"Many people still think that to give fossil fuel subsidies is a way to improve living conditions of people... There is nothing more wrong than that," says Antonio Guterres
By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, May 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Subsidies that promote the use of fossil fuels are helping "to destroy the world", and are a bad way to deploy taxpayers' money, the head of the United Nations said on Tuesday.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a gathering of politicians and business people in Austria that pollution should be taxed, and subsidies for oil, gas and coal should be ended.
"Many people still think that to give fossil fuel subsidies is a way to improve living conditions of people," he said in remarks delivered at a Vienna conference on climate change.
"There is nothing more wrong than that. What we are doing is using taxpayers' money – which means our money – to boost hurricanes, to spread droughts, to melt glaciers, to bleach corals. In one word – to destroy the world."
According to the International Energy Agency, global fossil-fuel consumption subsidies in 2017 were more than $300 billion, up from about $270 billion in 2016.
Guterres said he believed taxpayers would prefer to see their money returned to them rather than used to wreck the planet.
A hard-hitting report produced by hundreds of scientists this month warned that up to 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction due to humankind's relentless pursuit of economic growth.
It identified industrial farming and fishing as major drivers of the crisis, and said climate change caused by burning fossil fuels was exacerbating the losses.
The U.N. chief on Tuesday called for "a rapid and deep change in how we do business, how we generate power, how we build cities, and how we feed the world", so that global warming can be curbed, and people and the planet protected from harm.
Even if governments met the commitments they made under the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle climate change, temperatures would still rise more than 3 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times, "which means a catastrophic situation", Guterres said.
The Paris accord, now ratified by about 185 countries, sets a goal to limit global temperature increase to "well below" 2C, and to strive for 1.5C, in order to avert the worst effects of extreme weather and rising seas.
The situation is "even more serious" because many countries "are not even catching up with their own promises" made under the Paris pact, Guterres emphasised.
He has convened a summit in New York on Sept. 23 aimed at spurring governments, businesses and others to step up their efforts to curb climate change.
"I am asking leaders not to come with beautiful speeches but to come with concrete plans to promote the climate action we need," he said in Austria.
The U.N. boss said doing the right things - such as halting the building of coal power plants, decarbonising urban infrastructure, and producing and consuming in a greener way - would have "profound" benefits for societies around the world.
Those include cleaner water and air, less pollution, more chemical-free agriculture and reduced loss of wildlife and plant species, he said.
"In short, we need a green economy, not a grey economy, to have a green society," he added.
Teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, whose weekly school strikes about climate change have sparked a global youth movement over the past nine months, said the general public had not been well-informed about the risks of a warming planet.
It was up to politicians, executives, journalists and others with influence to tell the truth about the climate "emergency", and not pretend it could be fixed with technology or simple solutions, she said.
"We promise we will not let you get away with it anymore," she insisted at the conference.
Former California governor and Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose R20 climate change initiative for regional, state and city governments organised the gathering, said the greatest movements for change all start with "people power" holding governments or corporations to account.
"The movement for a clean energy future is no different," he said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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