MADRID -- U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries Monday not to lose hope in the fight against climate change, as representatives from nearly 200 countries gathered in Madrid for a two-week meeting on tackling global warming.
In his opening speech to delegates, Guterres cited recent scientific data showing that levels of heat-trapping gases have hit a record high, reaching levels not seen for at least 3 million years when sea levels were 33-66 feet higher than today.
Unless emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are sharply cut, temperatures could rise to twice the threshold set in the 2015 Paris accord by the end of the century, he warned.
"Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?" Guterres asked.
His appeal came after Chile's environment minister, Carolina Schmidt, said the meeting running through Dec. 13 needs to lay the groundwork for moving toward carbon-neutral economies while being sensitive to the poorest and those most vulnerable to rising temperatures -- something that policymakers have termed "just transition."
"Those who don't want to see it will be on the wrong side of history," said Schmidt, who is chairing the meeting. She called on governments to make more ambitious pledges to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases ahead of a deadline to do so next year.
The summit, which moved to the Spanish capital after Chile had to pull out amid anti-government protests, aims to put the finishing touches to the rules governing the 2015 Paris accord.
That involves creating a functioning international emissions-trading system and compensating poor countries for losses they suffer from rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change.
Countries agreed in Paris four years ago to limit global warming to well below 3.6 Fahrenheit, ideally 2.7F by the end of the century compared with pre-industrial times.
Guterres called out big greenhouse gas emitters that are still building coal-fired power plants, saying that unless the world stops burning coal "all our efforts to tackle climate change will be doomed."
He noted that had countries started cutting their emissions drastically a decade ago, reaching the Paris goal would have been much easier.
"Ten years ago, if countries had acted on the science, they would have needed to reduce emissions by 3.3% each year," he said. "Today, we need to reduce emissions by 7.6% each year."
"The impact on all life on the planet -- including ours -- would be catastrophic," he added. "The only solution is rapid, ambitious, transformative action by all -- governments, regions, cities, businesses and civil society, all working toward a common goal."
In contrast to the European Union, which sent its newly sworn-in executive leadership team to the summit, the rest of the world's largest carbon emitters -- the United States, China and India -- have sent lower-level ministers and officials.
China burns about half the coal used globally each year. Between 2000 and 2018, its annual carbon emissions nearly tripled, and it now accounts for about 30% of the world's total. Yet it's also the leading market for solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles, and it manufactures about two-thirds of solar cells installed worldwide.
"We are witnessing many contradictions in China's energy development," said Kevin Tu, a Beijing-based fellow with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. "It's the largest coal market and the largest clean energy market in the world."
That apparent paradox is possible because of the sheer scale of China's energy demands.
But as China's economy slows to the lowest level in a quarter century -- around 6% growth, according to government statistics -- policymakers are doubling down on support for coal and other heavy industries, the traditional backbones of China's energy system and economy. At the same time, the country is reducing subsidies for renewable energy.
China had previously committed to shifting its energy mix to 20% renewables, including nuclear and hydroelectric energy. Climate experts generally agree that the initial targets pledged in Paris will not be enough to reach the goal, and next year nations are required to articulate more ambitious targets.Gallery: Opening ceremony of the UN Climate Change Conference
Recent media reports and satellite images suggest that China is building or planning to complete new coal power plants with total capacity of 148 gigawatts -- nearly equal to the entire coal-power capacity of the European Union -- within the next few years, according to an analysis by Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.
Separately, investment in China's renewable energy dropped almost 40% in the first half of 2019 compared with the same period last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research organization.
Information for this article was contributed by Christina Larson of The Associated Press.
A Section on 12/03/2019
Print Headline: U.N. chief: Rapid action needed to curb warming