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Hot, hot, hotter.. can UN talks in Bonn make a difference?

The UN flag is flying over the conference centre in Bonn. (Pic: I.Quaile)

After all the hype surrounding the Paris Climate Agreement in December, there is a real danger of anti-climax, of feeling self-satisfied, of  sitting back saying, “Yes, we did”, while the planet continues to break all temperature records and fossil fuel emissions continue to rise.

The first four months of this year were the hottest ever recorded. Even the “ice island” of Greenland has seen temperatures spiking in April, typically a cold month. NOAA says 2016 could be off to a similar start to 2012, when the surface of the ice sheet started melting early and then experienced the most extensive melting since the start of the satellite record in 1978. We have had several reports of islands being submerged by rising seas and devastating forest fires in Canada and now Russia, which experts say will be more common as the planet warms.

Close to my office here in Bonn, Germany’s UN city, the first official working meeting of all the parties to the Paris Agreement started on Monday, going on until next Friday. I have been there, on and off, talking to people, listening in, trying to get a sense of what is happening – or not, as the case may be.

But the atmosphere in Bonn’s new World Conference Centre is definitely low-key compared with the hype surrounding the Paris Climate Conference. Yet the world climate agreement will be worthless if the countries of the world do not succeed in transmitting it into actions in the very near future.

No respite in sight for a melting world (Pic: I.Quaile)

No respite in sight for a melting world (Pic: I.Quaile)

Time to deliver

The President of the Paris COP21, French Environmenent Minister Segolene Royal, and the incoming President of COP22, which will be held in Marrakech, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar, have made it clear that it is time to shift the focus from negotiation to implementation and rapid action.

The challenge ahead, they say, is to “operationalize the Paris Agreement: to turn intended nationally determined contributions into public policies and investment plans for mitigation and adaptation and to deliver on our promises.”

Indeed. There is no lack of evidence to support the urgent need for faster action on climate change. An increasing number of extreme weather events are being attributed to climate change. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is climbing steadily and is likely to cross the critical 400 ppm mark permanently in the not-too-distant future. 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.

"It's warm enough" - Egyptian goose close by the Bonn conference centre. (Pic. I.Quaile)

“It’s warm enough” – Egyptian goose close by the Bonn conference centre. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Three degrees and more?

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. Countries have put pledges on the table, outlining their emissions reduction targets. But so far, the reductions pledged would still take the world closer to a three-degree rise in temperature.

At the Bonn meeting, 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.

“The ambition to peak greenhouse gas emissions very soon is anchored in the Paris agreement, but we don’t see the actions right now to make this happen”, said Takashi Hattori, Head of the IEA’s Environment and Climate Change Unit. “At the same time, there are ‘GDP-neutral’ ways and means to get emissions to peak and then fall whilst maintaining economic growth, and that’s what we need to focus on.”

GDP-neutral means that a technology or policy does not negatively impact the economic growth of a country, and can actually contribute to the growth of that country.

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

Solar power in the oil-state of Abu Dhabi (Pic. I.Quaile)

In Bonn, Hattori presented what the IEA calls a “bridge scenario” involving the use of five technologies and policies which it says can bridge the gap between what has been pledged by governments so far and what is required to keep the global average temperature to as low as 1.5 degrees Celsius as part of what the agency terms a “well below 2 degrees world”

The five key measures which the IEA say could achieve a peak in emissions around 2020 are energy efficiency, reducing inefficient coal, renewables investment, methane reductions and fossil-fuel subsidy reform. That sounds to me like a very sensible – and practicable set of measures. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Takashi Hattori stressed that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to climate and energy policies. Different measures will be required in different parts of the world. In the Middle East, for example, the greatest potential to reduce emissions is through reducing fossil fuel subsidies, he argued, while energy efficiency would have the greatest potential in Europe and China. He recommended the “massive deployment of renewables” in India and Latin America.

Other solutions outlined include smart grids, hydrogen as fuel that can be generated with renewable sources of energy, and “smart” agriculture.

