UN secretary general: ‘Get on board the climate train or get left behind’

As the US teeters on the brink of leaving the global climate process, António Guterres has implored all countries to stay the course or go alone into a “grey future”

UN secretary general António Guterres (Photo: US Mission Photo by Eric Bridiers)

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UN secretary general António Guterres has warned that nations that choose not to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels will be “left behind”.

The remarks were made during Guterres’ first major address on climate change, during the week US president Donald Trump has said he will decide whether to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Without referring directly to Trump, Guterres’ speech at the New York University Stern School of Business on Tuesday was tailored to neuter the arguments for leaving the accord laid out by some of the president’s more conservative advisors.

“Some may seek to portray the response to climate change as a fundamental threat to the economy.  Yet what we are witnessing in these early years of a systemic response is the opposite,” said Guterres.

He said the opportunities of the transition away from fossil fuel were now irresistible; that countries, states, cities and businesses were all shifting their futures towards clean energy.

Guterres’ message was clear: “The sustainability train has left the station.  Get on board or get left behind… Those who fail to bet on the green economy will be living in a grey future.”

Indeed, said Guterres, the ambition of countries needed to be increased rather than drawn down – which is one option suggested by those who would see the US stay in the agreement but lower the cuts to pollution it has promised to make.

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“Yes, not everyone will move at the same pace or with equal vigour,” he admitted. “But if any government doubts the global will and need for this accord, that is reason for all others to unite even stronger and stay the course.”

Trump has voiced concern that the Paris accord represents a danger to the US economy and blamed climate regulations for the decline in the US coal industry.

This weekend, at a G7 leaders summit in Italy, Trump refused to sign up to a statement voicing support for the climate deal. Instead, the meeting issued a bifurcated communiqué on climate action that allowed the US to stand apart from the other six nations while it was “reviewing its policies”.

Immediately after the meeting, Trump said on Twitter that he would announce this week his “final decision” on whether to stay in the deal or withdraw the US this week.

Guterres listed a range of crises facing the global community: population growth, rapid and chaotic urbanisation, food insecurity, water scarcity and massive migration.

“Allow me to be blunt. The world is in a mess,” he said. But “far and away at the top of that list” was climate change.

He said he would be lobbying industry, business and governments to implement carbon pricing and stimulate flows of climate finance to the poor world.

In order to motivate leaders from around the world to advance a more positive agenda, the secretary general announced he would convene a climate summit in 2019. A similar meeting was convened by his predecessor Ban Ki Moon before the Paris summit in 2015 that produced the global deal.

Guterres said the meeting would “make sure we reach the critical first review of Paris implementation [which will happen later that year] with the strong wind of a green economy at our backs”.

The intervention adds Guterres’ voice to a growing list of global leaders who have privately and publicly implored Trump to remain within the agreement. They include the presidents of France and Germany as well as Pope Francis. Other nations, including China and India have reiterated their commitment to the deal in recent weeks.

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