion) stimulus plan that aims in part to reach carbon neutrality targets. 

The pandemic had demonstrated society’s capacity to adapt to transformation, he said.

“I don’t want to go back to a world where biodiversity is being put into question, to a world where fossil fuels receive more subsidies than renewables, or to a world in which we see inequalities making societies with less and less cohesion and creating instability, creating anger, creating frustration,” he added.  

“I think we need to have a different world, a different normal and we have an opportunity to do so.”

 – – –

→ 9News – 9 September 2020:
COVID-19 brought countries to a halt but climate change kept devastating the world, UN report says
“Greenhouse gases dropped by 17 per cent in April as international travel and domestic transport and work stopped in many places — but by June, emissions had increased by almost a third, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.”

→ The New Daily – 10 September 2020:
Trillions up in smoke: The staggering economic cost of climate change inaction
“Over the next 30 years, increasing economic damages from climate change will cost the Australian economy at least $1.89 trillion – or roughly 4 per cent of projected GDP each year – if current emissions policies are maintained. New research from the University of Melbourne reveals annual economic damages by 2038 will be comparable to the current estimated annual cost of COVID-19 in Australia.”

Australians disconnected from scientific realities

“Australia’s political debate seems entirely disconnected from the scientific realities captured in the United in Science report. It is not only that the Morrison government lacks effective mitigation policies, it is failing to honour even some of its key promises. For example, it is not fulfilling its 2015 ‘Mission Innovation’ pledge to double government spending on clean energy research and development by 2020. Meanwhile, the urgent need to develop negative emissions technologies… has not yet entered mainstream debate. If current trends continue, we may soon also be debating more drastic and risky interventions.”
~ Dr Jonathan Symons, a senior international relations lecturer at Macquarie University


Antonio Guterres: “It’s time to wake up”

Kelly Macnamara: “You were talking about the transformational measures that you think are needed. As you look at the COVID recovery plans so far, how do you see them? For example, how does the EU plan differ from the US?”

Antonio Guterres: Well in the EU there is a commitment to a green pact, and we hope that this commitment to a green pack will have a direct impact in relation to the recovery from Covid. It’s still too early to measure how countries will be acting in relation to the recovery from COVID. In the US, there is not a clear government policy aiming at recovery that is in line with the Paris agreement on climate change, but we have fortunately in the United States a very dynamic society, a business community, cities, states, the youth, public opinion, that has been more and more active and we have seen, for instance, the production of electricity based on coal coming down in the United States, not because of government policy, but because it’s the normal trend in the market here due to decisions taken by the different actors in that market.

So I’m hopeful that, even if different countries have different strategies, I am hopeful that the pressure of the business community that is becoming more and more enlightened on this, of the civil society, of the youth, that that pressure will force governments to move much more decisively in relation to climate action. We absolutely need to contain the growth of temperature to 1.5 degrees, and for that we absolutely need to be carbon neutral in 2050.

“Looking at the way that the international community has worked with the coronavirus, they haven’t pulled together on COVID. Can they pull together for the climate?”

Well, they need. And I think the failure that was shown in the capacity to contain the spread of the virus, by the fact that there was not enough international coordination in the way the virus was fought, that failure must make countries understand that they need to change course, and they need to act together in relation to the climate threat that is a much bigger threat than the threat of the pandemic in itself. I mean it’s an existential threat for our planet, and for our lives.

And so, I hope and there is an important opportunity in 2020 with the national determined contributions, the commitments of each country that countries will have to review hoping, in my opinion, that we will get to carbon neutrality in 2050, that we will be able to reduce the emissions by at least 45% until 2030, there is this opportunity for countries to come together with these very clear objectives.

If they fail to do so, we’ll be in big trouble. Because temperatures are rising very quickly, the last five years we had the hottest five years in history. We have the highest concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of the last three million years. The sea level is rising and accelerating in this impact and the expectations that we have in relation to the next five years about storms, about drought and about other dramatic impacts in the living conditions of many people around the world are absolutely terrible. So, it’s time to wake up. It’s time to understand that we can no longer lose more time doing not enough. Let’s not forget that if things will go on as they are, we will come to the end of the century with three to five degrees of increase of temperature in relation to pre industrial levels. And that would be absolutely catastrophic.

