Governments around the world should all declare a state of climate emergency until the world has reached net zero carbon emissions, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, has told a summit of world leaders.
At least 38 countries have already declared such a state of emergency, often owing to their vulnerability to the impacts of climate breakdown, which are already being felt.
“Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency?” Guterres said on Saturday. “I urge all others to follow.”
Declaring an emergency would require countries to step up their actions on greenhouse gas emissions urgently. An increasing number of governments have a target to reach net zero emissions by around mid-century, but few have detailed plans on how to get there.
Many countries are also pouring money into high-carbon activities as they strive to recover from the coronavirus crisis and recession. Guterres noted that G20 countries were spending 50% more in their stimulus packages on fossil fuels and carbon-intensive sectors than they were on low-carbon energy.
“This is unacceptable,” he told the online Climate Ambition Summit, co-hosted by the UN, the UK and France. “The trillions of dollars needed for Covid recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations. This is a moral test. We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden future generations with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.”
More than 70 world leaders, civil society activists, business chiefs and city mayors are attending the Climate Ambition Summit, which marks five years since the landmark Paris climate agreement.
Under the Paris agreement, countries are bound to keep global temperature rises well below the 2C above pre-industrial levels that scientists regard as the outer limit of safety, with an aspiration to limit global heating to 1.5C, which should avoid the worst of the ravages of climate breakdown.
However, the commitments to reduce emissions that countries made at Paris were insufficient, and would result in catastrophic heating of more than 3C. The agreement contains a ratchet mechanism by which nations must update their commitments every five years. The first deadline is now looming, on 31 December, and at Saturday’s summit world leaders are supposed to come forward with strengthened plans, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), to cut emissions by 2030.
The UK has come forward with a goal of cutting emissions by 68% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. The EU on Friday confirmed its pledge of a 55% cut by 2030.
Many other countries, including China, Japan and South Korea, have come forward with longer-term goals of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 or 2060.
The US is not represented at the summit, which was only opened to countries willing to make strong new commitments. The president-elect, Joe Biden, has however signalled his intention to push forward with the Paris agreement, pursue a green recovery from Covid, and reach net zero emissions.
Australia, Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia were also excluded from speaking among others.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, pledged on Friday to end UK taxpayer-funded support for fossil fuel projects overseas, after months of pressure from green campaigners. About £21bn of such funding has been provided in the last four years.
The summit is a staging post towards the vital UN Cop26 talks, aimed at putting countries on track to meet the obligations of the Paris agreement. The Cop26 talks will be hosted by the UK in Glasgow next November, after they were postponed this year owing to the coronavirus pandemic.