UN chief Antonio Guterres tells Davos climate fight 'going up in smoke' due to inaction

Governments and companies need to do more to tackle global warming and avert 'devastating' consequences, he says

A woman in South Sudan tends to her crops in a flooded field. Photo: Christian Aid
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The world is facing a litany of challenges that are “piling up like cars in a chain-reaction crash”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In a rousing speech at the Swiss ski resort on Wednesday, he painted a bleak outlook for the world, which he said was “looking into the eye of a category 5 hurricane.”

The urgency of the fight against climate change, apart from the lack of action by governments and companies, is among the most concerning of issues at hand, he said.

The world’s lack of preparation for future pandemics, the war in Ukraine, geopolitical tension and the cost-of-living crisis are also contributing to what is a distressing concoction, the UN chief said.

Mr Guterres, 73, suggested that apathy among world leaders meant that the target of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels appears to be “nearly going up in smoke”.

He said the world was heading towards a 2.8ºC increase in warming, the consequences of which would be “devastating”.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks to delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos. EPA

The 1.5ºC target was established in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, an accord that aims to “limit global warming to well below 2ºC, preferably to 1.5ºC degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels and while companies are increasingly pledging to cut their pollution to as close as possible to zero, the benchmarks and criteria they use “are often dubious or murky”, Mr Guterres said.

“It leaves the door wide open to greenwashing,” he said, referring to unsubstantiated claims by some firms that their products are not harmful to the environment.

He urged business leaders in Davos to follow the principles outlined by the UN and the International Organisation for Standardisation to make “credible”, accountable net-zero pledges.

The guidelines were launched in November to become a reference text and help companies to come up with solid plans and avoid slogans, hype and obfuscation.

Mr Guterres urged the participants to “put forward credible and transparent transition plans on how to achieve net zero — and submit those plans before the end of this year”.

“The transition to net-zero must be grounded in real emissions cuts — and not rely on carbon credits and shadow markets,” he said.

And in a stark warning to decision makers, he said: “We are flirting with climate disaster. Every week brings a new climate horror story.

“The climate threat coming to a point of no return. There is lack of urgency among governments.”

Mr Guterres said “we have to confess that the battle is being lost” as he called on governments and the private sector to step up efforts in the fight against climate change.

He said the climate crisis and other challenges facing the world formed the “worst situation of my lifetime”.

On geopolitical divisions, he said there was a climate of mistrust among key players on the world stage.

He mentioned the West-East divide between the US and China as having far-reaching effects, while the North-South divide between rich and poor nations continued to grow bigger.

Mr Guterres urged the G20 to put forward a new plan to help developing countries on their paths to economic stability.

The “outlook is bleak” in terms of how the global economic crisis is affecting nations, and said women and girls stand to suffer the most, the UN chief said.

On health, he said Covid-19 was “still straining economies” and said it was regrettable that countries were failing to prepare for future pandemics because they had not learnt any lessons.

“We are nowhere near ready for the pandemics to come,” he said.

Global challenges are all interlinked, he said, and are “piling up like cars in a chain-reaction crash”.

“I am no here to sugar coat the scale of that challenge,” he said, adding that he was also not bemoaning “the sorry state of our world”.

“There are no perfect solutions in a perfect storm but we can work to control damage and to seize the opportunities available.”

World Economic Forum in Davos — in pictures

Updated: January 18, 2023, 12:27 PM