UN Chief says the global energy system is 'broken' and warns of 'climate catastrophe'

Four key climate change indicators reached record highs in 2021.
Chris Young
Overview of Bucharest on a foggy day.CatEyePerspective/iStock

The World Meteorological Organization's latest report reveals that the world's oceans reached their warmest and most acidic levels on record in 2021, leading United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to warn that our current course will lead to "climate catastrophe".

The WMO's annual State of the Global Climate report aligns with this year's IPCC report, which is also a wake-up call for climate action. 

The WMO report highlights four critical indicators for climate change — greenhouse gas concentrations, sea-level rise, ocean heat, and ocean acidification — all of which have reached record highs.

UN Chief highlights 'humanity's failure' in tackling climate change

The new WMO report also shows that the level of carbon monoxide and methane in the atmosphere reached record highs in 2021, sounding another alarm bell for global governments and the public.

Speaking at the launch of the WMO report, Guterres characterized the new report as "a dismal litany of humanity's failure to tackle climate disruption," as per CNN report. "The global energy system is broken and bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe," he continued. "Fossil fuels are a dead end — environmentally and economically."

Gutteres also claimed the war in Ukraine and its impact on energy prices is another stark wake-up call. "We must end fossil fuel pollution and accelerate the renewable energy transition before we incinerate our only home."

In his remarks, Gutteres proposed a five-point plan for accelerating the transition to renewables, which included allocating subsidies away from fossil fuels and making renewable energy technologies "essential and freely available" to the world. He also called for public and private investments in renewable energy to triple to roughly $4 trillion a year.

Carbon capture technology is now a necessity

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warned that we would have to partially rely on carbon capture technology, which is in the early stages of development. "Sea level rise, ocean heat, and acidification will continue for hundreds of years unless means to remove carbon from the atmosphere are invented," Taalas said. 

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Several companies and organizations are developing such methods, though they are, for the most part, only in the prototype phase. Big tech firms, including Meta and Alphabet recently teamed up to develop carbon capture technologies with Project Frontier. UCLA researchers working on a similar project recently announced it would take trillions of dollars to remove the required amount of CO2. The latest IPCC report suggested that, on top of efforts to reduce emissions vastly, the world will have to remove roughly six billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Globally, the average temperature last year was 1.11 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average — scientists have repeatedly warned that surpassing the 1.5C threshold will likely have catastrophic consequences.

Last year's temperatures were in the top seven hottest years on record, though they were cooled somewhat by the effects of La Nina in the Pacific. By contrast, the WMO report says the oceans are at their most acidic level in at least 26,000 years. Sea levels have risen by 4.5 centimeters (1.8 inches) in the last decade, and climate-linked disasters have increased, with the WMO report noting more than $100 billion in damages.

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