“Just following on from that, the emissions gap keeps getting bigger. And at the moment we’re being warned about tipping points for ice sheets, for sea levels. Things even seem to be happening a bit faster than we had anticipated. Are you worried that we’re running out of time, quicker?”

We are running out of time, so we need to act very quickly. Because, as you mentioned, things are accelerating because there are several feedbacks that make things even more dramatic. I mean, as the ice cap melts, there is less ice to reflect the sun and so the water gets warmer and if the water gets warmer, we have an acceleration in many other aspects related to climate change, for instance warmer water means that hurricanes become more violent. So, I mean we are seeing here a number of aspects that are enhancing each other to make the impacts of climate change even more dramatic.

That is the reason why we need to have a number of transformational measures in relation to energy, in relation to transportation, in relation to agriculture, in relation to industry, in relation to our own way of life, without which we would be doomed. The good news is that we have shown with COVID-19, that we can adapt very quickly.

We are living today in a completely different way from what we were one year ago, I mean, my life is not comparable. What I do and what I did is totally different, which means I can adapt very quickly. So, if I show that capacity to adapt because of COVID, there is a very strong reason for us to show the same capacity to adapt, because of the climate change threat, that is a very real one that we cannot, we cannot neglect.

“Would you like to see something like an international ‘manhattan project’ with engineering solutions, some international body that brings that all together with a multi trillion dollar budget. Is that the sort of big vision that we need?”

That will be of course interesting, but we don’t need to have these kind of things. We need to have each country assuming a number of very clear objectives, first to massively invest in renewables. Today, it’s no longer true only that green energy is cheaper than the energy produced by fossil fuels. Today, it is cheaper to build solar plants than to keep running already-existing coal plants in large numbers and these percentage of situations in which this is true is growing very quickly. So, the right decision is to massively invest in renewables and to have a transformational policy in the economy, and that is not only necessary, that is cheaper, that is more profitable, that creates more jobs, that is good in all aspects.

On the other hand, we need to change our mobility. More and more, we need to use systems of mobility that are less dependent on fossil fuels. And there we need massive investments and there it’s important to see governments and the private sector doing it in a very meaningful way. We need to look into the industry. There will be lots of bailouts to industry in the Covid. Let’s make those bailouts dependent on the acceptance by companies that they will become carbon neutral in 2050. At the same time, lots of taxes are imposed on our income on our salaries. Let’s shift taxes from salaries to carbon. Let’s put a price on carbon, and that will of course make investors decide differently.

So there are a number of things that can be done by each country. We need to introduce in regulations, namely, the risk management associated with central banks, with the financial system we can introduce climate risks that make those climate risks count, and they have a disclosure of those risks, and that will change the attitudes also of those that decide on investment. So there are lots of things that can be done and that can be transformational. If on top of that it’s possible to gather all countries to have a mega project with trillions of dollars. Excellent. But let’s not hope for what probably will not happen. Let’s make sure that each one of us does what needs to be done and I think we’ll be able to succeed.

Here, it’s very important to say something. We already have 120 countries committed to carbon neutrality in 2050, but they only represent 25% of the emissions. Now it’s with the big emitters that we need to act. And that means the United States, that means Europe, that means China, that means Russia, that means Japan, that means India. And we have been acting very strongly with these countries, in dialogue with these countries, in order to make sure that they stop building coal power plants and financing the build coal power plants by other countries. That they stop subsidies to fossil fuels, and that they have massive programmes of investments in renewables and in other aspects of the green economy.

And if the big emitters also understand that they need to commit themselves to carbon neutrality in 2050, I think it’s possible to reach our objectives.

“You’ve spoken very strongly to Japan to China to India very recently on coal. Have you heard anything back from them, any feedback? Are you, are they going to change their ways?”  

I think things are happening. Things are happening. We are seeing the financing of coal power plants abroad being questioned in some of these countries. We are seeing asset managers shifting their assets from coal. I can announce to you for instance that the pension fund of the United Nations has got rid of all its investments linked to coal and this is being done by many others around the world. And we have seen governments understanding that they also need to make in this direction. This is clear in Europe. It is happening by the way in the United States, where the market itself is making power electricity produced by coal going down in a relatively quick way. So I am optimistic about the fact that coal will progressively be phased out, renewables will be increasing, and that fossil fuels will be a smaller and smaller percentage of our economies.

