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Finland courts US rivals Russia and China in bid for key role in Arctic power game
Finland does not often make its way onto the international news agenda, but as the country prepares to take over the presidency of the Arctic council from the USA next month, it succeeded twice over the past week. Firstly, the country’s President offered to host a meeting between Russian President Putin and US President Trump. Then Chinese President Xi Jinping flew in on a state visit on his way to a meeting with Trump.
Tackling the summit
At a forum in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk last Thursday entitled “The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue”, Finland said it was willing to host a high-level summit meeting during its two-year presidency and would be happy to receive the Russian and US Presidents in Finland.
In his statement, the Finnish leader stressed that “the geopolitical tensions in other parts of the world should not be allowed to spill over to the Arctic. Cool heads are needed to keep the Arctic an area of low tensions also in the future.”
Under the chairmanship slogan “Exploring Common Solutions”, he said “we want to highlight the need for constructive cooperation between all Arctic stakeholders. Also, we believe it is time to take the Arctic cooperation to a new level. Finland proposes the convening of an Arctic Summit to discuss a wide range of issues pertaining to the region and beyond. This would provide an opportunity to ensure that the Arctic indeed remains a territory of dialogue”.
Heather Exner-Pirot, Managing Editor of the Arctic Yearbook, was scathing about the Finnish move in a blog post for Eye on the Arctic. She says Finland has been floating the idea of such a summit at least since 2010.
“But after meeting with Barack Obama in May 2016, Niniistö seemed to abandon such plans, calling the timing “inappropriate” given the international political situation. That was short-lived. Niniistö once again revived the idea in his first telephone call with now President Trump, in December 2016.”
Stick to base camp?
Exner-Pirot finds it “bewildering” that the current situation could be considered more appropriate than they were a year ago.
“Niniistö may not have noticed, but the Trump Presidency is in crisis, a political dumpster fire, not least because it is under investigation for inappropriate ties to Russia during its 2016 Presidential campaign. Any meeting of Trump and Putin under the current political climate would be a circus.”
She says Finland has not put forward any convincing reasons to host such a Summit, and that the usual biannual Arctic Council Ministerial, which will take place next month, is an adequate regular platform to address high level Arctic issues amongst the Arctic states’ Foreign Ministers.
“The Trump Administration has proffered no position on Arctic affairs except, tangentially, to cast doubt on the anthropogenic contributions to climate change; it is hard to imagine more sophisticated or constructive discussions arising from an Arctic Summit.”
She argues for continuing “compartmentalization” as a guiding principle in regional Arctic politics, keeping environmental issues and development “insulated from the destabilising fluctuations that occur within the broader international system.”
Cooperation with Russia is “rational and necessary”, Exner-Pirot concludes, but “inviting Trump and Putin together for an Arctic Summit flagrantly violates this strategy. Instead, it invites drama and uncertainty into Arctic politics at a time when multilateral efforts are progressing quite smoothly; an all-risk-and-no-reward scenario. This is not the Arctic way. Cooperation with Russia in the Arctic must continue. But the proposal for an Arctic Summit should be shelved.”
While there is much to be said for tackling issues at lower levels – can you blame Finland for making the most of its central role at the helm of the Arctic Council? It is surely natural for a country in this position to offer a stage for a high-profile meeting of these two world leaders – perhaps especially when it seems unlikely in the present circumstances.
At any rate, it will only happen if the two key players feel it could be to their advantage. The very prospect certainly ensured considerable news and public attention for the incomimg Arctic Council Presidency.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto back-pedaled a little later, saying the nation was unlikely to hold an Arctic summit at short notice, cooling media excitement at the prospect of an early meeting between US President Trump and Putin.
For his part, President Putin said he was willing to meet Trump in Finland, but “he would wait longer if needed”, the news agency AP reported: “We are waiting for the situation to normalize and become more stable. And we aren’t interfering in any way.”
With a US congressional investigation of possible links between the Trump election campaign and Russia underway, the jury, presumably, can said to be “still out” on that one.
Ultimately, insulating the Arctic from the tensions of international politics as Exner-Pirot suggests, seems like wishful thinking.
