World leaders must use Cop26 to “save humanity” as climate change causes increasingly extreme weather, the UN’s Secretary General has said, as delegates from 196 countries prepare to open the landmark summit.
Antonio Guterres said the climate summit “must be a turning point”, after UN weather experts raised the alarm over record temperatures and rising sea levels.
As delegates began arriving in Glasgow, G20 leaders agreed at a meeting in Rome to reach net-zero carbon emissions “by or around mid-century” and stop financing coal-fired power abroad.
The G20 said they would take on a “leadership role” at the Glasgow summit, where the developing world is looking to rich countries to lead the way in cutting emissions and financing the green transition.
“We're proud of these results but we must remember that it's only the start,” said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a gloomier assessment, describing the G20's promises as merely "drops in a rapidly warming ocean". Several G20 members would not commit to net zero by 2050, he said.
"If Glasgow fails, then the whole thing fails," said Mr Johnson, who is hosting a world leaders' summit at Cop26 on Monday. "There are no compelling excuses for our procrastination."
Cop26 delegates will be under pressure to reach a deal that keeps alive hopes of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the goal set out by the 2016 Paris Agreement.
"The door is open; the solutions are there," Mr Guterres said. "Cop26 must be a turning point. We must act now – with ambition and solidarity – to safeguard our future and save humanity.”
Alok Sharma, the summit president, used an opening speech on Sunday to tell delegates that “the lights are flashing red on the climate dashboard".
“If we act now, and we act together, we can protect our precious planet,” he said.
“So let’s come together over these two weeks, and ensure that where Paris promised, Glasgow delivers.”
Scientists say climate change is already becoming ever-more visible. In a report published on Sunday, the World Meteorological Organisation said carbon emissions had “propelled the planet into uncharted territory”.
It said the seven years since 2015 were set to be the warmest on record – with the rise in sea levels reaching a new peak in 2021.
Although 2021 has been slightly cooler than recent years because of a weather pattern known as La Nina, this does not mark an improvement in the long-term trend, the WMO said.
The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new high, with CO2 levels at 149 per cent of pre-industrial levels, and methane and nitrous oxide levels continuing to rise.
The summer floods which killed scores of people in western Europe were made more likely by climate change, UN experts found.
During 12 days of talks in Glasgow, delegates will discuss how to cut emissions, finance the green transition and prepare for the impacts of climate change that can no longer be stopped.
Under pressure to open their wallets to help the global south, G20 countries reaffirmed a commitment to organise $100 billion in annual funding by 2023 – three years after the original deadline.
Environmental campaigners were unimpressed with the G20's ambition.
“If the G20 was a dress rehearsal for Cop26, then world leaders fluffed their lines,” said Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan.
Mohamed Nasheed, a former president of the Maldives who once held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the threat to the Indian Ocean nation, said the coal commitments were not nearly enough.
"This is a welcome start. But it won’t stop the climate from heating more than 1.5°C and devastating large parts of the world," he said. "G20 countries need to look at decommissioning coal plants at home and repowering their coal fleet infrastructure with clean energy."
Appeal for unity
Preparations for Cop26 were clouded by Covid-19, which caused it to be postponed by a year.
Delegates were arriving for the summit on Sunday, despite railway chaos in Britain, after the main line from London to Glasgow was blocked by a fallen tree.
Mr Guterres called on countries to come together, despite the prospect of tricky negotiations on issues such as coal power and carbon pricing.
“Scientists are clear on the facts. Now leaders need to be just as clear in their actions,” Mr Guterres said.
“From the ocean depths to mountaintops, from melting glaciers to relentless extreme weather events, ecosystems and communities around the globe are being devastated."
Patricia Espinosa, the head of the UN's climate change arm, said negotiators had to be willing to compromise to keep the Paris targets within reach.
“We have no choice but to make Cop26 a success. For that, we need unity of purpose,” she said.
We need to leave Glasgow with a balanced package of decisions that reflects the positions of all countries.”
The UN has criticised what it says are insufficient proposals to combat climate change, after the world’s top polluters submitted updated plans for Cop26.
UN weather experts say that extreme conditions are already becoming “the new norm”, as greenhouse gas emissions take their toll.
Scientists believe that extreme weather events such as floods and droughts will become far more frequent if temperatures rise by more than the Paris limit.
But the target will not be met at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, said Prof Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the WMO.
The Glasgow summit “is a make-or-break opportunity to put us back on track”, Prof Taalas said.