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The ‘sirens are sounding’, UN’s Guterres tells COP26 conference

Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, has warned delegates attending the COP26 conference that time is running out to stabilise the effects of climate change and that commitments to limit global temperature rises must be reviewed annually to assess their effectiveness. Boris Johnson and the Prince of Wales also addressed those gathered for the crucial climate conference.

In his opening address, Guterres said: “Our planet is talking to us and telling us something - and so are people everywhere. Climate action tops the list of people’s concerns, across countries, age and gender.

“We must listen - and we must act - and we must choose wisely. On behalf of this and future generations, I urge you: choose ambition; choose solidarity; choose to safeguard our future and save humanity.”

He focused on fossil fuels in particular, describing how the world’s “addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink”.

Guterres added: “It’s time to say: enough. Enough of brutalising biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves. “

He suggested that countries must revisit their national climate plans and policies every year in order to keep "the goal of 1.5°C” (the scientifically determined maximum temperature increase) alive.

Guterres said he was establishing a group of experts to propose “clear standards to measure and analyse net-zero commitments from non-state actors” and that COP26 must represent “a moment of solidarity”, as he called for greater support for developing countries.

He told the COP26 conference opening session: “Recent climate action announcements might give the impression that we are on track to turn things around. This is an illusion. The last published report on Nationally Determined Contributions showed that they would still condemn the world to a calamitous 2.7°C increase.

“Even if the recent pledges were clear and credible — and there are serious questions about some of them — we are still careening towards climate catastrophe.

“Even in the best-case scenario, temperatures will rise well above two degrees. So, as we open this much-anticipated climate conference, we are still heading for climate disaster.”

Failure to tackle climate change will be a death sentence for small island states, Guterres said, warning that the world faces “a moment of truth” as it approaches “tipping points that will trigger escalating feedback loops of global heating”.

On a positive note, he took the opportunity to highlight the rising tide of a passionate “climate action army — led by young people", saying, “They are larger. They are louder. And, I assure you, they are not going away. I stand with them.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also made a speech. Addressing the World Leaders’ Summit, Johnson said the Glasgow meeting must mark the moment when humanity began to “defuse that bomb” of climate change and began the fight back.

“While COP26 will not be the end of climate change, it can and it must mark the beginning of the end. In the years since Paris [COP21, held in 2015], the world has slowly and with great effort and pain built a lifeboat for humanity and now is the time to give that lifeboat a mighty shove into the water like some great liner rolling down the slipways of the Clyde. Take a sexton sighting on 1.5°C and set off on a journey to a cleaner greener future.”

Johnson also urged world leaders not to “fluff our lines”, warning that younger generations will “not forgive us”. He said: “The children who will judge us are children not yet born, and their children. We are now coming centre stage before a vast and uncountable audience of posterity and we must not fluff our lines or miss our cue.

“Because if we fail, they will not forgive us – they will know that Glasgow was the historic turning point when history failed to turn. COP26 will not and cannot be the end of the story on climate change.”

Johnson also turned to business leaders to step up and take a key role in helping to tackle climate change. He said there is a duty to find the funds pledged at previous climate summits, saying, “We cannot and will not succeed by government spending alone. We in this room could deploy hundreds of billions, no question. But the market has hundreds of trillions and the task now is to work together to help our friends to decarbonise.”

Labour’s shadow energy secretary said he is “glad” the Prime Minister has acknowledged how difficult a successful outcome will be at COP26, but wished Boris Johnson’s realisation had occurred sooner.

Speaking to the PA news agency, Ed Miliband said: “The Prime Minister has finally woken up to how difficult this is, but I wish he’d woken up two years ago, not two days before the summit begins. There’s a real sense with the Prime Minister that he does these things at the last minute –, essay-crisis Prime Minister.

“You can’t do that with COP26; it’s too important and too complex a negotiation. We are a long way away from where we need to be – his job now is to put pressure on all the big emitters, the Australias, the Chinas and others, to say ‘you’ve got to step up and do more’.”

Charles, Prince of Wales, also spoke before the assembled world leaders. In his opening address at COP26, the Prince told the audience that the “eyes and hopes of the world” are on them to act fast because “time has quite literally run out”.

The Prince of Wales told delegates: “The scale and scope of the threat we face call for a global, systems-level solution based on radically transforming our current fossil fuel-based economy to one that is genuinely renewable and sustainable.

“We know this will take trillions, not billions, of dollars. We also know that countries, many of whom are burdened by growing levels of debt, simply cannot afford to ‘go green’.

“Here, we need a vast military-style campaign to marshal the strength of the global private sector. With trillions at its disposal – far beyond global GDP and, with the greatest respect, beyond even the governments of the world’s leaders – it offers the only real prospect of achieving fundamental economic transition.”

Concluding his speech, Charles said: “Many of your countries are already feeling the devastating impact of climate change, through ever-increasing droughts, mudslides, floods, hurricanes, cyclones and wildfires.

“Any leader who has had to confront such life-threatening challenges knows that the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of prevention.

“So, I can only urge you, as the world’s decision-makers, to find practical ways of overcoming differences so we can all get down to work, together, to rescue this precious planet and save the threatened future of our young people.”

Prince William, Charles' eldest son, recently commented on the billionaires pursuing space tourism, saying: "We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live."

The Queen was also overheard earlier this month expressing her frustration at world leaders who had not yet confirmed their attendance at CO26, reportedly saying: “It’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do”.

However, the Royal Family has been criticised for its own dependence on carbon-intensive forms of transport, as well as the Crown Estate's position as the largest landowner in the UK, responsible for at least 615,000 acres. A public petition to 'rewild' their lands, to encourage greater biodiversity, was signed recently by more than 100,000 people and delivered to Buckingham Palace.

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