UN chief: climate talks at ‘point of no return’

Right now: Save the Children says climate shocks threaten millions of people in Africa. © Getty

Is he right? The world’s biggest climate summit kicked off in Madrid yesterday, with 29,000 delegates from almost every nation. António Guterrez thinks this is our last shot to get it right.

“The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” said António Guterrez, Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), as the global COP25 climate conference opened in Madrid yesterday.

Over two weeks, 29,000 delegates (including environment ministers, civil servants and UN officials from every country on Earth) will frantically attempt to negotiate new targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and put the words of the 2015 Paris Agreement into action.

The current targets, which set the world on course for a “disastrous” 3C of warming, are due to expire next year. To avoid irreversible damage, Guterrez is pushing for nations to agree to “immediately start reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a pace consistent to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050”.

Will this high-stakes meeting make a difference? Recent signals are disheartening.

Just last week, a UN report revealed a huge and growing chasm between how clean the world’s economies actually are, and how clean they need to be to avoid climate disaster. Last year, global emissions from the electrical industry rose by 2% despite the international spotlight on the crisis.

According to the Save the Children charity, 33 million people in Africa are facing a starvation emergency due to climate crisis-driven cyclones and droughts. Ahead of conference, dozens of islands that could soon be submerged by rising sea levels issued a desperate plea to more powerful nations to heed Guterrez’s warning.

“We see [these talks] as the last opportunity to take decisive action,” said Janine Felson, deputy chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

Aside from the urgent carbon targets, the delegates are set to clash over the revival of carbon markets. This system allowed rich countries to offset their carbon emissions by sponsoring green energy projects in developing nations — until the 2008 financial crisis brought the industry crashing down.

While many major nations, including the USA, back the revival of carbon markets as “a pathway to reducing emissions fast”, others say they provide an excuse for rich countries to keep burning fossil fuels while poor countries clean up the mess.

The COP conference must provide simple, unanimous answers to the world’s greatest problems, and the clock is ticking. But Guterrez insists we should be heartened.

“Signals of hope are multiplying,” he said yesterday. “Public opinion is waking up everywhere. Young people are showing remarkable leadership and mobilisation. [But we need] political will to put a price on carbon.”

Are we at a point of no return?

Last chance saloon

The UN said it last year. Guterrez repeated it yesterday. Time and time again, the science has shown that the climate crisis is not a slow and steady process. Very soon — or perhaps we are already there — global carbon emissions will reach a tipping point, after which the devastating effects of climate change will rapidly and uncontrollably spiral. It is almost already too late.

But others insist that talk of a “point of no return” is meaningless, if not outright dangerous. Anything and everything we can do to limit the climate emergency will make a difference. If we start thinking that it is all too little, too late, then we are doomed to inaction.

You Decide

  1. Is it too late to stop the climate crisis?
  2. Who is most to blame for global warming?


  1. Make a list of the three most important things that should be discussed at COP25.
  2. Research and write a newspaper article about an island that is under threat from rising sea levels.

Some People Say...

“Right here, right now, is where we draw the line.”

Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old, Swedish climate activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The 25th Conference of the Parties, or COP25, which is run by the UN, started in Madrid yesterday. World leaders do not attend the annual conference. Instead, the 29,000 attendees include a range of environmental ministers and civil servants, aided by UN employees. At least one voting delegate will be sent by around 200 countries.
What do we not know?
How much progress COP25 will make. All decisions at the summit must be unanimous, which means that climate-sceptic nations like Saudi Arabia, Brazil or even the USA have the power to slow down progress. There has already been high drama: the conference was moved moved to Madrid from Santiago at the last moment due to political unrest and rioting in the Chilean capital.

Word Watch

The 25th Conference of the Parties, which is held each year and attended by around 200 nations.
2015 Paris Agreement
This deal commits its signatories to keep global warming below 2C and, ideally, below 1.5C. It has been criticised for being too vague about exactly what measures countries must take to bring down emissions. The COP25 is trying to fix that problem now by agreeing a concrete “rulebook”.
Carbon neutrality
A country is carbon neutral when it removes as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it produces.
A profound difference between people, their views or their feelings.
Tropical storms that form over the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Dozens of islands
The 44 states that are members of AOSIS released a joint statement.
Pay attention to.
Fossil fuels
Non-sustainable energy sources that produce carbon dioxide when burned, like natural gas, coal and fuel oil.
When every member of a group agrees.


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