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UN Chief Warns World 'Way Off Track' on Tackling Climate Crisis as New Report Underscores Need for Bold Global Action

"Let us have no illusions: the climate crisis is already causing calamity and more is to come," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. "This is a battle we can—and must—win."

A fire rages in Bobin, Australia on Nov. 9, 2019, as firefighters try to contain dozens of out-of-control blazes across the state of New South Wales.

A fire rages in Bobin, Australia on Nov. 9, 2019, as firefighters try to contain dozens of out-of-control blazes across the state of New South Wales. (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued a stark warning about the necessity of ambitious global climate action Tuesday with the release of an annual report detailing the latest science on rising greenhouse gas emissions that drive up air and ocean temperatures, leading to devastating sea level rise and more severe extreme weather.

"Time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies from the inevitable impacts to come," Guterres wrote in a statement included in the new World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, which concluded that 2019 was 1.1°C warmer than the pre-industrial era and concluded the hottest decade on record.

"We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050," Guterres continued in the WMO report. "And for that, we need political will and urgent action to set a different path."

Guterres reiterated his warnings and demands for bold action during a Tuesday event to unveil the WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019 (pdf) at U.N. headquarters in New York City.

"The indications are crystal clear. Global heating is accelerating," Guterres said. "We count the cost in human lives and livelihoods as droughts, wildfires, floods, and extreme storms take their deadly toll. We have no time to lose if we are to avert climate catastrophe. This is a pivotal year for how we address the climate emergency. We have to aim high at the next climate conference in Glasgow in November."

Although experts worry that the COP26 summit could be derailed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Guterres' outlined his main focuses for the upcoming meeting:

  1. "National climate plans—the Nationally Determined Contributions, as they are called—must show more ambition."
  2. "All nations need to adopt strategies to reach net zero emissions by 2050."
  3. "A robust package of program, projects, and initiatives that will help communities and nations adapt to climate disruption and build resilience."
  4. "Developed countries must deliver on their commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020."

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, who joined Guterres at the unveiling event, told U.N. News in an interview that there is increasing public awareness—from young people to the financial sector—of the unparalleled threat posed by the climate crisis, "so there are plenty of good signs that we have started moving in the right direction."

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"Last year emissions dropped in developed countries, despite the growing economy, so we have been [able] to show that you can detach economic growth from emission growth," Taalas said. "The bad news is that, in the rest of the world, emissions grew last year. So, if we want to solve this problem we have to have all the countries on board."

The WMO leader highlighted that countries are still failing to meet their commitments under the Paris climate accord, which puts the world on track to endure a global temperature rise of up to five degrees by 2100, so "there's clearly a need for higher ambition levels if we're serious about climate mitigation."

The key takeaways from the WMO's new #StateofClimate report are:

  • The global mean temperature for 2019 was 1.1±0.1°C above pre-industrial levels.
  • Global atmospheric mole fractions of greenhouse gases reached record levels in 2018.
  • The year 2019 saw low sea-ice extent in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
  • The ocean absorbs around 90% of the heat that is trapped in the Earth system by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases.
  • Over the decade 2009–2018, the ocean absorbed around 23% of the annual CO2 emissions, lessening the increase in atmospheric concentrations.
  • As the ocean warms it expands and sea levels rise.

"This annual litany of climate change impacts and inadequate global responses makes for a gut-wrenching read," Dave Reay, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian Tuesday.

Imperial College London professor Brian Hoskins emphasized to the Guardian the importance of the international community continuing to address the climate crisis.

"The report is a catalogue of weather in 2019 made more extreme by climate change, and the human misery that went with it," he said. "It points to a threat that is greater to our species than any known virus—we must not be diverted from the urgency of tackling it by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to zero as soon as possible."

Hoskins' comments come as experts express concerns that although the coronavirus outbreak will likely reduce planet-heating emissions from China and other countries with high infection rates, the ongoing pandemic "could complicate the challenges of climate change—which presents serious, if longer-term, threats of its own—at a point when it was crucial to make rapid strides," as MIT Technology Review reported Tuesday.

"Emissions in China are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food," Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University's Department of Environmental Studies, told MIT Technology Review. "This is not an analogy for how we want to decrease emissions from climate change."

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