GLASGOW, Scotland — United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday warned 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 Friday 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 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 conference, called COP26. 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.
That’s because the overarching goal of limiting warming since pre-industrial times to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) by the end of the century “is still in reach but on life support,” Guterres said. The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit).
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.”
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.
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 block of developing nations that include countries from Africa, Latin America and Asia — with China and India among the latter.
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 in a 25-minute AP interview.
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.”