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U.N. chief: Climate talks fall short

Pledges lacking to reach 2030 emissions-cuts goal, he says by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | November 12, 2021 at 7:11 a.m.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the climate summit Thursday in Glasgow, Scotland. Guterres told climate negotiators that “promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies.” (AP/Alastair Grant)

GLASGOW, Scotland -- United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Thursday that a key temperature goal in climate talks is "on life support," but he still hopes that world governments will step up their pledges to slash emissions of greenhouse gases.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Guterres said the negotiations set to end today in Glasgow, Scotland, will "very probably" not yield the carbon-cutting pledges he has said are needed to keep the planet from warming beyond the 1.5 degree Celsius, or 2.7 Fahrenheit, threshold.

Still, the U.N. chief wouldn't say at what point he thinks that goal would have to be abandoned.

"When you are on the verge of the abyss," it's not important to think too far into the future, he said. "What's important to discuss is what will be your first step. Because if your first step is the wrong step, you will not have the chance to ... make a second or third one."

So far, the talks have not come close to achieving any of the U.N.'s three announced priorities for the annual COP26 conference. One is cutting carbon emissions by about half by 2030 to reach the goal Guterres alluded to.

The other two are getting rich countries to fulfill a 12-year-old pledge of providing $100 billion a year in financial climate aid to poor nations and ensuring that half of that amount goes to helping them adapt to the worst effects of climate change.

Guterres said the Glasgow talks "are in a crucial moment" and need to accomplish more than securing a weak deal that participating nations agree to support.

"The worst thing would be to reach an agreement at all costs by a minimum common denominator that would not respond to the huge challenges we face," Guterres said.

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That's because the overarching goal of limiting warming since preindustrial times to 2.7 F by the end of the century "is still in reach but on life support," Guterres said. The world has already warmed 2 degrees F.

Less than 36 hours from the scheduled close of the negotiations, Guterres said that if negotiators can't reach ambitious carbon-cutting goals -- "and very probably it will not happen" -- then national leaders would need to come up with new pledges next year and in 2023 during high-level meetings.

Guterres later told climate negotiators that "promises ring hollow when the fossil fuels industry still receives trillions in subsidies ... or when countries are still building coal plants."

Guterres said he agreed with youth climate activists -- who have been a daily presence protesting in large numbers outside the climate talks, and at times inside -- who called for the U.N. to term global warming a "climate emergency" of a high level.

"For me, it is clear it is a climate emergency," Guterres said.

As terrible and tragic as the covid-19 pandemic is, there's a way climate change is more of an emergency, Guterres said.

"The pandemic is reversible. We have the tools and the instruments to stop it," he said. "Climate change is a global threat to the planet and to humankind. And for the moment, we have not yet all the tools and the instruments that we need to defeat it."

And much of that comes down to money.

The lack of movement on financial aid to poorer countries troubles Guterres, who later told negotiators the gap was a "glaring injustice." He said if he were the leader of a vulnerable small island or other endangered country he would be upset with what's not happening in Glasgow.

Peter Liese, a senior member of the European Parliament, said on Thursday he and fellow lawmakers would push for the $100 billion to be delivered "definitely next year."

And that rich-poor split kept cropping up Thursday.

Talks are now at the point where two pathways were possible: one that was good for people and the planet, and the other that led to "carbon colonialism," said Bolivia's chief negotiator, Diego Pacheco Balanz. "We need to fight the developed countries against the carbon colonialism."

Balanz was speaking on behalf of the negotiating bloc of developing nations that include countries from Africa, Latin America and Asia -- with China and India among the latter.

Not surprisingly, island nations that would disappear under the rising oceans at a higher level of warming are the bloc at Glasgow pushing hardest for the most stringent deal out of this summit.

Guterres praised a Wednesday evening agreement between the United States and China to cut emissions this decade as a reason why he still hopes for some semblance of success in Glasgow.

