Humanity is on a “highway to climate hell”, the UN secretary general has warned, saying the fight for a liveable planet will be won or lost in this decade.
António Guterres told world leaders at the opening of the Cop27 UN climate summit in Egypt on Monday: “We are in the fight of our lives and we are losing … And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.
“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”
He said the world faced a stark choice over the next fortnight of talks: either developed and developing countries working together to make a “historic pact” that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and set the world on a low-carbon path – or failure, which would bring climate breakdown and catastrophe.
“We can sign a climate solidarity pact, or a collective suicide pact,” he added.
He said the world had the tools it needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in clean energy and low-carbon technology.
“A window of opportunity remains open, but only a narrow shaft of light remains,” he said. “The global climate fight will be won or lost in this crucial decade – on our watch. One thing is certain: those that give up are sure to lose.”
Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the president of Egypt, said in his opening address to the summit that poor and vulnerable people around the world were already experiencing the effects of extreme weather: “The intensity and frequency of climate disasters have never been higher, in all four corners of the world, bringing wave after wave of suffering for billions of people. Is it not high time today to put an end to this suffering?”
More than 100 heads of state and government from around the world gathered in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday for two days of closed-door meetings and public events to discuss the climate crisis.
Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, will attend for one day, along with Olaf Scholz of Germany, Emanuel Macron of France, and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. Joe Biden, the US president, will come later in the week, after the US midterm elections.
Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, will set out a new initiative on climate finance for the developing world, and African leaders including William Ruto of Kenya, Macky Sall of Senegal, and George Weah, the president of Liberia, are at the talks. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is also at the meeting.
From Wednesday, the world leaders will hand over to officials and ministers for the rest of the fortnight of talks. However, the summit promises to be a fraught and difficult one, with little chance of a breakthrough.
Countries are meeting in the shadow of the war in Ukraine, a worldwide energy and cost of living crisis, and rising global tensions. Rich and poor countries are at loggerheads as big economies have failed to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough, and the poorer countries bearing the brunt of the climate crisis are receiving little of the financial assistance they need and that has been promised.
The Cop27 conference got off to a slow start, with negotiators spending more than 40 hours over the weekend wrangling over what would be on the agenda. In the end, it was agreed that the vexed issue of loss and damage – which refers to the worst impacts of the climate crisis, which are too severe for countries to adapt to – would be discussed.
Poor countries suffering loss and damage want a financial mechanism that will give them access to funding when disasters such as hurricanes, floods and droughts strike, destroying their infrastructure and tearing apart their social fabric.
It is not likely that these talks will provide a final settlement on loss and damage, but countries are hoping for progress on ways of raising and disbursing finance.
At most UN climate summits, activists and protesters play a key role. However, Egypt clamps down on dissent and its jails are full of political prisoners. Sisi’s government has promised that climate activist voices will be heard, but their activities have been curtailed, with protesters kept at a separate site and required to register in advance to be granted permission for even minor demonstrations.