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China, USA climate pledge – all talk, no action?

Chinese Arctic Station in Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

Arctic interest: China maintains a research station in Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen (Pic: I.Quaile)

In a blog post earlier this year, I mused on the danger of everybody sitting back saying, “Yes, we did”, while the planet continues to break all temperature records and fossil fuel emissions continue to rise, now that all the hype surrounding the Paris Climate Agreement in December has worn off. Back to business as usual?

It’s now September and China and the USA have made the headlines telling us they are ratifying the agreements. Of course nine months (since Paris) are tiny grains of sand in the giant egg-timer of planetary evolution. (Have those egg-timers themselves been consigned to the museum in our digital 21st century? Not important). But then again, we humans have “hotted up” the pace at which our climate, planet, atmosphere, ocean are changing dramatically.

Fireworks display or starting gun?

So how do I feel about the US-Chinese announcement? I wish I could say this makes me rejoice. Sure it’s a step in the right direction. And without action by these two top climate abusers, everybody else’s efforts would basically be worthless.

Polar bears only in the museum? (Pic. I.Quaile)

Polar bears only in the museum? (Pic. I.Quaile)

The agreement must be ratified by 55 parties representing 55 percent of total global emissions to enter into force. We are now at something like 25 parties and 40 percent of emissions, which gives ground for hope the agreement could enter into force by the end of the year.

But the proof, of the pudding lies, as always, in the eating.

The drivers of change

I have been convinced for some time that crippling air pollution will drive China to move away from fossil fuels.

I think back on an interview I recorded with Chinese expert Lina Li from the Adelphi thinktank in Berlin, when she told me she thought China’s air pollution problem would speed up the country’s ratification and implementation of the Paris Agreement. You were right, Lina!

Lina Li from the Adelphi think-tank told me pollution concerns could speed up China's climate action (Pic. I.Quaile)

Lina Li from the Adelphi think-tank told me pollution concerns could speed up China’s climate action (Pic. I.Quaile)

As far as the USA is concerned, the outcome of the forthcoming election is clearly the key factor in determining how fast – or even whether – that country will move forward.

At the same time 2016 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded. Even the “ice island” of Greenland has seen record temperatures and alarming melting.

Doom and gloom?

Working on my Living Planet show for this week, I have been listening through reports on the Kuna people off the coast of Panama losing their island home to the waves, and how people in northwestern Kenya are starving because of changed rain patterns.

Forest fires, communities getting ready to “abandon home”, more extreme storms and flooding – these are all becoming so commonplace they are threatening to lose “news value”.

The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still climbing steadily. The global temperature is already one degree Celsius higher than it was at the onset of industrialization. That means very rapid action is needed to keep it to the agreed target of limiting warming to two degrees and preferably keeping it below 1.5 degrees.

A long, long way to go

Yes, the Paris Agreement was hailed widely as a breakthrough, with all parties finally accepting the need to combat climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. But so far, the emissions reductions pledged would still take the world closer to a three-degree rise in temperature.

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA), issued a warning that governments can only reach their climate goals if they drastically accelerate climate action and make full use of existing technologies and policies. I wish I could say I could see this happening fast.

In my programme this week, I also have an interview my colleague Sonya Diehn conducted with Luke Sussams, from the UK-based think tank “Climate Tracker Initiative”. That is the group that came up with the term “stranded assets” which, in turn, inspired the Divestment movement.

He explains how it makes sound economic sense to shift investment out of coal and oil and into renewables. He thinks the clear advantages – less pollution, no greenhouse gas emissions, lower costs – are the best arguments to convince developing countries to “leapfrog” the fossil fuels stage and get into green energy – and into decentralized, off-grid solutions in a big way.

The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is not happening fast enough

Fossil fuels catching up with renewables in oil-state Abu Dhabi? (Pic. I.Quaile)

It’s the economy, stupid?

It seems those economic arguments are what we need. He cites the case of Rockefeller divesting from EXXON only after years of trying to convince them to change their policy on climate change. First, he argues, we should try to change things from within. If that fails, divestment may be the next option.

