"When you are at the verge of the abyss, you must be very careful about your next step, because if the next step is in the wrong direction, you will fall."
So warned United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a recent interview on NBC Nightly News. He was calling on the world's wealthiest nations to meet their obligations under the Paris climate accords to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and to help developing countries to transition and to adapt to threats that can no longer be averted. Wealthy nations simply must meet these obligations to achieve the Paris goal of holding global temperature rise to a sustainable level.
Guterres' remarks came as the nations prepared to meet at an economic meeting held last month known as the G-7 summit. Shortly before the meeting, the International Energy Agency, which was created in 1974 to monitor global oil supplies, issued two landmark reports indicating it no longer assumes fossil fuels will be part of the world's energy mix, underscoring the urgency of Guterres' warning.
The first report concluded that, to meet the Paris temperature goal, fossil fuel use must precipitously decline, which means there should be "no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects" from now on.
Guterres also highlighted the need to shift from dirty energy by implementing "supply-side" measures such as abolishing subsidies of fossil fuels. "If we do these things," he told reporters in advance of the summit, "many of the investments made to fossil fuels in the recovery phase will obviously not be profitable" because they "will be stranded assets with no future."
Indigenous communities all over the world have long advanced these types of policies by resisting fossil fuel pipelines and other infrastructure, often endangering their lives in the process. Developing nations have also long advocated for such supply-side solutions at U.N. climate meetings.
The second report, which unfortunately received much less publicity than the first, calls for massive funding of clean energy for emerging and developing countries. These countries are home to two-thirds of the world's population yet are responsible for a tiny share of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Wealthy nations thus owe them this support.
IEA Executive Director Faith Birol said wealthy nations have a strategic and moral imperative to help developing countries shift to clean energy: "There is no shortage of money worldwide, but it is not finding its way to the countries, sectors and projects where it is most needed."
We stand on the edge of the abyss, without room for error, because policymakers have made very little progress since the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force in 1992. And wealthy nations are to blame. They bear the most responsibility for the climate crisis, but they have so far failed to implement their mitigation and funding obligations that are necessary to shift the energy supply from planet-heating fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.
These high-emitting nations have grown rich off of their fossil-fuel based economies at the expense of the developing world. Our country, as the highest historical emitter, tops this ignominious list.
Notwithstanding the Biden administration's promises to meaningfully reengage with the international community in response to the climate crisis, the United States and other nations failed to comply with Guterres' recommendations at the G-7 meeting.
Notably, not long after he was named the Biden administration's special climate envoy, John Kerry promised to "make good" on U.S. funding pledges to developing countries. Paying this past-due debt is the bare minimum that the U.S. must do.
The sums needed are far greater. As Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, recently wrote: "Meeting that outstanding 'totemic' pledge is [merely] a test of whether wealthy large-emitting nations will negotiate with their counterparts in the Global South on tackling the climate crisis in good or bad faith."
"If the money is not delivered by November," he continued, "then there is little point in climate-vulnerable nations showing up [at the climate conference] in Glasgow to do business with governments that break their promises."
That would be understandable, but also tragic — for the planet and all species that inhabit it.
The nations of the Global South have been calling for meaningful climate policy for decades. To ensure we don't step into the abyss at this late stage, the Global South should sit at the head of the international climate policymaking table — not wealthy nations. Otherwise, we will certainly fall.