Guterres asks all countries to plan for carbon neutrality by 2050

In a letter to heads of state, the UN chief set net zero emissions as the benchmark for ambition, ahead of a landmark summit in September

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres (Photo: UN)

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UN chief António Guterres wrote to every head of state over the weekend, demanding they set out plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Guterres is championing ambitious climate action ahead of a critical UN summit on 23 September in New York, when countries are due to present concrete proposals to accelerate the pace of decarbonisation.

In excerpts of the letter seen by Climate Home News, Guterres invited governments to send “a brief summary or an indication of the plans” they are expecting to bring to the summit by 7 August. Countries are expected to compete for the spotlight during the high-level meeting, with only the most ambitious and meaningful strategies being showcased on stage.

After a preparatory meeting for the summit in Abu Dhabi last month, sources said some confusion remained over the benchmark for participation.

Clarifying his demands, Guterres said he had “asked all leaders to come to the Summit ready to announce the plans that they will set next year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”

Analysis: Which countries have a net zero carbon goal?

The latter demand is something only a handful of – developed – countries have committed to. While some poorer countries share the aspiration to achieve carbon neutrality, it is not under serious consideration for major emerging economies like China.

Guterres added that the plans should include “a commitment as concrete as possible” to increase countries’ contribution under the Paris Agreement in 2020 and indicate the long-term strategies countries will submit to UN Climate Change before the end of next year. “Long-term strategies” is a more inclusive framework that allows for varying rates of ambition and is also being pursued in Beijing.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries have agreed to progressively raise the ambition of their climate plans to achieve the emission reductions needed to limit global temperature rise to “well below” 2C of warming. They are due to submit updates in 2020.

The letter comes after the secretary general previously wrote to all G20 members setting out specific requests.

In a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk seen by Reuters, Guterres said the bloc should lead by example and reduce its emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030 – a tougher target than the current 40% and one that president-elect of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen subsequently said the EU would aim for.

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Besides governments strengthening their national climate commitments, coalitions of countries, businesses and civil society leaders are also expected to come up with initiatives that have the potential to scale up climate action across the global economy. The coalitions are being formed under nine work tracks led by different countries, and include increasing mitigation, energy transition, industry transition, resilience and adaptation, nature-based solutions, climate finance and infrastructure and cities.

In the letter, Guterres encouraged countries to get involved in these coalitions and come up with plans to adapt to the “unavoidable impacts of climate change” and “address [its] social dimension”. He also told countries to bring “specific finance commitments” to turn these plans into action.

“We must ensure that no one is left behind,” he wrote.

Following the Abu Dhabi meeting, announcements expected from these coalitions include a commitment from a group of heavy industrial companies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The announcement from companies operating in sectors such as chemicals, cement, steel and trucking, which are particularly difficult to decarbonise, is expected to include a clear roadmap on how this will be achieved.

Other initiatives are expected to focus on zero net emissions in buildings by 2050, improving the resilience of 600 million slum dwellers and upscaling climate finance for cities in low- and middle-income countries.

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Read more on: Climate Politics | UN Climate Action Summit 2019