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Climate action from Peru to Paris
Today is the first of December. It’s the start of the meteorological winter in the northern hemisphere, towards the end of what looks set to be the warmest year since records began. It is also the day when the annual UN climate conference gets underway in Lima, Peru. Negotiators from around the world will try to hammer out the details of a new World Climate Agreement to halt global warming by reducing CO2 emissions. For our polar ice, that agreement can’t come fast enough.
After five years of frustration following the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, 2014 may well go down in history as the year when climate change made a comeback onto the international agenda. Although there is still one year to go until the key Paris meeting which is scheduled to come up with a new World Climate Agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, 2014 has seen several milestones on the path to a low-carbon future.
In September, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon gave the issue top priority, by holding his own special climate summit in New York. It was accompanied by marches in the USA and other parts of the world, organized by a growing grassroots movement to combat climate change. Meanwhile, the world’s biggest emitters, China and the USA, finally signaled their intention to commit to action on climate change.
No time for delay
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, has left no doubt about the need for urgent action, says Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research:
“We see that global temperatures have risen by almost one degree centigrade in the last 100 years, we see that global sea level has risen by nearly 20 centimeters in the last 100 years. We see that the mountain glaciers and the Arctic ice cover is in retreat, the continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking, losing mass, contributing to sea level rise, we see extreme events on the rise. For example the number of record-breaking hot months has increased five fold as compared to what you get by chance in a stationary climate.”
The international community has agreed, based on the scientific evidence available, that a temperature rise of two degrees is the maximum possible without exposing the world to potentially devastating climate change. That means limiting the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. But with those emissions still on the rise, that goal is nowhere in sight, says Rahmstorf, and climate change is already having an impact after just under one degree of warming:
“If we don’t stop this process, we will go well beyond two degrees centigrade, and we will leave the range we are familiar with throughout human history. We will be way outside that into uncharted and I think very dangerous waters.”
Peru prepares the way for Paris
Experts see the world on track for a temperature rise of at least four degrees, unless emissions are reduced substantially in the very near future. The latest figures indicate that to stay within the two degree limit, emissions would have to peak within the next ten years and the world become virtually carbon-neutral in the second half of this century.
That is why Peru, like every climate conference, is important, says UN climate chief Christiana Figueres. She stresses that climate protection is an ongoing process. Countries have until March 2015 to put their planned contributions on the table. The EU made a start by announcing its targets last month. The USA and China went on to give encouraging signals:
“The fact is that most countries around the world are currently doing their homework and figuring out on a national scale what is financially, politically, economically, technically possible for them to contribute towards the solution,” says Figueres.
But while that homework continues in the countries of the world, the negotiators assembling in Lima will have to make progress on drafting the universal climate agreement, which is scheduled to be agreed in Paris in December 2015 and to come into effect in 2020.
A price on CO2
Ottmar Edenhofer is the chief economist at the Potsdam Climate Institute. He is also co-chair of the IPCC group concerned with ways of tackling climate change. He says the world has only around 20 to 30 years left to solve the emissions problem. He stresses it is not a question of technology. Alternative energy technologies are there to solve the problem. Yet fossil fuels have been enjoying a renaissance, says the climate expert. The key, he says, is to put a price on carbon, making it too expensive to pump CO2 into the atmosphere. The world only have a limited carbon budget. That means we can only put another one thousand gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere to keep temperature rise below the two-degree threshold and avoid the risk of what Edenhofer describes as “very severe climate change impacts”.
“Space to store CO2 in the atmosphere is becoming scarce”, Edenhofer explained to me recently during a visit to Potsdam. “And when things are scarce, you have to put a price on them. That is the only way to show investors, consumers and companies where they should be investing their money.” The window of opportunity is closing, says Edenhofer. If we keep on with business as usual, we will have used up all our carbon budget in two to three decades.
UN climate chief Figueres agrees that putting a price on pollution by CO2 is a very important component of the shift towards a low carbon economy.
“What we have done over the past 150 years is assumed there is no cost to the irresponsible use of the environment, and we have proceeded as though the environment were constantly renewable, where it is not”, Figueres told me in an interview conducted in her office here in Bonn, right next to our Deutsche Welle building. Putting a price tag on CO2 emissions would mean they could be costed in economic decision-making.
Haggling out the details
The negotiators in Lima have their work cut out for them. Countries with large fossil fuel reserves are reluctant to agree to emissions reductions which would destroy their source of revenue. But Edenhofer is optimistic that ultimately all countries will realize that climate change will pay off in the end.
„We have to assume that people will see sense. They will realize that the long-term consequences of business as usual will be irreversible climate change, with all the problems that brings with it”.
The economist says protecting the climate would also bring the kind of short-term benefits politicians are looking for. He cites the change in China’s policies as an example:
“The drastic air pollution in Beijing is already making it less attractive as a business location. And the reason the Chinese government is thinking very seriously about reducing emissions is because it would also be a step towards improving their air quality.”
Funding boost for UN talks
After years of stagnation and frustration, there are signs that progress is being made on climate change. At a key meeting in Berlin this month, countries pledged a total of almost 10 billion dollars to the Green Climate Fund, which was set up to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. This could motivate developing countries and emerging economies to sign up to a new world climate agreement. So far, many of them have been reluctant to limit their own emissions, as the wealthy industrialized states are the ones who have caused the problem by emissions in the past.
Although both the money pledged for adaptation and the emissions cuts proposals currently on the table are still insufficient and things are moving slowly, German scientist Rahmstorf compares the likelihood of a breakthrough to the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago.
“If you had asked people just a few months before that how likely it was that the wall comes down, nobody would have said it’s going to happen”, says the Potsdam expert and IPCC author. He says these kind of processes in society are hard to predict – and the signs are encouraging.
He cites the “huge success story” of renewable energies and the considerable emissions reductions by the EU countries since 1990 as encouraging signs. This did not hamper economic growth, says Rahmstorf:
“It shows that your can decouple emissions from economic growth and welfare”.
Ultimately, halting climate change is not something which can be achieved solely within the UN negotiations. This year for the first time a pre-conference meeting was held in Peru to involve non-governmental groups in the process. The transition to a climate-saving low-carbon society requires action across the board. But it is the governments of the world who have to enter into binding agreements, and that means plenty of hard work ahead for the negotiators in Peru over the next two weeks.
Listen to my Peru conference preview on Living Planet.
DateDecember 1, 2014 | 2:21 pm