The IEA says governments should make the energy transition not only because of rising temperatures, but because of other benefits, such as a reduction of air pollution. That makes sense. People in congested cities are more worried about pollution damaging their health than about climate change, the experts say.

I am reminded of an interview I conducted recently with Chinese expert Lina Li, when she told me she thought China’s air pollution problem would speed up the country’s ratification and implementation of the Paris Agreement.

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)

The cost argument

Although many scientists are alarmed at the slow pace of emissions reductions, IPCC chief scientist Hoesung Lee told the Guardian in an interview it was still possible to keep to the two-degree target. The current UN climate chief Christina Figueres, who will hand over to Mexican Patricia Espinosa later this year, has said emissions would have to peak by 2020 if that limit is to be kept to. But Lee is keen to keep the options open, saying it would still be possible to keep to the limits if emissions peaked later. 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.

A report published this week by UNEP says the cost for assisting developing countries to adapt to climate change could reach up to 500 billion dollars annually by 2050. This is five times higher than previous estimates, the report says.

UNEP urged countries to channel more funds towards adaptation, saying the costs would rise “sharply”, even if countries succeed in limiting global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius.

I asked Mattias Söderberg, Co-Chair of the Climate change advisory group with the climate justice ACT alliance, how he felt about the progress of climate action and the role of the current Bonn meeting. He said the UNEP report, along with the alarming news about islands disappearing under rising seas in the Pacific, highlighted the urgent need for action. “Climate change is not a matter of tomorrow, but a crisis we need to deal with today.”

We need action now to save the Arctic - for all generations. (Pic. I.Quaile)

We need action now to save the Arctic – for all nations and generations. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Time to ratify!

So far, 177 parties have signed the Agreement. But only 16 parties have ratified the treaty. It must be ratified by 55 parties representing 55 percent of total global emissions to enter into force. Söderberg called on wealthy, industrialized countries to move ahead with ratification:

“I am happy to see many of the poor and vulnerable countries moving fast with their ratification, and I hope other countries will follow soon. I am worried about the EU, which seems to be delayed”. Söderberg says the EU, could find itself on the sidelines, overtaken by others.

But the increasing concern over refugees and migration here in Europe could make a lot of countries look more closely at climate change, which is likely to increase the number of people having to leave their homes and look for a better life elsewhere.

“Go, world, go!”

Electric vehicles deliver our mail in Bonn. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Electric vehicles deliver our mail in Bonn. (Pic: I.Quaile)

NGO representatives stress that the Bonn talks can only help kick off the series of measures necessary to halt global climate change. Greenpeace climate policy chief Martin Kaiser told me the main work had to be done in the countries themselves, which have to work out their timetables to reach the goals agreed in Paris. That means an early transition to a fossil-free future. Kaiser called on host country Germany in particular, often cited as a model for its shift to renewable energy, to come up with a binding exit strategy for coal by 2030.

“Without an exit from coal, Germany’s signature under the Paris Agreement is worthless”, he told me.

The world’s top emitters, the USA and China, will also have to take major steps to halt climate warming. The delegates meeting in Bonn until May 26 have their work cut out for them. I have always been skeptical about the mass jubilation over the Paris Agreement. Yes, we needed it. But the proof of every pudding is in the eating. All the indications are that 2016 will be the hottest year on record, and probably by the largest margin ever. If the Paris document is to be more than a lot of pieces of paper, we will have to see things happening very soon – and definitely not just in the conference rooms of Bonn and elsewhere.

Date

May 20, 2016 | 12:29 pm

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Arctic sea ice, Greenland and Europe’s weird weather

Arctic icebergs - not to be trifled with (Pic: I.Quaile, Greenland)

Greenland iceberg, broken off from the ice sheet  (Pic: I.Quaile, Greenland)

As I write this, I am sitting in a short-sleeved shirt with the window open, enjoying an unusually warm start to the month of May. It’s around 27 degrees Celsius in this part of Germany, pleasant, but somewhat unusual at this time. The first four months of this year have been the hottest of any year on record, according to satellite data.

The Arctic is not the first place people tend to think of when it comes to explaining weather that is warmer – as opposed to colder – than usual in other parts of the globe. But several recent studies have increased the evidence that what is happening in the far North is playing a key role in creating unusual weather patterns further south – and that includes heat, at times.

