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Climate change: UN summit opens without key leaders

Media captionMillions of people join the environmental strike led by schoolchildren across the world on Friday

Several key world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, are not taking part in a special UN “climate action” summit that has opened in New York.

UN Secretary General António Guterres said countries could only speak at the summit if they came with action plans to reduce carbon emissions.

Brazil and Saudi Arabia are also among the countries staying away.

The summit comes days after several million people took part in a global climate strike led by youth activists.

Some of those campaigners, including Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, will address delegates.

Ahead of the one-day summit, scientists warned that the signs and impacts of global warming were speeding up.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere between 2015 and 2019 had grown by 20% compared with the previous five years.

“We should listen to the loud cry coming from the schoolchildren,” said Professor Brian Hoskins, chair of the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, and professor of meteorology at the University of Reading.

“There is an emergency – one for action in both rapidly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions towards zero and adapting to the inevitable changes in climate,” he said.

Opening the summit on Monday, Mr Guterres – who organised the meeting – said the world was “in a deep climate hole” and that urgent action was needed.

“Time is running out, but it’s not too late,” he said.

Mr Guterres earlier said he expected “a number of meaningful plans on dramatically reducing emissions during the next decade, and on reaching carbon neutrality by 2050” would be unveiled at the summit.

Media captionBBC Weather examines what effects a warming world could have had on 2019’s extreme weather

He said he wanted the world to move away from fossil fuels and to stop building new coal-fired power stations after 2020.

In an emotional speech after Mr Guterres, Swedish teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg accused world leaders of failing the young generation.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said.

The summit comes ahead of the next international climate negotiations next year.

Who’s attending and who’s absent?

Some 60 leaders, including the UK’s Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, are expected to take the podium to deliver their pledges.

But the sensitive issue of coal reportedly means that Japan and Australia – whose leaders are not attending – will not be given a platform.

“People can only speak if they come with positive steps. That is kind of a ticket,” Mr Guterres said. “For bad news, don’t come.”

Japan’s Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi denied Japan had been barred from speaking, saying it had received an invitation, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could not attend.

However, China and India have been given a podium place despite leading the world in developing new coal capacity.

The majority of India’s electricity still comes from coal burning, and Chinese institutions are the largest financers of coal plants across the globe, according to data quoted by the CarbonBrief website.

Mr Trump is also in New York and will be at the UN headquarters, but will attend an event on religious freedom instead. The US will be represented at the climate summit by a senior official for the environment.

In 2017, President Trump announced his intention to pull the US out of the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement, saying the international deal to keep global temperatures rises below 2C was disadvantageous to US workers.

However, the US has not yet completed its withdrawal from the agreement.

Mr Trump’s administration has rolled back dozens of environmental and climate protections and proposed ending rules on oil drilling and coal plants.

In New York, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will represent India, but Chinese President Xi Jinping will not attend. Beijing will instead be represented by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

The Paris agreement pledged to keep global temperatures “well below” 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C.

But scientists warn current pledges will mean the world will fall well short of that goal.

The WMO report recognised that global temperatures had risen by 1.1C since 1850, and gone up by 0.2C between 2011 and 2015.

Scientists plead with politicians

By Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst

As the dangers of climate heating become ever more apparent, so does the absence of collective will to tackle the issue.

In 2015 in Paris, all the world’s leaders sounded their determination to curb the emissions that were heating the climate.

Today will see a host of initiatives from businesses and small- and medium-sized nations.

But President Trump is encouraging fossil fuel in every way he can.

And China – in spite of its trend-setting commitment to solar and wind power – is still building new coal-fired power stations.

Even the UK, a global leader in climate policy-making, is veering away from its own medium-term targets to cut emissions.

The government is still aiming to expand Heathrow airport and increase the road network in a way that will increase emissions in those sectors.

Politicians appear to believe climate change can be challenged with a version of economic business as usual.

Their scientists are telling them with increasingly desperation that we humans are facing an unprecedented threat in need of an unprecedented response.

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

Climate change: UN summit opens without key leaders

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