The United Nations secretary-general said the world must dramatically change the way it fuels factories, vehicles and homes to limit future warming to a level scientists call nearly impossible.
The alternative “would mean a catastrophic situation for the whole world”, Antonio Guterres told The Associated Press news agency in an exclusive interview.
Guterres said he was about to tour Pacific islands to see how climate change was devastating them as part of his renewed push to fight it.
He was summoning world leaders to the UN in September to tell them “they need to do much more in order for us to be able to reverse the present trends and to defeat the climate change”.
That means, he said, the world had to change, not in small incremental ways but in big “transformative” ways, into a green economy with electric vehicles and “clean cities”.
Guterres said he would ask leaders to stop subsidising fossil fuels. Burning coal, oil and gas triggers warming by releasing heat-trapping gases.
He said he wanted the countries to put a price on the use of carbon and to stop building new coal power plants after 2020.
Ultimately, the UN chief said, he wanted to make sure that by 2050, the world was no longer putting more greenhouse gases into the air than nature sucks out.
Global temperatures have already risen about 1C since the industrial age began. The issue is how much more the thermometers will rise.
In 2015, the world’s nations set a goal to limit global warming to no more than 0.5C from now.
Most scientists say it is highly unlikely, if not outright undoable, to keep man-made climate change that low, especially since emissions of heat-trapping gases are rising, renewable energy growth is plateauing, and some countries’ leaders and voters are baulking.
A panel of scientists the UN asked to look at the issue ran computer models for more than 500 future scenarios, and less than two percent achieved those warming limits.
Guterres said the wholesale economic changes needed to keep the temperature from rising another degree or more may be painful, but there will be more pain if the world fails.
“If you don’t hang on to that goal, what you’ll achieve is a total disaster,” the secretary-general said.
If countries only do what they promised in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, it would be catastrophic because the world would warm by another 2.5C, Guterres said.
He also said “that is why we need to dramatically accelerate … what everybody knows needs to be done”.
Yet, globally the trends are going the other way.
University of Michigan environment dean Jonathan Overpeck said it looked unlikely that the world could prevent another 1C of warming, let alone 0.5C.
And in an odd way, that gives the UN chief optimism.
Because as disasters mount and deaths increase, the public, especially youths, will realise that warming is “a dramatic threat to the whole of humanity”, Guterres said.
So the worse it gets, the more people will demand change, he said.
That is why he is about to visit the islands of Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean, which he says is hit hardest by climate change.
Guterres said he wanted to use the determination and moral authority of the people who live on the threatened islands to convince world leaders to make the necessary changes.