Why sea ice matters

The Arctic has been known for a long time to be warming at least twice as fast as the earth as a whole. As discussed here on the Ice Blog, the past winter was a record one for the Arctic, including its sea ice. The winter sea ice cover reached a record low. Some scientists say the prerequisites are in place for 2016 to see the lowest sea ice extent ever.

Several recent studies have increased the evidence that these variations in the Arctic sea ice cover are strongly linked to the accelerating loss of Greenland’s land ice, and to extreme weather in North America an Europe.

“Has Arctic Sea Ice Loss Contributed to Increased Surface Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet”, by Liu, Francis et.al, published in the journal of the American Meteorological Society, comes to the conclusion: “Reduced summer sea ice favors stronger and more frequent occurrences of blocking-high pressure events over Greenland.” The thesis is that the lack of summer sea ice (and resulting warming of the ocean, as the white cover which insulates it and reflects heat back into space disappears and is replaced by a darker surface that absorbs more heat) increases occurrences of high pressure systems which get “ stuck and act like a brick wall, “blocking” the weather from changing”, as Joe Romm puts it in an article on “Climate Progress”.

Dwindling sea ice (Pic: I.Quaile)

Dwindling sea ice (Pic: I.Quaile)

Everything is connected

The study abstract says the researchers found “a positive feedback between the variability in the extent of summer Arctic sea ice and melt area of the summer Greenland ice sheet, which affects the Greenland ice sheet mass balance”.  As Romm sums it up:“that’s why we have been seeing both more blocking events over Greenland and faster ice melt.”

He quotes co-author Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, New Jersey, explaining how these “blocks” can lead to additional surface melt on the Greenland ice sheet, as well as “persistent weather patterns both upstream (North America) and downstream (Europe) of the block.

“Persistent weather can result in extreme events, such as prolonged heat waves, flooding, and droughts, all of which have repeatedly reared their heads more frequently in recent years”, Romm concludes.

“Greenland melt linked to weird weather in Europe and USA” is the headline of an article by Catherine Jex in Science Nordic. People are usually interested in changes in the Greenland ice sheet because of its importance for global sea level, which could rise by around seven metres if it were to melt completely. But Jex also draws attention to the significance of changes to the Greenland ice for the Earth’s climate system as a whole.

The jet stream

“Some scientists think that we are already witnessing the effects of a warmer Arctic by way of changes to the polar jet stream. While an ice-free Arctic Ocean could have big impacts to weather throughout the US and Europe by the end of this century”.

She also notes some scientists warning of “superstorms”, if melt water from Greenland were eventually to shut down ocean circulation in the North Atlantic.

Greenland ice sheet is discharging ice into the ocean at an alarming rate. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Greenland ice sheet is discharging ice into the ocean at an alarming rate. (Pic: I.Quaile)

The site contains an interactive map to indicate how changes in Greenland and the Arctic could be driving changes in global climate and environment.

The jet streams drive weather systems in a west-east direction in the northern hemisphere. They are influenced by the difference in temperature between cold Arctic air and warmer mid-latitudes. With the Arctic warming faster than the rest of the planet, this temperature contrast is shrinking, and scientists say the jet streams are weakening.

Jex quotes meteorologist Michael Tjernström, from Stockholm University, Sweden: “Climatology of the last five years shows that the jet has weakened,” says. Its effect on weather around the world is a hot topic.

“We’ve had strange weather for a couple of years. But it’s difficult to say exactly why.”

One explanation, Jex writes, is that a weak jet stream meanders in great loops, which can bring extremes in either cold dry polar air or warmer wetter air from the south, depending on which side of the loop you find yourself. If the jet stream gets “stuck” in this kind of configuration, these extreme conditions can persist for days or even weeks.

Experts have attributed extreme events like the record cold on the east coast of the USA in early 2015, a record warm winter later the same year, and the summer heat waves and mild wet winters with exceptional flooding in the UK to these kind of “kinks” in the jet stream.

Meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (Pic: I.Quaile)

Meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (Pic: I.Quaile)

Greenland and the ocean

The changes to Greenland’s vast land ice sheet also have consequences for ocean circulation, because they mean an influx of the cold fresh water flowing into the salty sea. And the sea off the east coast of Greenland plays a key role in the movement of water, transporting heat to different parts of the world’s oceans and influencing atmospheric circulation and weather systems.

There have often been “catastrophe scenarios” suggesting the Gulf Steam, which brings warm water and weather from the tropics to the USA and Europe could ultimately be halted, leading to a new ice age. (Remember the “Day after Tomorrow?)

Although this extreme scenario is currently considered unlikely, research does suggest that the major influx of fresh water from melting ice in Greenland and other parts of the Arctic could slow the circulation and result in cooler temperatures in north western Europe.

Jex goes into the theory of a “cold blob” of ocean just south of Greenland, where melt water from the ice sheet accumulates. Some scientists say this indicates that ocean circulation is already slowing down. The “blob” appeared in global temperature maps in 2014. While the rest of the world saw record breaking warm temperatures, this patch of ocean remained unusually cold.

According to a recent study led by James Hansen, from Columbia University, USA, the ‘cold blob’ could become a permanent feature of the North Atlantic by the middle of this century. Hansen and his colleagues claim that a persistent ‘cold blob’ and a full shut down of North Atlantic Ocean circulation could lead to so-called ‘superstorms’  throughout the Atlantic. And there is geological evidence that this has happened before, they say. But the paper was controversial and many climate scientists questioned the strength of the evidence.

However, some scientists already attribute western Europe’s warm and wet winter of 2015 to the “cold blob”, Jex notes, which may have altered the strength and direction of storms via the jet stream.

... And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile,) Greenland)

… And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile,) Greenland)

The good old British weather

The UK’s Independent goes into a new study by researchers at Sheffield University, which indicates soaring temperatures in Greenland are causing storms and floods in Britain. The Independent’s author Ian Johnston says the study “provides further evidence climate change is already happening”.

It never ceases to amaze me that evidence is still being sought for that, but, clearly, there are still those who are yet to be convinced our human behavior is changing the world’s climate. So every bit of scientific evidence helps – especially if it relates to that all-time favourite topic of the weather.

The study also looks at the static areas of high pressure blocking the jet stream. With amazing temperature rises of up to ten degrees Celsius during winter on the west coast of Greenland in just two decades, it is not hard to imagine how this can effect the jet stream, and so our weather in the northern hemisphere.” If forced to go south, the jet stream picks up warm and wet air – and Britain can expect heavy rain and flooding. If forced north, the UK is likely to be hit by cold air from the Arctic”, Johnston writes.

The article quotes Professor Edward Hanna from the University of Sheffield, lead author of a paper about the research published in the International Journal of Climatology, and says seven of the strongest 11 blocking effects in the last 165 years had taken place since 2007, resulting in unusually wet weather in the UK in the summers of 2007 and 2012.

Hanna told the Independent computer models used 10 to 15 years ago to predict the extent of sea ice in the Arctic had significantly underestimated how quickly the region would warm.

“It’s very interesting to look at the observed changes in the Arctic … the actual observations are showing far more dramatic changes than the computer models,” Professor Hanna said.

“You do get sudden starts and jumps. It’s the sudden changes that can take us by surprise and there certainly does seem to have been an increase in extreme weather in certain places.”

Longer enforced holidays for sled dogs? (Quaile, Greenland)

Longer enforced holidays for sled dogs? (Quaile, Greenland)

Drawing conclusions (or not?)

In the Washington Post, (reprinted on Alaska Dispatch News) Chelsea Harvey sums up the conclusions of the latest research in an article entitled “Dominoes fall: Vanishing Arctic ice shifts jet stream, which melts Greenland glaciers”:

“There are a more complex set of variables affecting the ice sheet than experts had imagined. A recent set of scientific papers have proposed a critical connection between sharp declines in Arctic sea ice and changes in the atmosphere, which they say are not only affecting ice melt in Greenland, but also weather patterns all over the North Atlantic”.

