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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Moment of climate truth – with fossil fuels in the dock


5 min read

Head and shoulders photo of Steve Hodgson Photo: S Hodgson
Steve Hodgson FEI, Editor-at-large, New Energy World

Photo: S Hodgson

United Nations chief António Guterres last week expressed frustration with the gas, oil and coal industries in the face of new evidence of a wrecked climate. New Energy World Editor-at-large Steve Hodgson FEI analyses the speech.

Am I alone in being struck by the outspoken commentary of where the world stands on climate change delivered in a speech last week by none other than the UN Secretary General António Guterres? The one that ended with excoriating criticism of the fossil fuel industry? New Energy World covers it in a news story in this week’s issue.


Guterres started with the latest news on global heating – that, less than a decade since the Paris Agreement to limit long-term global warming to 1.5°C, the target is ‘hanging by a thread’. Indeed, ‘the world is spewing emissions so fast that by 2030, a far higher temperature rise is all but guaranteed’.


New data from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) shows that the world is already facing incursions into 1.5°C territory – global average temperatures for the last 12 months were the highest on record, at 1.63°C above the 1850–1900 pre-industrial average. And there’s more to come.


Meanwhile, the maximum amount of CO2 that the earth’s atmosphere can take and stay within the 1.5°C limit is 200bn tonnes. ‘The truth is we are burning through the [carbon] budget at reckless speed – spewing out around 40bn tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. We can all do the math,’ said Guterres.


He continued: ‘Global emissions need to fall 9% every year until 2030 to keep the 1.5°C limit alive. But they are heading in the wrong direction – last year they rose by 1%... We are playing Russian roulette with our planet.’


A lasting 1.5°C rise is a physical limit, said Guterres, beyond which we risk the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets with a catastrophic sea level rise; and widespread permafrost melt, releasing huge volumes of damaging methane.


Yet the climate battle could still be won, he added, and it will be won or lost in the 2020s, with much depending on political decisions taken – or not – in the next year or two, particularly at upcoming meetings of the G7 and G20 countries and at COP29 in Azerbaijan in November.


Persisting with fossil fuels is the problem, said Guterres: ‘Economic logic makes the end of the fossil fuel age inevitable. The only questions are: Will that end come in time? And will the transition be just? We must ensure the answer to both questions is: yes.’


He proposed a four-point plan.


Four points to the future 
First – huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, led by the largest emitters. Advanced G20 countries that produce 80% of global emissions should go furthest and fastest, and provide technological and financial support to emerging G20 economies and other developing countries.

This means: ‘G7 and other OECD countries committing to end coal by 2030 and to create fossil fuel-free power systems and reduce oil and gas supply demand by 60% – by 2035.’ It means all countries ending new coal projects – now, particularly in Asia, home to 95% of planned new coal power capacity.


There is room for CO2 removal and storage to deal with emissions from hard-to-abate heavy industries, said Guterres. But: ‘These technologies are not a silver bullet; they cannot be a substitute for drastic emissions cuts or an exercise to delay fossil fuel phase-out.’


Second – adaptation, and more protection from the climate chaos of today, particularly for the most vulnerable people struggling to deal with a climate crisis they did nothing to create.


Third – reform of the international finance system. Guterres called for ‘a massive expansion of affordable public and private finance to fuel ambitious new climate plans and deliver clean, affordable energy for all… But none of this will be enough without new, innovative sources of funds – it is high time to put a price on carbon and tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies.’


Fourth – fossil fuels again, and Guterres pulled no punches here: ‘We must directly confront those in the fossil fuel industry who have shown a relentless zeal for obstructing progress – over decades... I call on leaders in the fossil fuel industry to understand that if you are not in the fast lane to clean energy transformation, you are driving your business into a dead end – and taking us all with you.’


Guterres also called for financial institutions to stop bankrolling fossil fuels and start investing in a global renewables revolution, and on advertising and PR companies to stop taking on new fossil fuel clients.


He ended on another forceful note: ‘It is We the People versus the polluters and profiteers… Together, we can win. But it’s time for leaders to decide whose side they’re on. Tomorrow will be too late… This is our moment of truth.’


‘Economic logic makes the end of the fossil fuel age inevitable. The only questions are: Will that end come in time? And will the transition be just? We must ensure the answer to both questions is: yes.’ – António Guterres, UN Secretary General 


Ending fossil fuels
Guterres is surely not alone in losing patience with progress on cutting global carbon emissions. Despite the 2015 Paris Agreement these have risen every year since, except for the COVID year 2020. And the climate emergency is more real today than ever.


And the fossil fuel industry is certainly resilient – it is more than three years since another respected international organisation, the International Energy Agency, called for an end to approvals for new oil and gas fields and new coal mines in its landmark Net Zero by 2050 report.


Fundamentally, surely, it’s up to governments to legislate shifts in the shape of the energy industry – and consumer demand – which will ultimately deliver our exit from polluting fossil fuels. And many governments are still greenlighting new fossil fuel projects even now.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.


  • Further reading: ‘Leaders of the transition’. Key speakers at International Energy Week 2024 spoke on a range of thought-provoking issues relating to the energy transition and the road to net zero. 
  • Storm brews again at COP28 over climate funding’. Diplomatic tensions were high ahead of the COP28 climate conference, particularly when it came to the question of who would pay for mitigation and adaptation.