COP26: World leaders urged to 'save humanity' as climate conference opens

An employee adjusts flags before the arrival of leaders for the UN COP26 in Glasgow on Nov 1, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

GLASGOW (REUTERS, AFP) - World leaders must act to "save humanity", UN chief Antonio Guterres said Monday (Nov 1) as they met for the historic COP26 climate summit with code-red warnings from scientists ringing in their ears.

The task of the COP26 conference in the Scottish city of Glasgow was made even more daunting by the failure of the Group of 20 (G-20)
major industrial nations to agree ambitious new commitments at a weekend summit in Rome.

The G-20 is responsible for around 80 per cent of emissions of carbon dioxide - the gas produced by burning fossil fuels that is the main cause of the heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms that are growing in intensity worldwide.

"Humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It's one minute to midnight on that Doomsday clock and we need to act now," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the opening ceremony.

"If we don't get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow."

Calling for decarbonisation of global economies and the phase out of coal, Mr Guterres said world leaders need "maximum ambition" to make the summit a success.

"It's time to say: enough," Mr 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."

Other speakers, including activists from the poorer countries hardest hit by climate change, delivered a defiant message.

"Pacific youth have rallied behind the cry 'We are not drowning, we are fighting'," said Ms Brianna Fruean from the Polynesian island state of Samoa, at risk from rising sea levels. "This is our warrior cry to the world."

As Mr Johnson was speaking, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg retweeted an appeal for her millions of supporters to sign an open letter accusing leaders of betrayal.

"This is not a drill. It's code red for the Earth," it read. "Millions will suffer as our planet is devastated - a terrifying future that will be created, or avoided, by the decisions you make. You have the power to decide."

In Rome, the G-20 leaders failed to commit to a 2050 target to halt net carbon emissions - a deadline widely cited as necessary to prevent the most extreme global warming - badly undermining one of COP26's main aims.

Instead, they only recognised "the key relevance" of halting net emissions "by or around mid-century", and set no timetable for phasing out domestic coal power, a major cause of carbon emissions.

Their commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies "over the medium term" echoed wording used by the G-20 at a summit in Pittsburgh as long ago as 2009.

Discord among some of the world's biggest emitters about how to cut back on coal, oil and gas, and help poorer countries to adapt to global warming, will not make the task any easier.

At the G-20, US President Joe Biden singled out China and Russia, neither of which is sending its leader to Glasgow, for not bringing proposals to the table.

He told the conference: "Glasgow must be the start of a decade of shared ambition and innovation to preserve our future."

Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country is by far the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, ahead of the United States, told the conference in a written statement that developed countries should not only do more but also support developing countries to do better.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, one of the world's top three oil producers along with the United States and Saudi Arabia, dropped plans to participate in any talks live by video link, the Kremlin said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had decided to stay away after Britain failed to meet Ankara's demands on security arrangements and protocol, the Turkish broadcaster NTV reported.

Less senior delegates - many of them held up on Sunday by disruptions to the rail service between London and Glasgow - had more mundane problems.

More than a thousand had to shiver for over an hour in a bottleneck outside the venue to present proof of a negative Covid-19 test and gain access, while being treated by activists to an electronic musical remix of Ms Thunberg's past speeches.

Delayed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, COP26 aims to keep alive a target of capping global warming at 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels - a level scientists say would avoid its most destructive consequences.

To do that, the conference needs to secure more ambitious pledges to reduce emissions, lock in billions in climate-related financing for developing countries, and finish the rules for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries.

"Climate financing" could make or break the talks. In 2009, the rich nations most responsible for global warming pledged to provide US$100 billion (S$134.94 billion) per year by 2020 to help developing countries deal with its consequences.

The commitment has still not been met, generating mistrust and a reluctance among some developing nations to accelerate their emissions reductions.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley compared the vast sums pumped into the global economy by rich countries' central banks in recent years with the insufficient amounts spent on climate help for poor nations.

"Our people are watching and our people are taking note... Can there be peace and prosperity if one-third of the world lives in prosperity and two-thirds lives under seas and face calamitous threats to our wellbeing?" she told the conference.

Developed countries confirmed last week they would be three years late in meeting the US$100 billion climate finance pledge - which many poor countries and activists say is insufficient anyway.

The pledges made so far to cut emissions would allow the planet's average surface temperature to rise 2.7 deg C this century, which the United Nations says would supercharge the destruction that climate change is already causing.

Two days of speeches by world leaders starting Monday will be followed by technical negotiations. Any deal may not be struck until close to or even after the event's Nov 12 finish date.

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