World leaders open COP26 climate talks with sombre warnings: ‘We are digging our own graves’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson opened the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow on a sombre note on Monday by warning that the world is facing an ecological "doomsday" while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said bluntly: "We are digging our own graves."

Addressing the COP26 conference, Joe Biden called the fight against climate change an "incredible opportunity".
Addressing the COP26 conference, Joe Biden called the fight against climate change an "incredible opportunity". © Brendan Smialowski, AFP

US President Joe Biden opted for a more hopeful tone, saying there is an “incredible opportunity” behind the “growing catastrophe” of global warming and urging world leaders to meet the challenge.

Biden pushed back against criticism that transforming economies to reduce greenhouse gases and reliance on fossil fuels will undermine employment. Electrifying transport, and building solar panel and wind turbine networks, creates "good, paying union jobs for American workers" whereas continuing down the same path is already causing economic damage, he said. 

“We're standing at an inflection point in world history,” Biden observed, citing the proliferation of wildfires, droughts and other climate-related disasters. 

Biden also spoke about the long-term US strategy, which his administration released Monday, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Filed in compliance with the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the plan paints a picture of a country increasingly reliant on wind, solar and other clean energies.  

"None of us can escape the worst that is yet to come if we fail to seize this moment,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron took to the stage after Biden spoke and called for a unified effort to curb climate change based on three values: ambition, solidarity and trust.

He urged the world's "largest emitters" to boost their plans to slash carbon pollution during the crunch two-week summit.  

“The key over the next 15 days at this COP is that the largest emitters, whose national strategies do not align with our objective of 1.5° Celsius of warming, to raise their ambition ... that’s the only way of making our strategy credible again,” Macron told world leaders in Glasgow.  

Macron and Biden were preceded by Britain’s Boris Johnson, who opened the summit by dramatically saying the world is essentially strapped to a “doomsday device”. 

Johnson suggested that living on an ever-warming Earth was like fictional secret agent James Bond being strapped to a bomb that is capable of destroying the planet. 

"A red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation that will end human life as we know it – and we are roughly [in] the same position, my fellow global leaders, as James Bond today. Except that the tragedy is this is not a movie, and the doomsday device is real."

Johnson kicked off the summit portion of the UN conference, which is aimed at forging an agreement to curb carbon emissions fast enough to keep global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) below pre-industrial levels. The world has already warmed 1.1°C. Current projections based on planned emissions cuts over the next decade are for it to hit 2.7°C by the year 2100.  

Johnson told the summit that humanity had run down the clock when it comes to climate change, and the time for action is now. He pointed out that the more than 130 world leaders who gathered in Glasgow had an average age of over 60, while the generations most harmed by climate change aren't yet born.

Johnson called for the end of coal-fired power plants and gasoline-powered cars along with a huge transfer of cash from rich nations to poor to help them switch to greener economies and adapt to worsening climate impacts.

The mood only got darker when United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres followed Johnson's speech.

“We are digging our own graves,” Guterres said. “Our planet is changing before our eyes – from the ocean depths to mountaintops, from melting glaciers to relentless extreme weather events.” 

In a recorded welcome message, Queen Elizabeth II said she hoped the conference would be “one of those rare occasions where everyone will have the chance to rise above the politics of the moment".

“History has shown that when nations come together in common cause, there is always room for hope,” she said in the video, which was recorded on Friday at Windsor Castle.

Britain's Prince Charles told the world leaders they need to “save our precious planet”, adding: “The eyes and hopes of the world are upon you.”

Speaking later in the day, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 2070 as the target date for reaching net-zero carbon emissions – two decades after what scientists say is needed to avert catastrophic climate impacts. Modi noted, however, that India accounts for 17 percent of the world’s population but just 5 percent of global emissions.

A COP official welcomed the 2030 pledge but expressed surprise at the 2070 goal, which is a decade later than China’s and Saudi Arabia’s net-zero target date of 2060.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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