"This agreement paves the way for other agreements," Guterres said.

The U.N. chief said he hoped that two sticky issues that defied resolution for six years can be solved in Glasgow: creating workable markets for trading carbon credits and transparency that shows that promised pollution-reducing actions are real.

Fresh drafts of the documents on regulating international cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the carbon markets section, were released overnight, as were new proposals containing various options for assessing and tracking financial aid for developing countries.

The chair of this year's U.N. climate meeting called on negotiators from almost 200 countries to engage in "another gear shift" as they try to reach agreement on outstanding issues a day before the talks are scheduled to end.

British official Alok Sharma said he was "under no illusion" that the texts being considered would wholly satisfy all countries at this stage, adding "we are not there yet."

Sharma said Thursday he was "concerned at the number of issues outstanding on finance items the day before we are due to conclude."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's participation in climate talks itself can seem incongruous -- a kingdom that has become wealthy and powerful because of oil involved in negotiations where a core issue is reducing consumption of oil and other fossil fuels. While pledging to join emission-cutting efforts at home, Saudi leaders have made clear they intend to pump and sell their oil as long as demand lasts.


Saudi Arabia's energy minister expresses shock at repeated complaints that the world's largest oil producer is working behind the scenes to sabotage negotiations.

"What you have been hearing is a false allegation and a cheat and a lie," Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al Saud said this week at the talks.

He was responding to journalists pressing for a response to claims that Saudi Arabia's negotiators have been working to block climate measures that would threaten demand for oil.

"We have been working well" with the head of the U.N. climate talks and others, Prince Abdulaziz said.

Saudi Arabia's team in Glasgow has introduced proposals ranging from a call to quit negotiations -- they often stretch into early morning hours -- at 6 p.m. every day to what climate negotiation veterans allege are complex efforts to play country factions against one another with the aim of blocking agreement on tough steps to wrench the world away from coal, gas and oil.

"That is the Saudis' proposal, by the way. They're like, 'Let's just not work at nights and just accept that this is not going to be ambitious'" when it comes to fast cuts in fossil fuel pollution that is wrecking the climate, said Jennifer Tollmann, an analyst at E3G, a European climate think tank.

And then "if other countries want to agree with Saudi, they can blame Saudi Arabia," Tollmann said.

Despite efforts to diversify the economy, oil accounts for more than half of Saudi Arabia's revenue, keeping the kingdom and royal family afloat and stable. About half of Saudi employees still work for the public sector, their salary paid in large part by oil.

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of the Greenpeace environmental group, said other governments need "to isolate the Saudi delegation" if they want the climate conference to succeed.

Saudi Arabia was fine with joining in governments' climate-pledge fever before the talks. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in the run-up to Glasgow that the kingdom would zero out its carbon emissions by 2060.

But Saudi leaders for years have vowed to pump the last molecule of oil from their kingdom before world demand ends -- an objective that a fast global switch from fossil fuels would frustrate.

"Naked and cynical," says Alden Meyer, a senior associate at the E3G climate research group, of Saudi Arabia's role in global climate discussions.

In a separate interview late Thursday, former Irish President Mary Robinson accused Saudi Arabia and Russia of trying to cut out or water down language in a draft agreement that would call for a phase-out of coal and an end to fossil fuel subsidies.

She also blasted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of the climate talks, for not taking them seriously enough, not being in "crisis mode" and sticking around -- unlike his French counterpart in 2015.

Information for this article was contributed by Seth Borenstein, Frank Jordans, Aniruddha Ghosal, Ellen Knickmeyer and Helena Alves of The Associated Press and by Somini Sengupta of The New York Times.

Police arrest a climate protester Thursday during a demonstration at the Scottish Power Building in Glasgow, Scotland.
(AP/PA/Andrew Milligan)
Police arrest a climate protester Thursday during a demonstration at the Scottish Power Building in Glasgow, Scotland. (AP/PA/Andrew Milligan)


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