There is evidence enough that Russia has been moving to increase its military presence in the region. In a feature for Reuters published January 30th, Andrew Osborn wrote Russia was “again on the march in the Arctic and building new nuclear icebreakers.”
Osborn describes this as “part of a push to firm Moscow’s hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States and Norway as well as newcomer China.”
Based on interviews with officials and military analysts and reviews of government documents, Osborn concludes that Russia’s build-up is the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union and that it will “in some areas, give Moscow more military capabilities than the Soviet Union once had.”
He continues “under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow is rushing to re-open abandoned soviet military, air and radar bases on remote Arctic islands and to build new ones, as it pushes ahead with a claim to almost half a million square miles of the Arctic.”
The article was written after a tour of the Lenin, a Russian icebreaker now functioning as a museum in Murmansk. This week that name popped up again in a story in the Barents Observer by Thomas Nilsen entitled “FSB fears terror at nuclear installations in Murmansk region”.
The topic was on the agenda at a conference on board that same museum icebreaker in Murmansk the day after the metro attack in St. Petersburg.
The conference was entitled “Improving antiterrorist protection of civilian and military nuclear power facilities, preventing acts of nuclear terrorism”.
Nilsen points out that there are few places in the world with more operational nuclear reactors than the Murmansk region.
So is there a link between the Arctic and possible terrorist attacks by “Islamic State”, suspected by Moscow of being behind the St. Petersburg attacks?
Nilsen quotes Oleg Gerasin, head of the Russian intelligence bureau FSB in Murmansk region, explaining that ships from Russia’s Northern Fleet have been taking part in “antiterrorist operations in Syria.”
This demonstrates once more the inter-connectedness of the world today. With all due respect for essential multilateral cooperation on a wide range of issues at lower levels, across the board, ultimately the nature of politics in a globalized world can necessitate participation at the highest leadership level and lend symbolic significance to top-level summits. And that can apply especially if they can be brought about in times of strained relations and global risks.
This week also saw Chinese leader Xi Jinping pay a visit to Helsinki, on the way to his tensely awaited meeting with US President Trump. This was only the second ever visit to Finland by a Chinese leader, although Xi himself visited in 2010 when he was vice-president. Niinistö made an official visit to China in 2013 .
Finland opened political ties with China in 1950 and Chinese state media were keen to stress that Finland was the first western country to sign a governmental bilateral trade agreement with Beijing.
Xi said in a statement there was “great potential” for future bilateral trade ties. He stressed that “over the past 67 years of diplomatic ties, the China-Finland relationship has enjoyed steady and sound growth despite the changing international landscape”. China is Finland’s fifth largest trading partner and Xi said he saw “great space and potential for further economic cooperation and trade”.
During the visit, Finland became the latest to benefit from what the news agency AFT describes as “Beijings famed panda diplomacy”. A pair of giant pandas will be leased to Ahtari zoo in central Finland, where a new panda cage costing more than eight million euros is being constructed.
So while President Trump warned talks with Xi would be “very difficult” – the US deficit with China rose to 31.7 billion $US in February – Finland was stepping up its game, cultivating non-Arctic nation China. China has observer status at the Arctic Council and a strong economic interest in making use of shorter sea routes from Asia to Europe and the USA through the Arctic, with climate change making access easier, although relatively high transit costs and unpredictable ice cover still limit its attractiveness. Beijing is keen to gain footholds in a region it sees as key for the future.
China is starting to build its own icebreakers. New icebreakers could allow year-round navigation in the 2020s, Grigory Stratiy, deputy governor of Murmansk Region told Reuters.
China is leading a “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), a $5trillion plan to upgrade infrastructure between Asia and Europe. So far, Russia is the only one of the eight Arctic nation states to be a BRI partner. China, which has partnered heavily with Iceland in recent years, is keen to get the Nordic nations on board.
In the statement issued after the visit, China and Finland stressed two key over-arching issues:
“Both sides are committed to working together to reduce or limit greenhouse gas emissions, promote sustainable development and strengthen climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.”
The two partners “shared the view that economic activities in the Arctic area should take into full consideration the protection and sustainable use of its natural resources. The two countries will intensify economic and technological cooperation in the fields of arctic marine industry, arctic geology, marine and polar research (including polar weather and sea ice monitoring and forecast), environmental protection technology, shipping and maritime safety, including vessel monitoring and reporting, ICT and tourism.”
