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1 November 2021updated 02 Nov 2021 10:24am

“Stop treating nature like a toilet,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres

World leaders make apocalyptic speeches at Cop26 – but will their commitments match the rhetoric?

By Philippa Nuttall

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres did not mince his words when addressing world leaders at Cop26 in Glasgow. “The six years since the Paris Climate Agreement have been the six hottest years on record. Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink. We face a stark choice: either we stop it – or it stops us.”

Whether world leaders choose to do so is the 64-million-dollar question. The big issue, as was apparent at this weekend’s G20 meeting, is that all countries now seem to be on board for big gestures and grandiloquent words yet their commitments don’t match their rhetoric. The message that slashing emissions in line with the scientific warnings means taking fossil fuels offline doesn’t seem to have got through. 

“Enough of brutalising biodiversity,” said Guterres. “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. As we open this much-anticipated climate conference, we are still heading for climate disaster.”

The seriousness of the moment was also underlined by Papua New Guinea’s envoy in a powerful opening address to delegates late on Sunday evening. “Before I start speaking, I ask for a minute of silence for all the species we have lost… it happened under our watch,” he said.

The question of financing the necessary change remains a big talking point, and will remain so after ministers leave the two-day World Leaders’ Summit at the end of Tuesday. 

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The UK announced on Sunday evening it would give an extra £1bn ($1.3bn) a year of climate finance as part of the commitment by developed nations to provide $100bn a year to help poorer nations cope with the impacts of climate change and move to cleaner energy systems. 

But for many this figure still falls well short of what is needed, and owed. “To truly account for the UK’s historic greenhouse gas emissions, we should be providing $46bn a year,” says Daniel Willis, climate campaigner at NGO Global Justice Now, instead of the $3.4bn the country has committed to spend. “As a bare minimum, $9.7bn of the $100bn target should come from the UK, which is just one sixth of what we spend on defence.” 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also announced a package of guarantees to the World Bank and the African Development Bank to provide £2.2bn ($3bn) for investments in climate-related projects in India to support the country’s target to achieve 450 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by 2030, and across Africa.

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Elsewhere on finance, the small islands group, representing 38 countries most at risk from climate change, such as Barbados and Mauritius, wants the climate conference to agree to erase subsidies for fossil fuels in all major economies by 2023. The International Monetary Fund values these subsidies at a massive $6trn a year. Many other developing countries also want a new climate finance target to be set for after 2025, when the $100bn commitment is set to end. 

On money, Guterres called for “more public climate finance. More overseas development aid. More grants. Easier access to funding.” And he underlined that developed countries providing adequate climate finance was “critical to restoring trust and credibility” between richer and poorer countries.

“The science is clear,” he concluded. “We know what to do.” The difficult thing will be agreeing to do it. 

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