Joe Biden and Xi Jinping play nice at gloomy UN talks on Covid-19 and climate

Antonio Guterres says leaders must 'wake up' and tackle climate change, coronavirus and other challenges

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US President Joe Biden, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and other world leaders addressed a gloomy session of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday amid worrying forecasts about the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

Mr Biden, Mr Xi and most other leaders taking part in the UN General Assembly dialled back the rhetoric and offered to work with neighbours against crises, even amid ongoing tension between the US and China.

The US president said the world was “mourning more than 4.5 million” lives claimed by the pandemic, which underscored how “our collective future will hinge on our ability to recognise our common humanity, and to act together”.

“This is the clear and urgent choice that we face here at the dawning of what must be a decisive decade for our world,” he added.

The US president announced plans to double the financial aid given to developing countries vulnerable to the worsening impacts of climate change — an $11 billion pledge towards the UN’s $100bn annual target.

His speech contrasted sharply with his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. He said little to offend rivals China and Russia and even stated that he wanted to avoid a new “Cold War”.

Still, Mr Biden has faced criticism for sidelining allies, including during last month’s hasty military exit from Afghanistan and by freezing France out of a nuclear submarine deal with Britain and Australia.

In his speech, Mr Xi said China would stop funding coal projects overseas, reducing a key source of heat-trapping gases that lead to climate change.

"China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low carbon energy and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad," he said in a recorded address.

Mr Xi did not refer to the US directly in his speech. He barely hinted at differences between Beijing and Washington by calling for a "true multilateralism" in world affairs.

“China has never and will never invade or bully others, or seek hegemony," he said.

At the podium, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said the Paris climate agreement would be presented to the Turkish Parliament for approval next month, which would make it the last of the G20 major world economies to ratify the deal.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres earlier struck a gloomy note upon the opening of the session, saying that humanity was on the “edge of an abyss — and moving in the wrong direction”.

Mr Guterres told a hall filled with world leaders that they were failing to share coronavirus vaccines with the poorest countries and were not cutting back hard enough on the emission of planet-heating gases.

“I am here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up,” Mr Guterres said.

“We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes. The Covid-19 pandemic has supersized glaring inequalities. The climate crisis is pummelling the planet.”

Portugal’s former prime minister spoke of political crises and war ravaging much of the world. He also highlighted US-China tension, conflicts in Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria, and the fears of ordinary Afghans after the Taliban swept back to power last month.

He also said that future wars could involve a “massive cyber attack” and the use of robot warriors that can “choose targets and kill people without human interference”. Without a legal framework to govern them, such autonomous weapons should be banned, he said.

Leaders should try to keep global temperature rise below the target of 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial times, he said, and bridge the gap between rich and poor nations with a global Covid-19 vaccination plan.

Mr Guterres, who was elected to a second five-year term in June, co-hosted closed-door talks with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urge three dozen leaders to increase their climate ambitions before key talks in Glasgow in November.

Instead of scrapping coal-fired power stations and other polluting technologies, countries are instead burning fossil fuels. Emissions are expected to rise by 16 per cent by 2030.

“That would condemn us to a hellscape of temperature rises of at least 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels”, with worsening fires, droughts, storms and other devastating weather tragedies.

Though other leaders chose to focus on climate change and Covid, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took a different route in a pre-recorded statement, hailing the end of US “hegemony” in world affairs. He pointed to America’s political divisions and its military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last year’s annual UN meeting was scaled back owing to the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s event has a hybrid feel, with about 100 leaders in New York but with many meetings being held online amid fears of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

Updated: September 22nd 2021, 8:16 AM
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