Humans have broken our planet with 'suicidal war' on nature, UN chief

Humans have broken our planet with ‘suicidal war’ on nature, UN chief warns – with ‘apocalyptic fires, floods, and cyclones’ becoming the new normal

  • Antonio Guterres says fighting climate change is at the heart of the UN mission
  • More ambitious measures are needed to reduce the impact of climate change
  • This includes more countries, cities and firms aiming to be carbon neutral 
  • He was giving a speech to be broadcast on the World Service at 16:00 GMT

Humans have waged a ‘suicidal war’ on planet Earth, warns the UN Secretary General, saying fires, floods and cyclones will become the ‘new normal’.

Speaking to the BBC for a special radio interview, Antonio Guterres warned that nature always strikes back and is currently doing so ‘with gathering force and fury’.

Tackling climate change is set to be at the heart of the UN’s global mission, he said, adding a ‘global coalition’ on reducing emissions to net zero would be a key goal.

Net zero is a term used to refer to cutting greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and removing what you can’t cut by planting trees or other activities and is already a goal for many countries signed up to the Paris Climate agreement.

He said it is time to ‘declare a permanent ceasefire and reconcile with nature’ in order to secure a sustainable and safe future for us and the Earth. 

Wild fire events raged in Australia, California and other parts of the world in 2020 and Guterres says unless action is taken to minimise emissions, these events will get worse

Guterres says we ‘have to go further’ to tackle the environmental issues facing the world – including having every company and city sign up to become net zero.

Speaking to the BBC World Service for a programme called State of the Planet, Guterres sets out the measures he expects nations to take to protect the Earth.  

‘Lets face facts, the state of our planet is broken, humanity is waging war on nature, this is suicidal,’ he said in a speech to be broadcast on the BBC World Service at 16:00 GMT on Wednesday.

‘Biodiversity is collapsing, deserts are spreading, oceans are choking with plastic waste, soon there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.’ 

He wants a price placed on carbon, the phase out of fossil fuel finance and subsidies, a shift in tax burden from income to carbon and from tax payer to polluters and an integrated goal of carbon neutrality in all fiscal policies. 

Every country, city, company and financial institution ‘should adopt plans for a transition to net zero emissions by 2050,’ Guterres told the BBC.

However, he said to achieve this goal they need to ‘take decisive action now’ to put themselves on the right path and help cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.

This is based on the level of emissions the world was putting out in 2010 – rather than today and is ‘an ambitious agenda’ according to Guterres.

He said ‘radical action is needed now’, adding that the ‘science is clear’ on the issue. 

Guterres said: ‘Unless the world cuts fossil fuel production by 6% every year between now and 2030, things will get worse. Much worse.’

The world is already changing, with the impact of our actions on the climate being felt around the world through ‘apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes’ warned Guterres, adding we are in for a catastrophe in the coming decades. 

Antonio Guterres was speaking to the BBC for a special interview to be broadcast on the BBC World Service

Antonio Guterres warned the planet was ‘fighting back’ with a rise in wild fires, flooding, cyclones and other major climate events around the world including this flooding in Chikuma, Japan after a Typhoon

He said that ‘without concerted action, we may be headed for a catastrophic three to five-degree temperature rise this century’.


UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres set out specific demands on nations of the world.

These measures include:

  • A price on carbon
  • Phasing out of fossil fuel finance
  • An end to fossil fuel subsidies
  • Shift the tax burden from income to carbon
  • Make polluters not tax payers pay
  • Integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into economic and fiscal policies
  • Help nations already facing the impacts of climate change 

The Paris climate agreement is a UN convention where nations signed up to the protocol agree to take actions to reduce emissions.

The goal is to keep global temperatures from rising by no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2C) above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. 

This is to stop the worst impacts of climate change from taking hold including mass flooding, rising sea levels, wild fires and melting ice sheets.

Guterres said if nations of the world are ambitious and work together to cut emissions and step up efforts to reduce there could be a ‘glimmer of hope’.

He said commitments from the EU, US, China, Japan, South Korea and over 100 other countries to become carbon neutral by 2050 is a big step forward.

Speaking to the BBC, he said technology will also help reach the ambitious targets to create a more sustainable future for humanity and planet Earth.

This includes an end to coal and a move to create new renewable power plants. 

It currently costs more to run most of the current coal plans around the world than it does to build new, renewable energy generators from scratch, Guterres said. 

The call for the new ambitious targets will be set out – and hopefully agreed – at a UN conference hosted by the UK and Italy in Glasgow in November 2021.

COP26  is the 26th UN climate change conference and is the first time all parties are expected to commit to new ambitious climate goals – building on those set out at COP21 in Paris – known as the Paris Agreement. 

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution


Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040.  

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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