“You’ve warned that the pandemic could push 100 million people into extreme poverty, and it seems to have exposed this great inequality in society across the world. Do you see parallels with climate?”

Well indeed. It is the same. The poor people are much more vulnerable to the Covid and the poor people are much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. And this is true at the level of communities, it’s true at the level of countries it’s true at the level of families. When one sees the impact of a storm, those that live in the slums of cities in the developing world of course suffer much more than those that live in nice buildings, well built buildings, in rich cities around the world.

So, it is obvious that in all aspects, looking at for instance food security, the drought, that is impacting in the Sahel and in other parts of Africa, or in other, or the (…) of India is having a much more devastating impact on poor people than on rich people and on poor countries than on rich countries. So, it is clear that, as with Covid, climate change is increasing the inequalities. And so, inequality is not only a terrible handicap in relation to climate change impacts, but climate change in itself is contributing to increase inequalities and that is the reason why it is so important to use this opportunity of the recovery from the Covid to build more sustainable but also more inclusive societies, which means to address inequality as something that is absolutely essential. And inequality is not only a question of injustice, or suffering. Inequality is also stupid from the point of view of economic development. If you have more equality in societies, if more people have access to markets, that will boost investment that will boost production that will increase the richness of everybody.

And at the same time, inequality is not only a question of wealth or the question of income, you have inequalities because of gender, you have inequalities because of race, you have inequalities affecting discrimination that affect for instance, people with difficulties of different sorts. Now if there will be gender equality, we would make much more progress in the economy, if indigenous populations would be better protected, nature itself will be better protected. If we fight racism effectively I have no doubt that migrant communities, or communities of different origins, will also be able to contribute better to the economy and at the same time be better protected in relation to Covid, or in relation to climate change. If you look at the country where I live now in the US, the Afro-American community has been much more dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 than the majority of the population. So inequality is something that it is our duty to fight, and it is in the interest of everybody to reduce inequality in the world.

“People in this pandemic have been sort of yearning to get back to normal. But is that where we should be heading?”

Well, I think we should be heading to get back to a new normal. In the sense, normal in our relations. What I must confess is more difficult for me is the lack of personal relations. I like to do interviews but I would like to be with you in the same room for us to discuss. And I’m away from my family. So, I want to go back to the normal relations with my family. But I don’t want to go back to a world where biodiversity is being put into question, to a world where fossil fuels receive more subsidies than renewables, or to a world in which we see inequalities making societies with less and less cohesion and creating instability, creating anger, creating frustration. I think we need to have a different world, a different normal and we have an opportunity to do so.

This interview was conducted by AFP’s Kelly Macnamara and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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Clippings from the week in climate news

Here’s Covering Climate Now’s weekly sampling of the latest in climate news from across the Covering Climate Now collaboration:

