World leaders turned up the heat and resorted to end-of-the-world rhetoric on Monday in an attempt to bring new urgency to sputtering international climate negotiations.
The metaphors were dramatic and mixed at the start of the talks, known as COP26. For British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, global warming was “a doomsday device” strapped to humanity. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told his colleagues that people are “digging our own graves.” And Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, speaking for vulnerable island nations, added moral thunder, warning leaders not to “allow the path of greed and selfishness to sow the seeds of our common destruction.”
Amid the soaring rhetoric, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country will aim to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2070 — two decades after the United States and at least 10 year later than China. Modi said the goal of reaching “net zero” by 2070 was one of five measures India planned to undertake to meet its commitments under the Paris climate accord.
Meanwhile, a handful of more sedate — sometimes detailed — speeches were also delivered. U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel avoided soaring rhetoric and delved into wonky policy.
“There’s no more time to sit back,” Biden said in a more measured warning that also apologized for his predecessor’s temporarily pulling the U.S. out of the historic 2015 Paris agreement, something he said put the country behind in its efforts. “Every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases.”
In addition to coaxing big carbon-polluting nations to promise more stringent emission cuts, French President Emmanuel Macron said European nations now have to shift from promises to action.
Earlier, Johnson — who is hosting the summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow — likened an ever-warming Earth’s position to that of fictional secret agent James Bond: strapped to a bomb that will destroy the planet and trying to defuse it.
He told leaders that the only difference now is that the “ticking doomsday device” is not fiction and “it’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock.” The threat now is climate change, triggered by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, and he noted that it all started in Glasgow with James Watt’s steam engine powered by coal.
Johnson also pointed out that the more than 130 world leaders gathered for the leaders’ summit portion of the U.N. climate conference had an average age of over 60, while the generations most harmed by climate change aren’t yet born.
The conference aims to get governments to commit to curbing carbon emissions fast enough to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). Current projections based on planned emissions cuts over the next decade are for it to hit 2.7C (4.9F) by the year 2100.
Increased warming over coming decades would melt much of the planet’s ice, raise global sea levels and greatly increase the likelihood and intensity of extreme weather, scientists say. With every tenth of a degree of warming, the dangers soar faster, they say.
The other goals for the meeting are for rich nations to give poor nations $100 billion a year in climate aid and to reach an agreement to spend half of the money to adapt to worsening climate impacts.
But Mottley, of Barbados, warned negotiators are falling short.
“This is immoral and it is unjust,” Mottley said. “Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?”
“We are already gasping for survival,” chimed in President Wavel John Charles Ramkalawan of the Seychelles, another island nation. “Tomorrow is not an option for it will be too late.”
Guterres struck an equally gloomy note.
“We are digging our own graves,” said the U.N. secretary-general. “Our planet is changing before our eyes — from the ocean depths to mountaintops, from melting glaciers to relentless extreme weather events.”
The speeches will continue through Tuesday, then the leaders will leave.
The idea is that they will do the big political give-and-take, setting out broad outlines of agreement, and then have other government officials hammer out the nagging but crucial details. That’s what worked to make the historic 2015 Paris climate deal a success, former U.N. Climate Secretary Christiana Figueres told The Associated Press.
“For heads of state, it is actually a much better use of their strategic thinking,” Figueres said.
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In Paris, the two signature goals — the 1.5-degree Celsius limit and net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — were created by this leaders-first process, Figueres said. In the unsuccessful 2009 Copenhagen meeting the leaders swooped in at the end.
Thousands lined up in a chilly wind in Glasgow on Monday to get through a bottleneck at the entrance to the venue. But what will be noticeable are a handful of major absences.
Xi Jinping, president of top carbon-polluting nation China, won’t be in Glasgow. Figueres said his absence isn’t that big a deal because he isn’t leaving the country during the pandemic and his climate envoy is a veteran negotiator.
Biden, however, has chided China and Russia for their less than ambitious efforts to curb emissions and blamed them for a disappointing statement on climate change at the end of the meeting of leaders from the Group of 20 major economies in Rome this weekend.
Perhaps more troublesome for the U.N. summit is the absence of several small nations from the Pacific islands that couldn’t make it because of COVID-19 restrictions and logistics. That’s a big problem because their voices relay urgency, Figueres said.
In addition, the heads of several major emerging economies beyond China are also skipping Scotland, including those from Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. That leaves India’s Narendra Modi the only leader present from the so-called BRICS nations, which account for more than 40% of global emissions.
Kevin Conrad, a negotiator from Papua New Guinea who also chairs the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, said he’s watching the big carbon-polluting nations. “I think it’s really important for the United States and China to show leadership as the two largest emitters. If both of them can show it can be done, I think they give hope to the rest of the world,” he said.
But before the U.N. climate summit, the G-20 leaders offered vague climate pledges instead of commitments of firm action, saying they would seek carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century.” The countries also agreed to end public financing for coal-fired power generation abroad, but set no target for phasing out coal domestically — a clear nod to China and India.
The G-20 countries represent more than three-quarters of the world’s climate-damaging emissions and summit host Italy, and Britain had been hoping for more ambitious targets.
India, the world’s third-biggest emitter, has yet to follow China, the U.S. and the European Union in setting a target for reaching “net zero” emissions. Negotiators are hoping Modi will announce such a goal in Glasgow.
But the Biden administration has tried hard to temper expectations.