World leaders warned climate breakdown close to ‘irreversible’ as they gathered for make-or-break Cop27

World leaders have been warned climate breakdown is close to being “irreversible”, as they gathered for the make-or-break Cop27 summit amid accusations of “backsliding on promises made”.

The conference got under way against the gloomy backdrop of a new United Nations report finding the 1.5C limit for global heating is now “barely within reach” – after the past eight years were the eight hottest ever recorded.

The UN secretary-general warned world leaders in Egypt – including Rishi Sunak, after his U-turn on attending – that “our planet is on course to reach tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible”.

Just 29 of 194 countries have obeyed the instruction from Cop26, in Glasgow last year, to come forward with more ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, demanded that the promise be kept, saying he is “looking out” at the 165 countries that still needed to move further and faster.

“I will not be a custodian of backsliding,” he said, adding: “We know what must be done by everybody everywhere, every single day, doing everything we possibly can. Colleagues, it’s time to get to work.”

Mr Stiell’s call to action comes amid new findings that the past eight years have been Earth’s hottest on record.

The provisional State of the Global Climate report, published by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) on Sunday, said that sea level rise in the past decade was double what it was in the 1990s and since January 2020 has jumped at a higher rate than that.

Participants and delegates work in the Africa pavilion at the Sharm El Sheikh International Convention Centre (AFP/Getty)
Participants and delegates work in the Africa pavilion at the Sharm El Sheikh International Convention Centre (AFP/Getty)

The report highlights the summer’s flood in Pakistan that killed more than 1,700 people and displaced 7.9 million, a crippling four-year drought in East Africa that has left more than 18 million hungry, the Yangtze River drying to its lowest level in August, and record heatwaves broiling people in Europe and China.

Levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide all reached record high levels, with potent methane increasing at a record pace, the report said.

Ice, both Greenland’s ice sheet and the world’s glaciers, is shrinking precipitously. For the 26th year in a row, Greenland lost ice when all types of ice are included.

The volume of glacier snow in Switzerland dropped by more than one-third from 2001 to 2022, the report said.

People walk along the dry riverbed of the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, in China (AP)
People walk along the dry riverbed of the Jialing River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, in China (AP)

But 90 per cent of the heat trapped on Earth goes into the ocean and the upper part of the ocean is getting warmer faster. The rate of warming over the last 15 years is 67 per cent faster than since 1971.

That ocean heat “will continue to warm in the future - a change which is irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales,” the report said.

“The latest State of the Global Climate report is a chronicle of climate chaos,” UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said. “We must answer the planet’s distress signal with action – ambitious, credible climate action.”

Also on the first day of the summit, delegates agreed to discuss whether rich nations should compensate poor countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Delegates  from Burkina Faso attend an opening session at Cop27 (AP)
Delegates from Burkina Faso attend an opening session at Cop27 (AP)

At last year’s Cop26 in Glasgow, wealthier nations blocked a proposal for a loss and damage financing body, instead supporting a new three-year dialogue for funding discussions.

Cop27 president Sameh Shoukry said: “The loss and damage discussions now on the agenda at Cop27 will not involve liability or binding compensation, but they are intended to lead to a conclusive decision no later than 2024.”

“The inclusion of this agenda reflects a sense of solidarity for the victims of climate disasters,” he added.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International warned that the proceedings in Egypt could be stained by the death of the country’s leading rights activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is currently embarking on a hunger and water strike in prison.

Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of the human rights group, said Egypt had no more than 72 hours to save the life of the jailed dissident who is also a UK citizen.

The illumination of Khafre Pyramid, one of the three ancient pyramids of Giza (Egyptian Presidency of Cop27/AFP/Getty)
The illumination of Khafre Pyramid, one of the three ancient pyramids of Giza (Egyptian Presidency of Cop27/AFP/Getty)

Mr Abdel-Fattah escalated his hunger strike this week, refusing also water, to coincide with the first day of the conference, according to his family.

His aunt, the writer Ahdaf Soueif, said he stopped drinking water at 10am local time on Sunday.

Mr Abdel-Fattah hails from a family of well-known Egyptian activists and rose to prominence with the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East and in Egypt toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak.

The 40-year-old activist spent most of the past decade behind bars. For more than six months, he has been on a partial hunger strike, consuming only 100 calories a day.

More than 40,000 participants have been registered for this year’s talks and 110 world leaders will attend, many of them speaking at a high-level event on Monday and Tuesday, while US president Joe Biden was expected to arrive later in the week.

But China’s president Xi Jinping and prime minister Narendra Modi of India were not planning to come, casting doubt on whether the talks in Egypt could result in any major deals to cut emissions without two of the world’s biggest polluters.

Additional reporting by agencies