Self-congratulation will not fix a broken planet

“Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are the new normal,” Guterres will reportedly argue. “Biodiversity is collapsing. Deserts are spreading. Oceans are choking on plastic waste.”

OUR PLANET “is broken” and humanity is locked in a “suicidal” war upon the natural world – so United Nations general secretary Antonio Guterres will warn today in a speech given as part of a BBC special event on the environment.

Even by the standards of climate activism, Guterres will not mince words: “Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are the new normal,” Guterres will reportedly argue. “Biodiversity is collapsing. Deserts are spreading. Oceans are choking on plastic waste.”

Speaking ahead of COP26, next year’s UN climate change conference in Glasgow, the challenge Guterres will lay out before the world’s governments, corporations and financial institutions is equally clear, as is his assessment of their disappointing progress thus far. In order to avoid a “catastrophic” three-to-five temperature rise this century, global commitments must be made to put a price on carbon, phasing out fossil fuel finance and fossil fuel subsidies, shifting the tax burden from taxpayers to polluters, integrating the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic policies, and providing greater aid to those already suffering from the effects of climate change. Through these aims, Guterres advocates global planning for a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050, and a 45 per cent cut in global emissions by 2030.

For those in the United Kingdom, such targets may sound familiar; in the far-off days of last year, Theresa May – remember her? – committed the UK to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as one of her last acts as prime minister. Since then however, there has been “little concrete action, and no clear roadmap on how to meet the goal,” according to Guardian environment correspondent Fiona Harvey. Covid-19 has stalled progress on climate policy, or perhaps been used as an excuse to avoid confronting it, with billions spent bailing out polluting industries affected by the pandemic.

While it is widely expected that the UK will soon declare its 2030 climate targets in the hopes of inspiring greater ambitions from other nations, the prime minister’s current 10-point climate plan has faced mounting criticism, most recently in new analysis published by Cambridge Econometrics, which found it inadequate to the task at hand.

Meanwhile, Scottish ministers continue to alternate between boasting of their “world-leading” net-zero targets while bemoaning the limitations placed upon them by the UK’s constitutional arrangement. Following the recent passage of a conference motion committing the SNP to the delivery of a green recovery from the pandemic, Environment and Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham reiterated the Scottish Government’s position that Scotland cannot deliver net-zero emissions by 2045 through devolved powers alone, challenging the UK Government to “up its game” and “meet Scotland’s ambition.”

And yet, that ambition could go significantly further; as the Scottish Greens argued last month following the publication of Boris Johnson’s climate plan, the lack of commitment on phasing out fossil fuel extraction remains conspicuous, while renewable energy solutions such as solar and onshore wind have been given short shrift in favour of undeveloped and controversial technology such as ‘carbon capture.’ All this has placed greater onus upon the Scottish Government to act more boldly.

Whether it will or not remains to be seen; while Guterres will today speak of a war on the natural world, the Scottish Government last month strained to avoid recognising the problem. Offered the chance in Holyrood to make Scotland the first country to declare a nature emergency, the SNP instead blocked the vote with a self-congratulatory amendment and removing the words ‘nature emergency’ altogether.

Such self-congratulation will not halt climate change or undo the catastrophic threats to global biodiversity. As Guterres will remind us today: “Unless the world cuts fossil fuel production by six per cent every year between now and 2030, things will get worse. Much worse.”


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