A wide-ranging and ambitious spectrum.
Meanwhile, on the global climate action stage, China seems set to benefit from the backward-looking policies of the Trump administration, positioning itself as a new world leader. At home pollution, drought and desertification are causing increasing problems for Beijing. To ensure peace and food security and avert unrest, a switch to renewable energies is essential. Beijing has also recognized their economic potential. At the same time the country can polish up its international image by taking on the role of climate leader while Donald Trump advances to environment and climate public enemy number one.
While it leads the global move to halt climate change, China is positioning itself to exploit the impacts global warming has already had on the Arctic. Given the current state of the global climate and the slow progress towards keeping to the two-degree let alone 1.5 degree upper limit for global warming, the Arctic is unlikely to re-freeze in the near future. Full speed ahead for Arctic development?
The Arctic Council has to be the body that controls what is happening in the High North and coordinates protection of the fragile Arctic environment.
As President of the body for the next two years, Finland has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to make its influence felt.
As far as the first meeting between the Russian and US-American “big men” is concerned, Finland just might have to pass. Finnish leader Niinistö had to admit to a news conference:
“The G20 meeting in Germany will likely be the first meeting for presidents Trump and Putin”, (July 7 and 8.)
Watch this space.
DateApril 6, 2017 | 1:02 pm
TagsArctic, Arctic Council, Arctic Yearbook, Barents Observer, China, Climate, Emissions, Exner-Pirot, Finland, geopolitics, nuclear terrorism, panda, Putin, Renewables, Russia, sea ice, Trump, USA
Arctic sea ice: is the minimum maximum the new normal?
If you blinked, you might have missed it. The confirmation came this week that the Arctic sea ice reached yet another all-time low this past winter. It came and went, without too much ado.
Maybe the excitement was just past. The maximum extent was actually reached on March 7th, but of course you can only be sure it is really not going to spread any further once it has definitely been retreating for some time with the onset of spring.
I was waiting for the NSIDC confirmation, but not with any doubt in my mind that it would tell us officially the maximum for this season would be a minimum.
The danger is a “so what?” kind of reaction, or resignation, with the feeling that nothing short of some kind of unprecedented experimental geo-engineering could save the Arctic summer sea ice in the coming years, as the world continues to warm.
Lowest on record
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, and NASA confirmed this week that Arctic sea ice was at a record low maximum extent for the third straight year.
It reached the maximum on March 7, at 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 milion square miles). Since then, it has started its annual decline with the start of the melt season. Some time in September it will reach its minimum.
This year’s maximum is the lowest in the 38-year satellite record. NSIDC scientists said a very warm autumn and winter had contributed to the record low maximum. Air temperatures were 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean. Against the background of overall warmth came a series of “extreme winter heat waves over the Arctic Ocean, continuing the pattern also seen in the winter of 2015”, NISDC said in a statement.
The air over the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska and the Barents Sea north of Scandinavia was even warmer, averaging around 9 degrees Fahrenheit (five degrees C) above the norm.
NSIDC director Mark Serreze said in his statement: “I have been looking at Arctic weather patterns for 35 years and have never seen anything close to what we’ve experienced these past two winters.”
The winter ice cover was also slightly thinner than that of the past four years, according to data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite. Data from the University of Washington’s Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimiliation System also showed that the ice volume was unusually low for this time of year.
Record summer melt ahead?
“Thin ice and beset by warm weather – not a good way to begin the melt season,”, said NSIDC lead scientist Ted Scambos.
A low maximum does not necessarily mean the minimum to be measured in September will also be a record low, as it depends on summer weather patterns. But Julienne Stroeve from NSIDC and professor of polar observation and modeling at the University College London said “Such thin ice going into the melt season sets us up for the possibility of record low sea ice conditions this September”.
“While the Arctic maximum is not as important as the seasonal minimum, the long-term decline is a clear indicator of climate change”, said Walt Meier, a scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory and an affiliate scientist at NSIDC. Iceblog readers might wonder if that is stating the obvious, but given the attitudes of the US administration, you can’t take anything for granted.
