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‘Fossil fuels are a dead end’: UN Secretary-General outlines how to avoid climate disaster

To have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding the worst climate impacts, the world needs to transform global energy systems now.

‘Fossil fuels are a dead end’: UN Secretary-General outlines how to avoid climate disaster
[Photo: Christophe Gateau/picture alliance/Getty Images]

The newest State of the Global Climate report is bleak: Last year, the world set new records for greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat, and ocean acidification. The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record in human history. The report, released today by the World Meteorological Organization, “is a dismal litany of humanity’s failure to tackle climate disruption,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message at the launch event.

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But Guterres also laid out a clear path to action, starting with the fact that the fossil fuel era needs to end. “The global energy system is broken and bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe,” he said. “Fossil fuels are a dead end—environmentally and economically. The war in Ukraine and its immediate effects on energy prices is yet another wake-up call. The only sustainable future is a renewable one.”

To have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoiding the worst climate impacts, he said, the world needs to transform global energy systems now. Five things could help speed up the transition.

1.Treat renewable energy tech as “essential and freely available global public goods”
Guterres noted that energy storage is one of the biggest barriers to scaling up clean energy, and called for a global coalition of tech companies, manufacturers, governments, and funders to work together on innovation and deployment. He also argued that IP constraints are a problem. “Removing obstacles to knowledge sharing and technological transfer—including intellectual property constraints—is crucial for a rapid and fair renewable energy transition,” he said.

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2. Scale up and diversify the supply of critical materials for renewable energy
“Today’s supply chains for renewable energy technology and raw materials are concentrated in a handful of countries,” Guterres said. “The renewable age cannot flourish until we bridge this vast chasm.” Governments need to invest in building new supply chains, he said.

3. Governments need to level the playing field for renewables
Renewable energy needs more support from government, including strong policy and work to prevent bottlenecks that hold up deployment because of red tape, Guterres said. “I call on governments to fast-track and streamline approvals of solar and wind projects, modernize grids and set ambitious 1.5-degree-aligned renewable energy targets that provide certainty to investors, developers, consumers and producers,” he said.

4. Fossil fuel subsidies need to end
In 2020, coal, oil, and natural gas received $5.9 trillion in subsidies, according to an analysis from the International Monetary Fund, or roughly $11 million per minute. “Each year, governments around the world pour around half a trillion dollars into artificially lowering the price of fossil fuels—more than triple what renewables receive,” Guterres said. “While people suffer from high prices at the pump, the oil and gas industry is raking in billions from a distorted market.”

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5. Investments in renewable energy need to triple to at least $4 trillion a year
Banks and other investors need to dramatically scale up investments in renewables, Guterres said, and phase out high-emissions investing. Because some developing countries pay as much as seven times more in financing costs for renewable energy, banks need to offer better options. “Every country, city and citizen, every financial institution, company and civil society organization has a role to play,” he said. “But most of all, it’s time for leaders—public and private alike—to stop talking about renewables as a distant project of the future. Because without renewables, there can be no future.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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