The ninth UN secretary general walks a tightrope
António Guterres

THE United Nations (UN) secretary general, 74-year-old Mr António Guterres, is not having the time of his life in one of the most challenging tenures as the ninth head of the international body.

As the difficulties posed by an increasingly polarised world get even more complicated, the former Portuguese prime minister's language has become more strident, with a tinge of anger that is hard to hide.

His current leadership of the campaign to secure a "humanitarian pause" — euphemism for a ceasefire in the bombardment of Gaza — which an enraged Israel has greeted with a call for his resignation, is perhaps Mr Guterres' sternest test in six years at the helm of the world body.

Mr Guterres began his term in 2017 in immediate turbulence as new United States President Donald Trump announced he would pull the world's most powerful economy out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, threatening the effectiveness of a pact that had been long in the making to save the planet.

A year later Mr Trump also withdrew the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal, saying it failed in its purpose to curtail Iran's missile programme and regional influence. The rest of the world disagreed and Iran resumed its nuclear programme.

Speaking yesterday at the launch of the UN Environment Programme's Emission Gap Report in New York, the secretary general described the many thorny issues as "a clear distraction" for the UN as they related to the big challenges faced by the international community.

Mr Guterres could barely mask his anger when he addressed the number of children being killed in armed conflict, as borne out by the UN's annual report. He pointed to the heaviest toll as carried out by the Taliban; the Syrian Government and its allies; Russia; and the Saudi Arabia-Yemen conflict.

But in respect of the current Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza, "what is clear is that we have had, in a few weeks, thousands of children killed… We are witnessing a killing of civilians that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any conflict since I am secretary general".

Mr Guterres' tone was no less sharp or impatient in his description of the climate crisis, saying that the Emissions Gap Report had made it plain that "if nothing changes, in 2030 emissions will be 22 gigatonnes higher than the 1.5-degree limit will allow" — or roughly the total present annual emissions of the USA, China, and the European Union combined.

Emissions are shattering temperature records, making June, July, August, September and October this year the hottest on record. Present trends are racing the planet down "a dead end, three-degree temperature rise".

"In short, the report shows that the emissions gap is more like an emissions canyon — a canyon littered with broken promises, broken lives, and broken records. All of this is a failure of leadership, a betrayal of the vulnerable, and a massive missed opportunity," at a time when "renewables have never been cheaper or more accessible".

He suggested that reversing the state of affairs requires "tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels" — a just, equitable renewables transition — and "leaders must drastically up their game now with record ambition, record action, and record emissions reductions".

The world had better listen. Mr Guterres likely knows something the rest of us don't.

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