UN chief warns against ‘survival of the richest’ on climate

Antonio Guterres dismisses as ‘nonsense’ claims that ‘economic growth and tackling climate change are incompatible’ at UN conference

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech at the COP25 climate talks summit in Madrid, Spain, December 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech at the COP25 climate talks summit in Madrid, Spain, December 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

MADRID, Spain (AP) — United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Thursday that failure to tackle climate change could result in economic disaster that would allow only the “survival of the richest.”

Guterres urged officials from almost 200 countries at the annual UN climate meeting in Madrid to embrace the economic opportunities that come with cutting greenhouse gases rather than focus on the risks to existing industries dependent on fossil fuels.

“For too long, vested interests have peddled the false story that economic growth and tackling climate change are incompatible,” the UN chief said. “This is nonsense.”

“In fact, failing to tackle global heating is a sure-fire recipe for economic disaster,” Guterres added.

He cited a study showing that shifting to a low-carbon economy could create 65 million new jobs worldwide by 2030 and boost growth by $26 trillion dollars.

Scientists say countries need to stop burning fossil fuels by 2050 at the latest to ensure global temperatures don’t rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) this century.

“This transition needs to be done to benefit everybody,” Guterres said. “And not doing this transition will only allow, as I said, the survival of the richest.”

Visitors attend the COP25 climate summit in Madrid, Spain, December 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

His remarks came as negotiations in Madrid neared the official end, with disagreements over key issues still unresolved.

Vulnerable countries expressed outrage over Australia’s bid to hold onto piles of emissions vouchers left over from a now-discredited system that could allow it to meet its climate commitments without reducing pollution.

Asked about Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent assertion that his country was part of the “Pacific family,” the economy minister of Fiji responded that “when you have family members you also have some black sheep members too in the family.”

“At the moment, it would seem that they appear to be far from eating at the same table,” Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum told reporters in Madrid, adding that he hoped Australia would “let go of their current position.”

Small, low-lying islands like Fiji are particularly vulnerable to tropical storms and sea-level rise worsened by climate change.

Simon Stiell, environment minister of the Caribbean island of Grenada, warned that some countries at the UN meeting “are losing sight of the bigger picture as if there is no climate emergency.”

“This inaction is costing the lives of our people and impacting the lives and the livelihoods of millions around the world,” Stiell said. “We need to stop talking. We know what must be done.”

Demonstrators scuffle with UN security staff members during a protest at the COP25 summit in Madrid, December 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Talks to agree on rules for global carbon markets and aid for poor countries already affected by climate change have made little progress in recent days.

Bas Eickhout, an influential Green Party lawmaker in the European Parliament, said maintaining the “integrity” of the 2015 Paris climate accord was a priority for the 28-nation bloc. Some negotiators have expressed concern that loopholes in a deal about international carbon markets could allow some countries to claim emissions reductions on paper that haven’t actually been made.

“In that sense, from a European perspective, we are absolutely clear that: better no deal than a bad deal,” said Eickhout.

The summit’s president, Chile’s Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, urged delegates to find “no excuses for not reaching agreements” and added that the world’s “youth and women” were demanding action, “one that is equal to the historical challenge that we are facing.”

“I call on you to work together to be able to give a positive response tomorrow,” she said.

Overnight, the UN climate office said it would let dozens of observers who were expelled from the meeting back into the venue.

Some 100 people were escorted off site Wednesday after some staged an impromptu demonstration outside a hall where Guterres was speaking.

The protesters said they were angered by the slow pace of the talks and the apparent unwillingness of major greenhouse gas emitters to do more to curb global warming.

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