So what do we learn from all of this? Sometimes I ask myself how many times we have to hear a message before we really take it in and decide to do something about it.

Here in Bonn, not far from the office where I am sitting now, the first round of UN climate talks since the Paris Agreement at the end of last year will be kicking off this coming weekend. The aim is to stop the rise in global temperature from going about two, preferably 1.5 degrees C. We have already passed the one degree mark. In an interview with the Guardian this week, the head of the IPCC Hoesung Lee says it is still possible to keep below two degrees, although the costs could be “phenomenal”. But many scientists and other experts are increasingly dubious about whether emissions can really peak in time to achieve the goal. Current commitments by countries to emissions reductions still leave us on the track for three degrees at least.

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is, as the Guardian puts it, “teetering on the brink of no return”, which the landmark 400 ppm measured for the first time at the Australian station at Cape Grim and unlikely to go below the mark again at the Mauna Loa station in Hawaii.

On my desk, I have a book entitled “Arctic Tipping Points”, by Carlos M. Duarte and Paul Wassmann. It was published in 2011. Before that, Professor Duarte had explained the global significance of what is happening in the Arctic to me

at an Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway. How much more evidence do we need? Science takes a long time to research, evaluate and publish solid evidence of change and its consequences, with complex review processes. If politicians delay much longer, the pace of climate change will be so fast that action to avert the worst cannot keep up. Meanwhile, that Arctic ice keeps dwindling – and I sense another major storm on the approach.

 

 

Date

May 12, 2016 | 11:53 am

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Will Paris conference help the Arctic?

 

UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn (Pic Quaile)

Preparing for Paris: Staff at UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn are working overtime. (Pic Quaile)

Things are hotting up on the international climate talks front, with one event after another telling us how important it is for the world to reach a new climate treaty at the UN Paris meeting at the end of the year.

I have just written an article: Climate countdown: 200 days to key Paris meeting. While I come to the conclusion that there is no alternative to a new agreement, with time running out, my research has also confirmed my feeling that we are not going to see enough emissions cuts on the table to bring us in any way close to the two degree goal – let alone the 1.5 degree upper limit for global temperature rise which an increasing number of experts say is the safer figure.

After this week’s Petersberg Dialogue in Berlin, hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and attended by French President Francois Hollande, two potential heavyweights in the international climate debate, the message seems to be that there will be a Paris agreement, but that the meeting will be just one more step in a long-term process towards a low-carbon world. There is much talk of achieving that in the second half of the century – and that, I fear, could be too late for the Arctic.

Can Paris slow ice melt? (I.Quaile)

Can Paris slow ice melt? (I.Quaile)

CO2 on the rise, Arctic ice in decline

The NSIDC says the Arctic sea ice extent for April 2015 averaged 14.0 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles), the second lowest April ice extent in the satellite record. It is 810,000 square kilometers (313,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 15.0 million square kilometers (6.0 million square miles) and 80,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) above the previous record low for the month observed in 2007.

With scientists predicting the Arctic Ocean could be sea-ice free in summer in just a few years’ time, the adoption of a long-term approach to tackling climate change is not good news for the icy north.

In March, the global monthly average CO2 concentration crossed the critical 400 parts per million (ppm) mark. That was the first month in modern records with a global concentration of more than 400 ppm. The rise has happened much faster than natural change in the past. It would have taken around 6,000 years for nature to achieve what humankind has done in the past few decades.

CO2 is one of the chief factors responsible for the rise in global temperature. Countries would have to reduce their emissions dramatically to have any chance of achieving the goal set by the international community of keeping global warming to under two degrees Celsius.

Climate creeping up political agenda

The UN Climate Secretariat UNFCCC, based here in Bonn, is working round the clock to prepare the key Paris meeting and ensure that governments put firm pledges on the table. Climate change has also become an issue on the agenda of other key international meetings, like that Petersberg Dialogue mentioned above, a “Climate Week” including a business and climate conference in Paris this week, but also other non-specialised meetings, like the key G7 meeting to be hosted by German at Schloss Elmau, Bavaria, early next month. On the one hand, this shows climate change is gaining in importance on the international political agenda. But it also demonstrates that the annual rounds of UN talks alone cannot bring about the changes needed to halt climate change within the necessary time frame.

