Coal is a ‘stupid investment’: UN chief António Guterres

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is photographed at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland on November 11, 2021.

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The UN Secretary-General issued a stern warning on Monday, saying the planet emerged from last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow with “some naïve optimism” and “a lunatic approaching a climate catastrophe.”

In his speech at The Economist’s Sustainability Week via video link, António Guterres painted a picture of how he thinks the world is doing when it comes to combating global warming.

He noted that while there were positive developments at COP26 related to issues such as reducing methane emissions, combating deforestation and mobilizing private finance, serious challenges remained.

“To keep 1.5 alive, you need to cut global emissions by 45% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century,” he said. “This problem has not been solved in Glasgow. In fact, the problem is getting worse.”

Guterres’ reference to 1.5 refers to Purpose of the Paris Agreement global warming limits “well below 2, preferably up to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels”.

The Paris Agreement was reached at the COP21 climate change summit in December 2015. More than six years later, it looks like Guterres still has a huge amount of work to do.

“According to current national commitments, global emissions should increase by almost 14% in the 2020s,” he said. “In the past year alone, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 6% to the highest level in history. Coal emissions have risen to record highs. We are approaching a climate catastrophe.”

As for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its wide-ranging consequences, Guterres was equally scathing. He said that “the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine risk upending global food and energy markets, with serious implications for the global climate agenda.”

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

“Countries can become so preoccupied with the immediate shortage of fossil fuel supply that they neglect policies to reduce fossil fuel use. And that’s crazy: addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”

Guterres’ comments come at a time when several major economies, including the European Union, are trying to find ways to reduce their dependence on Russian hydrocarbons.

The International Energy Agency said last week that speed limits on highways should be lowered by at least 10 kilometers per hour (6.2 mph) to reduce oil demand. The recommendation was part of a broader 10-point plan published by the Paris-based organization.

In his speech on Monday, Guterres also said that “those in the private sector who are still financing coal must … be held accountable.”

“Their support for coal could cost the world more than just its climate goals,” he said. “This is a stupid investment – leading to billions of stranded assets.” He also argued that the time had come to “end fossil fuel subsidies and stop the expansion of oil and gas exploration.”

“But even the most ambitious actions will not erase the fact that the situation is already bad. In many cases and in many places it is irreversibly bad.”

Coal has a significant impact on the environment, and the US Energy Information Administration lists a number of emissions from burning coal. These include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Elsewhere, Greenpeace called coal “the dirtiest and most polluting way to produce energy.”

Guterres’ speech points to the enormous challenge facing governments around the world who say they want to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and prevent the worst effects of climate change.

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Despite these goals, fossil fuels still play a huge role in the global energy mix, and companies continue to discover and develop new oil and gas fields.

In an effort to keep 1.5 alive, Guterres laid out a broad vision of how this could be achieved.

Along with a “fast, fair and sustainable energy transition,” he said, the phase-out of coal and all other fossil fuels must be accelerated.

Other tools included focusing on adaptation, strengthening national climate action plans annually, and accelerating the decarbonization of sectors such as cement, steel, aviation and shipping.

In addition, the most vulnerable need protection and funding to combat climate change. “This is how we move the 1.5 degree target from life support to the recovery ward,” Guterres said.

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