Optimistic assessments of progress on tackling the climate crisis were “an illusion”, the UN secretary general has said in a scathing critique of world leaders’ efforts so far to cut greenhouse gas emissions and stave off climate breakdown.
Antonio Guterres, greeting leaders gathering for the Cop26 summit, roundly dismissed the suggestion that the climate situation was improving, and he exhorted the more than 120 heads of government to “choose to safeguard our future and save humanity” instead of continuing with the addiction to fossil fuels.
“Recent climate action announcements might give the impression that we are on track to turn things around. This is an illusion,” he told the conference in Glasgow.
G20 leaders met at the weekend without making fresh commitments to further cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, though they did agree on the importance of taking action this decade. Scientists say emissions must be cut by about 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold of safety.
The UK, as host of Cop26, has set as its aim to “keep 1.5C alive”. Two days of talks among world leaders will be followed by nearly a fortnight of tense negotiations by officials with the aim of producing a global deal to get on track for the emissions cuts necessary.
But Guterres said nations were still far off track on their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions as the conference opened. Without further commitments, he said, countries could be forced to return to the negotiating table not every five years, as set out in the Paris agreement, but every year.
That threat will unsettle some countries at the talks that have been slow to come forward with strong commitments on cutting emissions and want to stick to the letter of the Paris agreement and only update commitments on a five-year schedule. Small developing countries, those with the most at stake in the climate crisis, want a more frequent schedule.
Guterres said humanity stood on the brink of disaster and had been driven there by an addiction to fossil fuels and its “brutal” treatment of the natural world. Further global heating – with temperature rises already at 1.1C – would risk pushing the world past the point of no return.
“We face a moment of truth. We are fast approaching tipping points that will trigger escalating feedback loops of global heating,” he said. Scientists have said surpassing 1.5C would risk some of the consequences of climate change, including ice sheet melting, rapidly becoming irreversible.
Guterres gave a stark depiction of human ruin, with the planet changing before our eyes in the form of melting glaciers, disappearing forests and polluted oceans, the result of “treating nature like a toilet”.
He said: “We face a stark choice: either we stop [the addiction] or it stops us. It’s time to say: enough. Enough of brutalising biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon.”
In an echo of the film Trainspotting, which was set in nearby Edinburgh, he called on leaders to shake off the addiction and choose a better path. “Choose ambition. Choose solidarity. Choose to safeguard our future and save humanity,” he said.
Finance to help poor countries was also a crucial issue, Guterres said. A promise to developing countries of $100bn (GBP73bn) a year in climate finance by 2020 has not been met. Guterres said recent findings that it would be met from 2023 would “delay the largest support for years, with no clear guarantees”.
The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, also spoke at the opening ceremony, and began his speech with a James Bond analogy.
Bond often ends up in peril, said Johnson, “strapped to a doomsday device, desperately trying to work out which coloured wire to pull to turn it off while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation that will end human life as we know it.
“And we are in roughly the same position, my fellow global leaders, as James Bond today, except that the tragedy is that this is not a movie, and the doomsday device is real.”
He also spoke of rich countries’ responsibility to pull their weight: “We in the developed world must recognise the special responsibility to help everybody else to do it, because it was here in Glasgow 250 years ago that James Watt came up with a machine that was powered by steam that was produced by burning coal.”
“Yes my friends, we have brought you to the very place where the doomsday device began to tick.”
The prime minister also urged representatives to consider their responsibility to future generations: “The people who will judge us are children not yet born, and their children, and we are now coming centre stage before a vast and uncountable audience of posterity and we must not fluff our lines or miss our cue.
“Because if we fail they will not forgive us. They will know that Glasgow was the historic turning point when history failed to turn. They will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today, and they will be right. Cop26 will not, cannot, be the end of the story on climate change.”