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COP 25: Guterres Conveys ‘Hope, Not Despair’ as Vulnerable Countries Demand Action

António Guterres

UN Secretary General António Guterres showed up with a mix of urgency and hope, the Climate Vulnerable Forum called for a commitment from countries to adopt more ambitious climate targets by  next year, and delegates heard from youth leaders and businesses, movie stars and retired politicians pushing for faster, deeper carbon cuts as COP 25 negotiations in Madrid got under way Monday and Tuesday.

At a weekend news conference leading into the conference, Guterres noted that the “utterly inadequate” response to the climate emergency is already producing extreme weather and dramatic consequences around the world, The Associated Press reports. He said countries have the scientific knowledge and technical know-how to address the crisis, but “what is lacking is political will”.

After so many years of delay and squandered opportunities for action, Guterres stressed that time is running out. “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” he said. “It is in sight and hurtling toward us.”

The message was still “one of hope, not of despair,” Guterres told media. “Our war against nature must stop and we know that is possible,” he said. “We simply have to stop digging and drilling and take advantage of the vast possibilities offered by renewable energy and nature-based solutions.”

But while 70 countries have already committed to phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, “we also see clearly that the world’s largest emitters are not pulling their weight,” he said. “And without them, our goal is unreachable.”

Agence France-Presse reported days ago that the countries in an emerging climate ambition alliance at COP 25 only represent 8% of global emissions.

On Monday, Guterres addressed the Climate Vulnerable Forum, convened by the countries facing the most severe impacts of climate change. The meeting combined discussions onsite in Madrid with a virtual presentation by CVF Chair and Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who led the session via video link in what the CVF cast as a demonstration of low-carbon solutions.

“The great injustice of the climate crisis is that its effects fall most on those least responsible for it,” Guterres said. “I have seen this first-hand. In Mozambique and in the Caribbean, I have seen the aftermath of terrible storms that have caused—and continue to cause—devastation that we count in the cost of lives lost, communities uprooted, and economies crippled. In the Sahel and the Horn of Africa I have witnessed the dreadful toll of drought, powered by climate change, that is destabilizing an entire sub-region. And around the world, floods, drought, and other extreme weather are being made worse by climate disruption,” with the vulnerable “hurt first and worst”.

The CVF called for a formal COP 25 decision that all countries will adopt more ambitious climate plans over the next year. “The most vulnerable already face death row,” Heine said. “Not coming forward with a new, improved NDC [countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement]—with a stronger national effort—by next year is the same as a government passing sentence on our future. To force our country to die.”

Heine said CVF members were working to mobilize US$20 billion in new funding for climate adaptation and renewable energy investments while boosting their own climate ambition.

“It was once said that 100% renewable energy was impossible,” said Costa Rica President Carlos Alvarado. “Not so! Costa Rica’s power sector runs on it most of the year already. If the vulnerable countries can enhance their NDCs by 2020, any country can. Who said it is impossible? Costa Rica expects to make a net profit of $19.5 billion from our ambition increase by 2050. Major economies, it’s your turn to act.”

As negotiators begin digging in at the COP, the CVF, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) bloc, and climate activists and analysts around the world are already highlighting the searing human rights dimensions of the climate crisis. Climate Home News reports that the framework for addressing loss and damage—for providing the finance, technology, and capacity-building to help the most vulnerable countries recover from severe storms and slower-onset disasters like sea level rise—is up for review during the conference.

“The UN has established funds to finance the transition to cleaner energy in poor countries and their adaptation to a heated world. But rich countries—which hold the historical responsibility for climate change—have dragged their feet on providing new finance to cover losses, preferring to encourage the creation of insurance schemes,” Climate Home writes.

“They have also sought to avoid any liability and compensation claims for their historic responsibility in causing climate change, with the U.S. a consistent opponent across multiple administrations.” But compensation is exactly what will be needed to give substance to the flurry of climate emergency declarations over the last year, writes Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University Bangladesh, in a Climate Home opinion piece.

News agencies carried multiple stories on youth and civil society protests to mark the COP, with Extinction Rebellion on the scene in Madrid and #FridaysForFuture founder Greta Thunberg said to have reached Lisbon by low-carbon racing yacht. She’s expected in the Spanish capital in time for a Friday demonstration, part of a run of protests that began last Friday with a Black Friday Strike organized by U.S. youth activists from Los Angeles to New York.

But “now more than ever in this COP, we will see a very big gap between the negotiations inside and the emotions outside,” former Costa Rica climate negotiator Mónica Araya, founder of clean development platform Costa Rica Limpia, told Reuters. In a year when many millions of the world’s citizens are demanding immediate commitments and declaring the climate crisis their countries’ top political priority, the United States is “missing in action” in any useful sense, and negotiations are focused on building momentum for final commitments at next year’s COP.

Veteran COP negotiator Teresa Ribera, Spain’s Minister for the Ecological Transition, told media that this year’s meetings must mark “the start of a decisive year for climate ambition”, adding that “this is what societies are demanding”. She pledged efforts to “try to ensure that the demands by young people to raise climate ambition echo throughout COP 25”.

Bloomberg contrasts the public demand that has been building through the fall with the staid, technical discussions going on in the negotiating rooms. “Billions of dollars could be in play, which is why thousands of companies and hundreds of financial institutions will be watching COP 25 closely,” the news agency writes. “Away from the headlines and grand promises sought by environmental groups, the delegates are quietly building a legal framework to support a wall of money that will guide the world in a greener direction.”

“There is a disconnect between what people are asking for and what we’re seeing,” said Carbon Market Watch policy officer Gilles Dufranse. “Multilateral meetings are very difficult, but it’s the only solution we have.”

The We Mean Business Coalition characterized the transition off carbon as “urgent and achievable”, with more than 100 major companies committed to carbon reduction targets consistent with 1.5°C. It called on governments to strengthen their NDCs in line with the 2030 targets and enact policies to meet the goal. “Businesses are looking to governments to match their ambition and accelerate the transition to a just and prosperous zero-carbon future, that leaves no one behind,” the coalition said.

In New York on Monday, a group of 75 companies including Apple, Tesla, Unilever, and Royal Dutch Shell and union leaders representing 12.5 million workers affirmed their support for the Paris Agreement and urged the United States not to abandon the deal, Thomson Reuters reports.

“Staying in the Paris Agreement will strengthen our competitiveness in global markets, positioning the United States to lead the deployment of new technologies that support the transition, provide for our workers and communities, and create jobs and companies built to last,” they said.

The group \ called for a transition off carbon that leaves no one behind. “The green economy is more profitable than the economy of the past, but it’s true that there will surely be certain areas that are going to suffer—and that is why we are in favour of a just transition.”

And on Sunday, former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry announced a new World War Zero coalition, along with former U.S. president Bill Clinton, former Republican governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Kasich, and Hollywood actor/activist Leonardo DiCaprio, aimed at building bipartisan U.S. support for climate action. “Their goal is to hold more than 10 million ‘climate conversations’ in the coming year with Americans across the political spectrum,” The Independent reports. “With a starting budget of US$500,000, Mr. Kerry said, he and other coalition members intend to hold town meetings across the country from January.”

Kerry amplified the message in an interview with veteran U.S. climate journalist Emily Atkin that drew decidedly mixed reviews from her readers. Out of 30 responses, “10 were explicitly supportive of Kerry’s effort; 11 were explicitly non-supportive; and three had mixed feelings,” Atkin writes. Taken as a whole, the replies “illustrate a critical discussion happening right now in the climate community: whether we need bipartisanship to solve the climate crisis, or whether we need to abandon the concept entirely.”