At the risk of seeming cynical, I have long believed that money is the key to saving the climate. The transition to a low-carbon economy is underway, but it will only succeed when governments and companies – and ultimately also consumers – realize it benefits their coffers and their pockets.

The technology is there. I am very doubtful about whether we will manage to get emissions to peak in time for us to keep to the 1.5 degree target which scientists have me convinced is what we need to do.

It seems we will need to move on to take some of the carbon out of the atmosphere using technologies now being tested – but no way ripe enough for mass implementation. I remember a Guardian interview with IPCC chief scientist Hoesung Lee a couple of months ago. He says we can still keep to the two-degree target, even if emissions do not peak by 2020, as ex- UN climate chief Christina Figueres maintained.

But he warned the costs could be “phenomenal”. He believes expensive and controversial geoengineering methods may be necessary to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere and store it.

Meanwhile, that giant cruise-ship, the Crystal Serenity, is half-way through its controversial trip via the Northwest Passage. The operator says the trip is so successful and interest is so high they will do it again next year. They are unlikely to be foiled by a sudden onset of global cooling.

In scientific circles, the alarm bells are ringing over rising emissions from melting Arctic permafrost.

Did somebody say something about feedback loops and tipping points? Or do we just carry on regardless?

 

Date

September 5, 2016 | 1:27 pm

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Olympics over, but Arctic ice still chasing records

Ice breaking melt record? (Svalbard, Irene Quaile)

The Rio games have come to an end. Summer is drawing to a close here in Germany. It feels more like autumn today, cool with heavy rainshowers. But there’s a heatwave around the corner after what most people agree has been a very strange summer.

July followed in the record-breaking trend of the earlier months of the year, being the hottest month ever recorded on the planet.

Date

August 22, 2016 | 1:46 pm

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Happy Birthday Koldewey Station

Iceblogger interviews a scientist outside Germany’s Koldewey Station, back in 2007. (Pic: I.Quaile)

25 years ago, Germany set up its own Arctic research station in the tiny settlement of Ny Alesund, in the Svalbard archipelago.

Today, 11 countries run research stations there. Arctic research is a very international operation, and countries share the facilities available in Ny Alesund, one of the northernmost settlements in the world. Germany and French now run a joint station, known as the AWIPEV station, after the polar institutes of the two countries. The rest is in this picture gallery, which I put together  to mark the station’s “silver jubilee”.  It combines pictures from several visits I made to the station in recent years and some background about what happens up there in the “high north”.

25 years of German research in the Arctic.

View from Mount Zeppelin over the Kongsfjord, Svalbard, above Ny Alesund research village. (Pic. I.Quaile)

 

 

Date

August 15, 2016 | 11:03 am

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New Zealand glaciers on the retreat

Arctic phone box - a chilly wind DOWN from the pole! (pic: I.Quaile)

Arctic phone box – a chilly wind DOWN from the pole! (pic: I.Quaile)

During my first trip to Australia around 25 years ago, I was standing outside a phone box (there are still such things even in this smartphone age) one evening, in a chilly wind.

“That wind’s coming straight up off the pole”, a local told me. Up off the pole? That was a weird image for a visitor from the northern hemisphere. It figures, the wind blows up rather than down from the pole when you’re at the other end of the world.

A few years later, during a visit to New Zealand, I was tickled to find there were “alps” to visit, with glaciers, reminiscent of some of my favourite hiking territory in Switzerland. I haven’t heard much about them since.

There hasn’t been much about New Zealand in the media here in Europe, except when earthquakes strike, or – the latest popular summertime story – the decision to exterminate all “alien” predators like mice, rats and possums.

But this week I came across a story by the New Zealand Herald on Twitter, entitled “warning sounds for vanishing glaciers”.  Needless to say this set the alarm bells ringing with the Iceblogger.

Iceblogger, Iceblocker?

It seems these beautiful icy regions have also been affected considerably by climate warming.

