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Guterres calls for phasing out fossil fuels to avoid climate ‘catastrophe’

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© Unsplash/Amir Arabshahi Burning fossil fuels like coal contributes to climate change.

“We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open”, he said.  “It’s time to wake up and step up.” 

Mr. Guterres was speaking to journalists at UN Headquarters following a meeting with civil society climate leaders from across the world. 

‘Catastrophe’ looms 

He said limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible but will require a 45 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. 

However, current policies will lead to a 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century, which “spells catastrophe”. 

He called for immediate global action toward net-zero emissions, which “must start with the polluted heart of the climate crisis: the fossil fuel industry.” 

Leave coal in the ground 

Countries must progressively phase out fossil fuels, “moving to leave oil, coal and gas in the ground where they belong”, and massively boost investment in renewable energy, he said. 

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The UN chief has previously proposed establishing a Climate Solidarity Pact under which rich nations would support emerging economies with cutting emissions.  

Another proposal for an Acceleration Agenda calls on governments to phase out coal by 2040, end public and private international coal funding, and shift subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, among other measures.  

 ‘A special responsibility’ 

“But the fossil fuel industry and its enablers have a special responsibility,” he said, noting the record “$4 trillion windfall” in income last year. 

“Yet for every dollar it spends on oil and gas drilling and exploration, only four cents went to clean energy and carbon capture combined. Trading the future for thirty pieces of silver is immoral,” he said. 

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Lead the transition 

 Mr. Guterres stressed that the fossil fuel industry should apply its massive resources “to drive, not obstruct” the global transition to renewable energy.   

 The industry currently “is not even reaching the very low operational emissions reductions targets it has set for itself,” he said. 

He called for fossil fuel companies to present credible, comprehensive and detailed new transition plans that include reducing emissions “up and down the value chain” – from production through to refining, distribution and use. 

Plans must also establish clear, near-term targets towards the transition to clean energy. 

Don’t ‘knee-cap’ progress 

“Fossil fuel companies must also cease and desist influence peddling and legal threats designed to kneecap progress.  I am thinking particularly of recent attempts to subvert net zero alliances, invoking anti-trust legislation,” he said. 

“Governments are pivotal in setting the record straight.  They must help by providing clear reassurance. Collective climate action does not violate anti-trust – it upholds the public trust,” he added.  

The UN chief also called for detailed plans from financial institutions, saying they must encourage the global energy transformation. 

Plans should include an explicit strategy to progressively strip out fossil fuel assets from their portfolios to ensure alignment with the net zero goal. All lobbying and policy engagement should be disclosed. 

“Financial institutions everywhere must end lending, underwriting, and investments in coal anywhere – including new coal infrastructure, power plants, and mines,” he said.

“And they must commit to end financing and investment in exploration for new oil and gas fields, and expansion of oil and gas reserves – investing instead in the just transition in the developing world.”  

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