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UN chief warns of ‘catastrophe’ with continued use of fossil fuels


António Guterres, the U.N. Secretary General, at the organization’s headquarters in New York City this month.

By Lisa Friedman


Countries are “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe” if they continue to rely on fossil fuels, and nations racing to replace Russian oil, gas and coal with their own dirty energy are making matters worse, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned earlier this week.


The ambitious promises world leaders made last year at a climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, were “naïve optimism,” Guterres said. Nations are nowhere near the goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic impacts increases significantly. The planet has already warmed an average of 1.1 degrees Celsius.


And the pollution that is dangerously heating the planet is continuing to increase. Global emissions are set to rise by 14% in the 2020s, and emissions from coal continue to surge, he said.


“The 1.5 degree goal is on life support. It is in intensive care,” Guterres said in remarks delivered to a summit The Economist is hosting on sustainability via video address.


“We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe,” he said. “If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach. And that would be catastrophe.”


Guterres’ speech comes as the European Union is trying to find ways to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, and countries like the United States are scrambling to increase fossil fuel production to stabilize energy markets. President Joe Biden and European leaders have said that the short-term needs will not upend their longer-term vision of shifting to wind, solar and other renewable sources that do not produce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.


But the U.N. secretary-general said he fears that strategy endangers the goal of rapid reduction of fossil fuel burning. Keeping the planet at safe levels means slashing emissions worldwide 45% by 2050, scientists have said.


In Glasgow in November world leaders promised to stave off climate change and, for the first time, planned to “phase down” coal — the dirtiest fossil fuel. Leaders from 100 countries also pledged to stop deforestation by 2030, a move considered vital since trees absorb carbon dioxide. The United States, Europe and about 100 other nations also said they would cut methane emissions 30% by 2030. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas produced from oil and gas operations.


But there has been almost no progress, Guterres said. In addition, rich countries most responsible for polluting the planet have not met their obligation to help the poorest countries — already “slammed” by high inflation, rising interest rates and debt — to develop clean energy, he said.


At the same time, he warned, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is upending global energy markets, further undermining climate goals.


“As major economies pursue an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy to replace Russian fossil fuels, short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence and close the window to 1.5 degrees,” Guterres said.


He cautioned countries could become so focused on the immediate need to fill the oil, gas and coal gap “that they neglect or kneecap policies to cut fossil fuel use.”


“This is madness,” he said. “Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”


Last week the International Energy Agency warned that the world faced its first global energy crisis, and recommended that major economies conserve energy by implementing 10 strategies, from carpooling to traveling by train instead of airplane.


In his speech, Guterres said wealthy nations should be dismantling coal infrastructure to phase it out completely by 2030, with other nations doing so by 2040. He called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a halt to new oil and gas exploration. Guterres also said private sector financing for coal must end.


“Their support for coal not only could cost the world its climate goals,” he said. “It’s a stupid investment — leading to billions in stranded assets.”


The American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies, said in a statement that the industry “can responsibly develop America’s vast resources while at the same time reducing emissions to address climate change.”


Biden has promised a rapid clean energy transition in the United States but it has not started yet. Legislation he has championed to hasten the shift to renewable energy, the Build Back Better Act, is stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, his plans to stop new oil and gas leasing have faced challenges in the courts.

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