20 February 2020
Secretary-General Signals Priorities for Climate Action Ahead of COP 26
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed a meeting of the Group of Friends on Climate in early February 2020, followed by the AU Summit in Addis Ababa and a meeting on climate change in Pakistan.

He expressed hope that the world will soon “reach the moment when it is widely understood that it is no longer profitable to invest in the grey or brown economy,” and emphasized the need to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

The UN announced new appointments to the Secretariat's Climate Action Team to align with the lead-up to UNFCCC COP 26 and the Decade of Action on the SDGs.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed hope that the world will soon “reach the moment when it is widely understood that it is no longer profitable to invest in the grey or brown economy.” He has said that the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 26), which will convene in November 2020, must unite people’s needs with what happens at the negotiating table, and he outlined milestones on the way to the COP as opportunities to close this gap.

Guterres addressed a meeting of the Group of Friends on Climate in early February 2020, followed by remarks to the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a meeting on climate change in Pakistan during his first official visit to the country as Secretary-General.

In all three sets of remarks, Guterres stressed the need for governments to raise their ambition not only on mitigation but also on adaptation and finance, saying that “gradual approaches are not enough.” In addition to major emitters making fundamental changes, he said every city, region, bank, pension fund and industry must completely reimagine how they operate. He emphasized the need to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

On 3 February 2020, Guterres addressed the Group of Friends on Climate at a meeting at UN headquarters in New York, US. He said the main focus for making COP 26 a success is “enhanced ambition from all countries,” and that ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance are all essential. He said that while 70 countries have already committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, these countries are responsible for less than one fourth of global emissions, and this commitment must become universal. Guterres added that too many national energy plans are dependent on coal, and new coal plants are being planned even as we need to be phasing out fossil fuels. Further, he said the world has not begun to gain traction on ending fossil fuel subsidies, noting that subsidies increased in 2019.

The Secretary-General called for increasing the number of private banks that “align with net-zero emission commitments by 2050 and incorporate climate risk and carbon pricing in their investments.” He welcomed encouraging signals from private finance and the UN-supported coalition of businesses under the umbrella of the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance, which was launched in October 2019.

Guterres also highlighted three UN events as milestones on the way to COP 26:

  • The Global Sustainable Transport Conference in May 2020, which he said is a “chance to align our mobility systems with a climate-neutral world,” noting that transport is the highest emitting sector;
  • The UN Ocean Conference in June 2020, which he said is a chance “to reverse and end the assault on the world’s marine ecosystems and resources — including the rising tide of plastics pollution;” and
  • The 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 15) in October 2020, during which “we must move decisively towards an ambitious post-2020 global biodiversity framework.”

On 9 February, in Addis Ababa, Guterres told the AU Summit that Africa is the least responsible for climate disruption yet is among the first and worst to suffer. He noted the need to build resilience to adapt to climate change impacts, drew attention to a climate-related locust infestation in East Africa, and said that if major emitting countries and industrial sectors don’t deliver, “all our efforts will be in vain.”  

On 16 February, Guterres began his Pakistan visit with a meeting on the climate crisis, which he said is perhaps “the gravest current obstacle to global peace, stability and prosperity.” He also underscored the importance of steps to make financing available to the solutions that can drive the SDGs. Guterres said the UN’s Decade of Action for the SDGs calls to “supercharge ideas so that they become sustainable solutions” by identifying what works and scaling it up. To do this, financing of USD 2.5 to 3 trillion per year is needed, including: support for developing countries to mobilize domestic resources through improved governance and tax reforms; more effective action against illicit financial flows, money laundering and tax evasion; and innovative financial tools and de-risking private investment in the developing world.

Observing that it is “totally unfair” that Pakistan is in the first line of negative impacts of climate change, Guterres said the country has lost 10,000 lives to climate-related disasters, some areas are vulnerable to flooding and rising sea levels, and climate disruption has triggered a locust emergency, which he also highlighted is taking place in East Africa. He said the biggest worry for Pakistan and everyone else in Central, South and East Asia is water: “Pakistan is one of the 15 most water-stressed countries in the world. As temperatures rise and glaciers melt, Pakistan’s goals for reducing poverty and guaranteeing food security are put at risk.”

Ahead of COP 26, major emitters must phase out coal and end perverse fossil fuel subsidies.

Echoing his emphasis on listening to scientific guidance from his AU Summit remarks, Guterres said temperature rise must be kept to 1.5 degrees to avert runaway climate change, and this requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Guterres said that ahead of COP 26, major emitter countries must phase out coal and end perverse fossil fuel subsidies.

In December 2019 the UN announced the appointment of Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance. The aim of the role is “significantly shifting public and private finance markets and mobilizing private finance to the levels needed to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change” ahead of COP 26. Carney will work to incorporate climate change impacts into the “mainstream of private financial decision‑making” and support the transition to a net‑zero carbon economy. He is expected to begin as Special Envoy in March 2020.

In February 2020 the Secretary-General appointed Selwin Hart, Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), as his Special Adviser and Assistant Secretary-General of the Climate Action Team. Leading the Climate Action Team, Hart is expected to focus on “Member State support, coalition-building, UN system engagement and public mobilization necessary to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change and achieve a successful” COP 26. In his remarks at the UN in February, Guterres notes that his reshaping of the climate team is aimed at aligning with the lead-up to COP 26, the priorities of 2020, and the Decade of Action on the SDGs.

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