  • On the topic of a green stimulus, a joint project from InsideClimate News and The Nation explores how climate-smart Covid-19 stimulus spending could help transform cities and rural areas alike while also saving our collective climate future. One story looks at big cities in the US and abroad, and the other looks at rural areas and counties across the US. In both cases, the message from local leaders is clear: there are big, shovel-ready projects ready to go, if only national governments will get behind them. 
  • Over the long weekend, California and much of the US West endured an “insane” and “unprecedented” heat wave, in the words of CBS News’s Jeff Berardelli. Parts of southern California reached temperatures “never before seen in modern history” in the area—as high as 121 degrees Fahrenheit. Some places east of the Rocky Mountains, meanwhile, just days after seeing 100-degree temperatures, dropped into the teens and twenties, with Denver experiencing its earliest freeze on record and 2 to 6 inches of snow. “All of the extremes that we’re seeing right now is what climate change does,” Berardelli said, “It takes an ordinary situation and it makes it extraordinary.”
  • Also in California, wildfires continue to rage, spurred on by both the heat and dry air—a clear sign of the consequences of climate change, as PBS NewsHour reports. Nearly 15,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, and a state of emergency has been declared for five California counties.
  • In Africa, Sudan has declared a state of emergency after Nile River flooding has killed more than 100 people in the country and displaced upwards of half a million in Khartoum and elsewhere along the river. “This isn’t the first time the Nile has flooded its banks, but those affected say it’s the worst they’ve ever seen,” Al Jazeera reports. Climate change, which experts say has brought a significant increase in rainfall, is unquestionably a factor in the flooding.
  • Central banks tend to fly under journalists’ collective radars, but they’re among the most powerful independent forces in the world and could do a great deal to help curb climate change, writes Kate Mackenzie for Bloomberg Green. Free from the political constraints of governments, the banks could take bold action by favoring green and non-polluting industries. Instead, “by attempting to be ‘neutral,’” Mackenzie says, “they explicitly support the unsustainable status quo.”
  • When Earther’s Brian Kahn wrote about ExxonMobil’s fall from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, it prompted a deluge of hate mail, much of it accusing Kahn of bias. Kahn decided to write back, explaining that he is indeed biased—towards a healthy future for the planet. The responses he got showed surprising open-mindedness to his ideas. “Winning a Green New Deal and a climate future isn’t just about beating enemies or only working with known allies,” Kahn concludes. “It’s about building a coalition and daring to fix what’s broken. And if my one week of email chats is any indication, there are more people ready to join than it might seem.”
  • The fossil fuel industry is in decline, and Canada’s oil giants are taking note. Yet when the press covers the industry, it almost never mentions to audiences that future estimated demands for fossil fuels are contracting, writes Sean Holman for CCNow partner The Tyee, an independent Canadian news site, and Columbia Journalism Review. “The result,” he says, “is a journalistic failure that is contributing to the climate crisis rather than soberly assessing it.” 

The moral case for climate action

A new article on UNSW Climate Justice Project’s website from ANU philosopher Professor Garrett Cullity discusses five moral reasons for Australians to act on climate change.

Read the article here

Earlier this month Climate Justice Project released their latest briefing note on the climate consequences of a mining-led COVID-19 recovery. Their research quantifies the lifetime climate impact of 21 new coal projects being recommended by the NSW Minerals Council for the post-pandemic economic recovery. 

In the report they found that one coal project alone – Whitehaven coal’s recently approved Vickery mine extension – will emit six times more greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime than 14 Pacific Island nations do in one year. 

Read the full briefing note here

Climate news: Progress
7 young people in Australia have launched a class action against the Australian Federal Government, claiming their recent approval of the Vickery coal mine extension is a failure of their duty of care to future generations. (ABC)

Major Australian coal exporters, Glencore, Yancoal, Whitehaven Coal and BHP have reported significant declines in profitability as the low price and demand for coal fails to offset high fixed rail and port export charges. Low energy demand has lead to a severe oversupply in the thermal coal export market, and many Australian companies are operating significantly below their contracted capacity. (Argus Media)

The central Indian state of Maharashtra has set a target for 25% of electricity demand to be generated from renewable sources by 2025. The state’s energy minister has also ruled out the construction of further coal plants in the state and will only support renewable projects. (Coalwire, Times of India)

Ahead of the October State election, the Queensland Labor State Government has announced a $500 million Renewable Energy Fund to meet is promise of achieving 50% renewable energy generation by 2030. (Brisbane Times)

Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal has failed in a legal bid to strike out landmark human rights objections to its Galilee Coal Project. The case, brought forward by young Queenslanders in the Queensland Land Court will argue that the greenhouse gas emissions from the mine will impact their rights to life and culture. (EDO)

Climate news: Set-Backs
A new draft of the Australian Government’s ‘Technology Investment Road Map’ shows they are planning to use clean energy programs to fund gas and carbon capture and storage projects. The plan will expand the scope of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to make them more ‘technology neutral’. (SMH)

California is is once again experiencing a devastating fire season, with wildfires burning through almost 1 million hectares of forest and farmland. Meanwhile, parts of the Amazon are on fire again, and there are concerns the 2020 fire season will be even worst than last year (Guardian, BBC)

Scientists have announced that the warming Greenland ice sheet is now locked into an irreversible climate feedback loop. New analysis of satellite imagery shows that the ice sheet has passed a tipping point, and will continue to shrink even if all global emissions stopped today.