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'We Need to Get Off the Current Road to Hell,' Say Former UN Climate Leaders

Global ambition to avert climate catastrophe "must shift quickly to another scale, beyond recognition."

Participants attend Earth Hour 2018 in front of the Brandenburg Gate on March 24, 2018 in Berlin.

Participants attend Earth Hour 2018 in front of the Brandenburg Gate on March 24, 2018 in Berlin. (Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images)

A group of four former United Nations climate chiefs say it's "unthinkable" for the world to continue its business-as-usual approach to climate action, warning that without ramped-up ambition, humanity is headed down a "road to hell."

The assessment is laid out in an article published on Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Policy.

"We cannot continue kicking the can down the road to climate safety."
—Michael Zammit Cutajar, former UNFCCC Executive Secretary
"Drawing on hardening IPCC science and building on the foundations of the 1992 Convention, the last 30 years of international cooperation have established a clear understanding of the need to prevent dangerous climate change and an opportunity to do so," Michael Zammit Cutajar, founding Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, a role he served from 1991-2002, said in a statement.

"But," Zammit Cutajar added, "the ambition and effectiveness of governmental and corporate action to this end must shift quickly to another scale, beyond recognition, if we are to achieve global net zero emissions over the next 30 years."

"We cannot continue kicking the can down the road to climate safety," he said.

Zammit Cutajar, along with lead co-author Richard Kinley, Yvo de Boer, and Christiana Figueres—all of whom helped lead the UNFCCC over the last several decades—evaluated the past 30 years in terms of international climate negotiations, noting that the talks have unleashed "tensions exacerbated by strong economic interests in preserving the fossil-fuel-based economy."

Those efforts continue, they wrote, as meaningful action to address the global crisis "challenges complacent democracies to look beyond their electoral noses towards long-term planetary security."

While heaping praise on the multilateralism that brought about three global treaties—the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Agreement in 2015—the quartet lamented the "failure by governments to fully implement treaty obligations, exacerbated by the still inadequate response of the business community."

"At the national level," the authors wrote, "the Kyoto Protocol established legally-binding targets for developed countries while the Paris Agreement formalized the pledging of NDCs [nationally determined contributions] by all countries." Yet those NDCs "have been inconsistent with the action needed to meet the convention's objective and the Paris Agreement's mitigation goals."

Worthy of praise, they added, is the "changing [of] the narrative on climate change away from burden sharing to one of 'opportunity' and 'possibility'" in the years since the Paris deal was signed.

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"The understanding has also taken root that a low-carbon, climate resilient economy is the only safe way to meet development imperatives, buttressed by the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in the same year as the Paris Agreement," the former climate officials wrote.

The international negotiations' impact on raising climate ambition is clear, they wrote, but there remains "a very dark cloud hanging over the UNFCCC process... namely global CO2 emissions are more than 65% higher now than they were in 1990."

According to the authors, "the heart of the problem is the failure by states to implement their commitments, all too often paying only lip-service to what needs to be done, as well as the hesitation of too many in the business community to act on the policy signals being sent."

Laying out a set of recommendations, the authors said "it is unthinkable to continue at the pace of the last 30 years."

They called for action:

  • by governments to raise significantly the ambition of their NDCs and to act domestically with all means at their disposal to ensure full implementation, with the largest emitters and wealthiest countries bearing the most responsibility;
  • by developed countries and multilateral financial institutions to support developing countries and ensure a just response to the climate challenge that secures sustainable energy access for all, supports adaptation and advances sustainable development; and
  • by business, the finance sector and major economic actors to change the trajectory of development in the direction of what is now nearly universally accepted as a sustainable path, accelerating technological trends already underway while ensuring a just transition for workers.

The article further issued a 2030 target, "in order to have a good chance of not exceeding the 1.5°C temperature increase threshold, [for] a halving of net CO2 emissions" and suggested "2050 as the target year for achieving global net zero emissions."

Channeling the phrase used in 1954 by then-UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the former climate chiefs said that "before we can seriously contemplate climate change 'heaven,' we need to get off the current road to 'hell,' even if it is paved with good intentions."

The set of recommendations were released just two days before the five-year anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, and as leaders gather at the Pacific Islands Forum to issue fresh demands for decision climate action.

Speaking at the virtual summit, Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimaram said Friday, "We Pacific nations owe it to our people, and to humanity as a whole, to raise our voices more to demand that major emitters step up their climate actions and commitments."

"Without this, we will lose our homes, our way of life our wellbeing and livelihoods—it's past time to get serious," Bainimaram added. "We all signed the Paris agreement; now let's insist we put it to work."

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