Measuring CO2 in Ny Alesund, Svalbard, Spitzbergen

CO2 still  on the rise (Measuring station on Svalbard, Pic. Quaile)

Not enough for two-degree target

And while there is no shortage of high-profile meetings with politicians stressing the need for rapid climate action, the pledges so far on the table are not sufficient to cut emissions to the level necessary to keep to the two degree target. Countries have been asked to put their figures on the table by October. So far, 38 countries have submitted.

Jennifer Morgan, Global Director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute (WRI) confirmed to me during a recent visit to Germany that there is still a huge gap between what has been promised and what is necessary. She says available solutions are not yet being deployed at the scale or speed required to accomplish an orderly transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy.

“What Paris can help do is close that gap, both by getting stronger targets and commitments from countries, but also by creating a mechanism in the agreement itself that will strengthen targets every five years and by aiming towards a long-term goal of phasing out emissions by mid-century. That type of ambition mechanism can send signals that can accelerate the pace of change -which is very much needed.”

Morgan is a leading member of the “Agreement for Climate Transformation Consortium” (ACT), a group of climate experts from around the world. ACT has produced its own draft legal text for a new world climate agreement, which would include such a mechanism to continually up the climate targets.

Not all gloom and doom?

While even the top emitters China and the USA are signaling they have understood the need for emissions cuts, it is still not clear whether industrialized and developing countries will be able to agree on a “division of labour” – or rather emissions allowances and climate adaptation and loss-and-damage funding – to make an effective agreement possible.

France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who will chair the key Paris summit, told the Petersberg Dialogue in Berlin:

“We must commit ourselves very resolutely because there isn’t an alternative solution, for the simple reason that there isn’t an alternative planet.”

German environment minister Barbara Hendricks spoke of a moral obligation to fight climate change, but stressed the need to take a long-term approach to “terminate the age of fossil fuels”.

With just 200 days to go until the start of the two-week Paris meeting, the sobering assumption seems to be that the conference itself will not come up with pledges enough to keep to the two degree target, let alone the 1.5 percent which many experts say would be the better goal.

But there is also widespread acknowledgement that there is no alternative to a world climate agreement and that mechanisms have to be put in place which will steadily increase the momentum and bring about the transition to a low-carbon economy by the second half of this century. Meanwhile, in a steadily warming world, the ice which sustains the unique and fragile ecosystems of the Arctic, continues to melt.

The fragile beauty of Arctic ice (Pic I.Quaile)

The fragile beauty of Arctic ice (Pic I.Quaile)

 

 

 

 

 

Date

May 20, 2015 | 1:25 pm

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Climate action from Peru to Paris

 

COP 20 - still relaxed at UN talks in BOnn this summer

COP 20 – still relaxed with empty chairs at UN talks in Bonn this summer (Pic Quaile)

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.

Peru's Environment Minister and COP 20 President Manuel Pulgar-Vidal told me in Bonn this summer he was optimistic about the Lima meeting.

Peru’s Environment Minister and COP 20 President Manuel Pulgar-Vidal told me in Bonn this summer he was optimistic about the Lima meeting. (Pic: Quaile)

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.

UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn (Pic Quaile)

UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn (Pic Quaile)

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.

 

 

Date

December 1, 2014 | 2:21 pm

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UN Climate Chief on New York summit

Your Ice Blogger has been busy with the New York climate summit around the corner. I was delighted to read that Ban Ki Moon is considering a special Arctic summit and a trip on a Greenpeace Arctic mission vessel after receiving a petition to Save the Arctic. I am also hoping there will be some high-profile promises of climate action.

Meanwhile, here in Bonn, I talked to Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC (Climate Secretariat), which is based here in Bonn, just next door to my Deutsche Welle Office, before she left for New York.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres

She told me what she expects of this meeting, which is something different from the regular UN climate summits. She also told me why she was joining yesterday’s climate march.