Rapid retreat

The South Island of New Zealand is home to snowy mountains and picturesque glaciers. The article by Jamie Morton describes how the glaciers have been retreating massively since 2011. The pictures, taken by Brian Anderson of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre, show a dramatic change. The latest measurements for Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, the ones I visited, show they have “shrunk to record levels”, the article quotes Dr. Anderson.

I must delve into my photo archive at home for pics taken when I was there in 2000 and compare them with the latest. I have the feeling the comparison would be a sobering one.

Twice a year, scientists conduct surveys of the snowlines and glacier retreats in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The measurements take place at the end of winter, and again at the end of summer.

Glaciers - beautiful but highly endangered in our warming age. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Glaciers – beautiful but highly endangered in our warming age. (Pic. I.Quaile)

The scientist says the snow accumulation on the glaciers was average in winter 2015, but high by the end of the very warm summer in 2016.

In the last five years, it seems the Fox Glacier has retreated 750 meters, the Franz Josef as much as 1.5 kilometres.

The ice volume in the Southern Alps has decreased from 170 cu km in the 1890s to a current 36.1, and is predicted to go down to between 7 and 12 cu km, by 2100. Yikes.

The last dramatic loss of ice was during the summer of 2010/2011, under the influence of a strong La Nina climate system – one of the strongest ever recorded, according to Jamie Morton. The latest ice loss appears to be similar in amount.

“Based on regional warming projections of 1.5C to 2.5 C, it has been projected by glaciologists Valentina Radic and Regine Hock that just 7 to 12 cu km of ice would remain on the alps by the end of this century, Morton writes.

The snowline has also moved up to “exceptionally high levels”, Morton quotes Dr. Andrew Lorry from the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA).

Warming water, melting ice

The article says before last summer, the experts expected the El Nino to have a major impact. But instead, it was unseasonably warm sea surface temperatures in the Tasman Sea, bringing warmer air over land, that caused the damage.

With temperatures higher than average so far this season, it seems likely more ice and snow will be melting.

Are we surprised by all this? Perhaps not. Concerned? Saddened? Definitely. Clearly the cold wind blowing up off the south pole, like the one blowing down from the north, is no longer enough to secure those icy areas of New Zealand.

Of course emissions reductions have to take place across the board. Local melting is not only caused by local actions. Still, countries who profit from their ice and snow, like New Zealand, where the alps are an important tourist attraction, can be expected to set a good example in implementing measures to halt the warming. The “Climate action tracker”, an independent science-based assessment of country’s emissions targets and actual action, rates New Zealand’s INDC 2030 target as “inadequate”. That means its commitment is not in line with a “fair” approach to reach a 2° C maximum temperature rise pathway.

“If most other countries followed the New Zealand approach, global warming would exceed 3–4°C”, the website says.

Maybe I better not wait too long for another visit to those New Zealand glaciers. At this rate, I will hardly even need my snow boots.

boot

Redundant? (Pic: I.Quaile)

 

Date

July 29, 2016 | 2:20 pm

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Hottest year – scary, but not for Chinese Arctic shippers?

Soon no longer just fiction?  (I.Quaile, Alaska)

Hot, hot, hotter?  (I.Quaile)

As I sit in my Bonn office between thunderstorms in a week where we reached a record 36 degrees Celsius here, I am not surprised to read that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) sees 2016 on track to be the hottest year ever.

The WMO bases its conclusions on two separate reports from NOAA and NASA GISS.

Global temperatures have already shattered previous records for the first six months of the year. And, no, it is not just El Nino. The WMO says June 2016 was not only the 14th consecutive month of record heat, but also the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the twentieth century average. That means we haven’t been below the average since 1984.

The extraordinary becomes the norm

In the last blog post I quoted an article about the extraordinary years becoming the normal. Here we go again.

“The El Nino event, which turned up the Earth’s thermostat, has now disappeared. Climate change, caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gases, will not. This means we face more heatwaves, more extreme rainfall and potential for higher impact tropical cyclones”, said WMO Secretary-Gerneal Petteri Taalas in a press release.

