United Nations chief Antonio Guterres demanded world leaders act to “save humanity” as they met for the historic COP26 climate summit with code-red warnings from scientists ringing in their ears.
More than 120 heads of state and government have gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, on Monday for a two-day summit at the start of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which organisers say is crucial for charting humanity’s path away from catastrophic global warming.
COP26 is being billed as vital for the continued viability of the Paris Agreement, which countries signed in 2015 promising to limit global temperature rises to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and to work for a safer 1.5C cap.
With a little over 1C of warming since the Industrial Revolution, Earth is being battered by ever more extreme heatwaves, flooding and tropical storms supercharged by rising seas.
“It’s time to say: enough,” Guterres said.
“Enough of brutalising biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.”
He also urged global leaders to do more to protect vulnerable communities, adding that nearly four billion people suffered from climate-related disasters over the last decade.
“That devastation will only grow,” he added.
Governments are under pressure to redouble their emissions-cutting commitments to bring them in line with the Paris goals, and to stump up long-promised cash to help developing nations green their grids and protect themselves against future disasters.
United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson opened the summit by warning world leaders that they faced a damning verdict from future generations unless they act decisively.
“The anger and the impatience of the world will be uncontainable, unless we make this COP26 in Glasgow the moment when we get real about climate change, and we can get real on coal, cars, cash and trees,” he said in a keynote speech.
“It’s one minute to midnight … and we need to act now.”
Thousands of delegates queued around the block to get into the summit on Monday, negotiating airport-style security in the locked-down city centre.
On nearby streets, protesters began lively demonstrations to keep up the pressure on delegates.
Activists from Oxfam communicated their displeasure through music, with a Scottish pipe band, the “COP26 Hot Air Band”, wearing masks that caricatured world leaders.
Echoing 18-year-old climate campaigner Greta Thunberg – who is in Glasgow with thousands of other protesters – Johnson urged the summit against indulging in “blah blah blah”.
If the leaders “fluff our lines or miss our cue”, generations yet unborn “will not forgive us”, the prime minister said.
“They will know that Glasgow was the historic turning point when history failed to turn.
“They will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today – and they will be right,” he said.
‘Destroying people’s lives’
For his part, United States President Joe Biden said climate change is “already savaging the world”.
“We’re standing at an inflection point in world history,” he said, describing the proliferation of wildfires, droughts and other climate-related disasters.
“It’s not hypothetical. It’s destroying people’s lives and livelihoods,” he continued.
“We have the ability to invest in ourselves and build an equitable, clean-energy future and in the process create millions of good-paying jobs and opportunities around the world.”
Meanwhile, Germany’s outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel urged other countries to put a price on carbon emissions, which are the main cause of global warming.
Merkel – who chaired the first Conference of the Parties, or COP1, in 1995 – said the world needs a “comprehensive transformation” of the way people live and work if it wants to curb climate change.
In her speech, she said she wanted to make a “clear plea for the pricing of carbon emissions” to help promote the most efficient ways of reaching “net zero”, a goal many countries are striving for by 2050.
No Xi, Putin or Erdogan
The Group of 20 (G20) nations including China, India and Western countries committed on Sunday to the Paris goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C.
They also agreed to end funding for new coal plants abroad without carbon-capturing technology by the end of 2021.
But the precise pathway to 1.5C was left largely undefined and campaigners expressed disappointment with the group, which collectively emits nearly 80 percent of global carbon emissions.
Preparations for the high-level summit had been dampened by a number of high-profile no-shows.
Both Chinese President Xi Jinping – who has not left his country during the COVID-19 pandemic – and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will not be in Glasgow.
And Monday saw Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cancel his appearance, for unspecified reasons.
Observers say the Glasgow gathering, which runs until November 12, will be tough going.
Most nations have already submitted their renewed emissions-cutting plans – known as “nationally determined contributions”, or NDCs – in advance of COP26.
But even these current commitments – if followed – would still lead to a “catastrophic” warming of 2.7C, according to the UN.
Eyes on India
China, by far the world’s biggest carbon polluter, has just submitted to the UN its revised climate plan, which repeats a long-standing goal of peaking emissions by 2030.
US-China tensions were simmering on Monday after Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan labelled Beijing among the “significant outliers”.
He added China “will not be represented at leader level at COP26 and … has an obligation to step up to greater ambition as we go forward.”
India, meanwhile, has yet to submit a revised NDC, a requirement under the Paris deal.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address is keenly anticipated, though it was not clear if it would contain new climate pledges.
Another pressing issue is the failure of rich countries to deliver $100bn annually to help climate-vulnerable nations adapt to climate change.
The goal – meant to be delivered last year – has been postponed to 2023, exacerbating tensions between richer nations that are responsible for global warming and those poorer countries that are the victims of its effects.
In her address, Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley appealed to those in attendance to act, while launching a veiled attack on those who chose not to come to Glasgow for the key talks.
“We do not want that dreaded death sentence and we’ve come here today to say ‘try harder, try harder.'”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his country plans to increase its contribution and reach 1.35 billion euros ($1.56bn) in 2025 and every year after that.
“Meeting the $100bn target is going to be one of the litmus tests of COP26,” Sanchez said. “When it comes to regaining trust between the countries of the North and the South, Spain will do its part.”
The addresses from more than 100 world leaders will be closely scrutinised in particular by young activists who travelled to Scotland by train.
“As citizens across the planet, we urge you to face up to the climate emergency,” they said in an open letter signed by Thunberg among others, which had gathered nearly a million signatures.
“Not next year. Not next month. Now.”