Let me share some excerpts from the interview in writing here with you, and offer you a full length audio version of my talk to this very influential and passionate lady.


More on the climate summit and the Arctic here soon.

 Excerpts from my interview with Christiana Figueres:

Ice Blogger: Why do we need yet another climate summit?

The conferences we organize once a year have the purpose of moving towards a legally based agreement, scheduled to be adopted in Paris next year. In New York, nothing is going to be negotiated. It’s very much an attempt to blow wind into the sails of the formal process. It’s about raising political will and public awareness.  It is a powerful opportunity for the leaders of countries and corporations to come forward and say what each of them is going to do.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked these leaders to bring bold announcements and actions to the summit. What do you expect to come out of it?

We will have a host of announcements from governments about what they are already doing and will undertake with respect to bringing down their own emissions and increasing the resilience that they need to incorporate into their planning and their infrastructure to deal with the variability and the vulnerability of climate change. From the private sector we expect the same: announcements as to how they are going to contribute to reduce emissions, either in their own operations or, even more interestingly, how they are going to be shifting their capital into low-carbon services and products to accelerate the global shift towards a low-carbon economy.

Are you expecting major announcements by the host country USA or a key player such as China?

Yes, we are expecting all countries to come forward and begin to put on the table what they will be able to contribute next year into a much more formal setting. But for that, the deadline is not until March 2015. What we expect is indications of what is possible. The fact is that most countries around the world are currently doing their homework and figuring out at a national scale what is financially, politically, economically and technically possible for them to do.

The summit is taking place in the USA, a key player in terms of emissions and a possible new climate agreement. Can hosting the summit there make a difference to US attitudes and policy?

The second term of President Obama has seen an accelerated and up-scaled engagement on climate change. The latest move of the Obama administration to ask the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) to come forward with regulations on power plants is probably the most ambitious action the US government has taken on climate change. We expect President Obama will be giving indications of how the United States is going to further build on those efforts. It is also very interesting that on US land, there will be the people’s climate march, just two days before the summit. That will show that there is, even in the United States, broad and deep public support for global climate policy making.

Do you think this kind of grassroots movement is what we need to take things forward?

I think it’s a very important component. I’m very grateful to the organizers of the march and to everyone who’s going to be at the march. I will be there, because it’s important to give a very strong message that it is not just the responsibility of governments or corporations, but rather there is also civil society responsibility here to make their awareness and concern felt, and encourage countries and companies to move towards low-carbon economies as soon as possible.

Some people say cities and regions should play a bigger role while governments struggle to negotiate a climate agreement?

Well it’s not an either or. Cities all around the world have already taken a very impressive lead. And we will hear from them. The mayors of hundreds of cities will be in New York, and the same goes for regions, whether it’s groups of countries or groups of municipalities. The optimization of climate action is going to come from the coherent integration of policy from the international level to the national to the local level.

Isn’t it difficult to arouse interest in an additional climate summit in the current world political situation with attention focused on conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine and other places?

The whole week in New York will see much press attention to the summit. Not only because we will have hundreds of thousands of people on the street, not only because we will have hundreds of political leaders there, hundreds of corporations, but because they are all coming to New York for one very powerful reason. That is, climate change is now the biggest challenge that humanity has faced, certainly in this century. And there is growing awareness of this. There is already a lot of conflict around the world, around water scarcity, around migration, around food and security, and that is exacerbated by climate change. So if we want to prevent conflicts that will scale out of control, then we have to address climate change in a timely fashion.

The latest figures show greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. Scientists say the two degree target is virtually out of reach. What has to happen to bring about the kind of action we need to avert disastrous climate change?

Science has made it very clear: there is only one pathway that will allow us to stay under the maximum two degree maximum temperature increase which is the maximum temperature increase we could allow, and still maintain a more or less predictable climate for all populations around the world. So this summit and the formal processes which will occur in Peru at the end of this year and in France at the end of next year are three very important clarion calls to world leaders both public and private that time is running out. We still have the time to do it, but in order to avert the worst effects of climate change, we have to come to a global agreement by next year.

Date

September 22, 2014 | 11:49 am

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