The WMO also notes the corresponding rise in CO2 concentrations:

“Carbon dioxide concentrations have passed the symbolic milestone of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere so far this year. CO2 levels vary according to the season, but the underlying trend is upwards. They showed a surprising increase for the first half of 2016, rising in June 2016 to nearly 407 ppm, 4ppm greater than June 2015”, the WMO writes.

Measuring CO2 in Ny Alesund, Svalbard, Spitzbergen

That CO2 concentration keeps going up  (Measuring station on Svalbard, Pic. Quaile)

Melting away…

So what does all this mean for our beloved Arctic?

Of course it has been experiencing the record warming even more than the rest of the planet. The WMO mentions a very early onset of the annual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic sea ice, and exceptionally low snow cover in the northern hemisphere.

“The extent of Arctic sea ice at the peak of the summer melt season now typically covers 40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arctic sea ice extent in September, the seasonal low point in the annual cycle, has been declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade”, says WMO.

Chinese go full-speed-ahead

Now a lot of people are very concerned about that. But presumably the Chinese shipping giant COSCO is not amongst them. The company has announced that it will be sending three cargo ships through the Arctic Ocean this summer, since global warming is making the route more viable. It will be using the Northeast Passage, which goes north of Russia. As the news agency AFP puts it, “China sees the opportunity to reshape global trade flows”, as this route can shorten journey times between Asia and Europe considerably.

The Yong Sheng merchant ship left the Chinese port Tianjin last Saturday, bound for the UK, carrying a “mixed cargo” through the Northeast Passage. It seems the ship has used the route twice in the past three years. This time, two more COSCO ships, the Tian Xi and the Xiang Yun Kou are also scheduled to navigate the passage next month.

AFP quotes the company as saying it aims to “normalize” services on the route. So, once again, the extraordinary is becoming normal? This worries me for several reasons. First, it is an indicator that this industry giant is convinced climate warming is here to stay, and illustrates that there are those who are happy to profit from it. Secondly, as discussed many times here on the Ice Blog and in my articles for DW, shipping in Arctic waters is still a very high-risk business for the environment and, of course, the humans on board the ships.

Melting ice, easier ship access

Melting ice, easier ship access (Pic: I.Quaile)

Room for dispute

Earlier this year, China’s Maritime Safety Administration published a Chinese language guide including nautical charts and descriptions of ice conditions for the other Arctic route, the Northwest Passage, which runs north of Canada. That begs the question: is this part of Canada’s waters, as Ottawa claims, or international waters?

Clearly, economic and strategic interest in the Arctic is spreading well beyond the Arctic countries as the frozen north warms.

Without wanting to be alarmist, I have to mention a comment by the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who proposed in June that European navies should coordinate patrols in Asian waters to reinforce the maritime order based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, against the background of the dispute between China and others in the South China Sea. He warned that if the laws of the sea are not respected in that region, they could also be challenged elsewhere, for instance in the Arctic.

Worrying times.

Pressure to implement Paris

Back to the WMO. Secretary-General Petteri Tallas stresses that the record-breaking warming underlines the urgent need to approve and implement the Paris Agreement and speed up the shift to renewable energy.

Aquamarine Oyster device running off Orkney

Testing clean marine energy off the coast of Scotland (Pic: I.Quaile)

(There is an encouraging story on that in my Living Planet programme this week, coming out of Finland).

But so far, remember, there have definitely NOT been enough countries ratifying to bring the agreement into effect. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to a special event in September to deposit their instruments of ratification or accession to the Paris Agreement. Perhaps the heatwaves, storms, extreme rainfall and other “abnormal but becoming normal” events in their respective countries will persuade these politicians (especially in the countries responsible for the majority of emissions) that time is running out if we want to keep to that two-degree Celsius target (let alone the 1.5). The average temperature in the first six months of this year was already 1.3 degrees warmer than pre-industrial times. Some experts are already convinced we need to start drawing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them if we are to avert climate catastrophe. A daunting prospect, to say the least.

Date

July 22, 2016 | 2:19 pm

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