The September sea ice measurements began to attract attention in 2005, when the ice extent first shrank to a record low over the period of satellite observations. It broke the record again in 2007 and in 2012. There used to be little interest in the maximum extent of the Arctic sea ice at the end of winter. I can remember reading with concern and writing a piece about the maximum extent also reaching a record low in 2015.
“Arctic sea ice extents have followed a steady downward trajectory since the start of the 21st century – at the same time global temperatures have reached new record highs. Betides setting multiple record low summertime minimum extents, Arctic sea ice began to exhibit a pattern of poor winter recovery starting around 2004.”
Living on thin ice
I remember an expedition to Alaska in 2008, when locals at Barrow told me about their personal experiences of the sea ice becoming thinner and less dependable. Some years later I heard similar reports from people in Greenland, who were selling their sled dogs and buying boats in preparation for changing from ice to open water fishing. The data backs them up.
Yereth Rosen, writing for Alaska Dispatch News, draws attention to the problems of continuing to collect that data. She quotes NSIDC’s Serreze:
“Just how well the center will be able to track sea ice in the future remains unclear. No new satellite is expected to be in place until 2020, and there are concerns about potential interruptions in the record that goes back to 1979… We’re at a situation where the remaining passive microwave instruments up there are kind of elderly. If we have satellite failures, we could lose that eye in the sky”.
Now there is a worrying thought.
Against the background of budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, that – to put it mildly – does not regard tracking climate change as a high priority – scientists are understandably worried about the future of scientific research on climate and environment related issues.
Method in the madness?
Without reliable continuous satellite data, it would be much harder to track how climate change is affecting the polar regions, the ocean and our planet in general. This may well be the intention of climate-change deniers behind the scenes. But climate change itself will not go away – and the impacts will be increasingly evident.
Tim Ellis, writing for Alaska Public media, quotes Serreze as saying the polar ice cap will not last long if the region continues to warm at this rate.
“We are on course sometime in the next few decades, maybe even earlier, to have summers in the Arctic where, you go up there at the end of August, say, and there’s no ice at all.”
“The view from space in the fall of around 2040” , he went on – assuming we still have satellites to take the pictures – “will be of a blue Arctic Ocean, aside from some scattered icebergs and clusters of pack ice”.
I don’t know about you, but I find that a rather depressing thought.
Implications for the rest of the globe
Andrea Thompson, for Climate Central, writes “even in the context of the decades of greenhouse gas-driven warming, and subsequent ice loss in the Arctic, this winter’s weather stood out.”
She also reminds us of the global impacts of a warming Arctic and decline in sea ice:
“The Arctic was one of the clear global hotspots that helped drive global temperatures to the second- hottest February on record and the third-hottest January, despite the demise of a global heat-boosting El Nino last summer.”
This week the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said 2016 had been the hottest year ever recorded, and that the record-breaking heat had continued into 2017, sending the world into “truly uncharted territory”.
“The dramatic melting of Arctic ice is already driving extreme weather that affects hundreds of millions of people across North America, Europe and Asia, according to emerging research”, Damian Carrington writes in the Guardian.
On March 15th, Carrington published an article entitled “Airpocalypse smog events linked to global warming”, referring to extreme smog occurrences in China.
Optimism – the only way to go?
This week I interviewed German oceanologist and climatologist Mojib Latif. I wanted to find out whether the highly unusual extreme rainfall and flooding happening in Peru could be explained by natural cycles or was likely to be a climate change impact which could reoccur. You can read the interview here or listen to it on my Living Planet show this week online or on soundcloud.
The professor stressed that the scientists are baffled, because it is not really the time for an el Nino, although this seems to be a “coastal el Nino”, driven by exceptionally warm water off the coast. Of course he is reluctant to attribute any single event to climate change. He stated unequivocally, though, that the warming of the ocean worldwide was absolutely inexplicable without anthropogenic CO2 emissions, that this is all in line with climate models and that we should all be preparing for an increasing number of increasingly extreme weather events, as the world warms.
He says the governments of the world (apart perhaps from the new US administration) are in no doubt that climate change is happening and they need to halt it. But they have so far failed in their attempts.
When I asked Professor Latif if he still felt optimistic, he told me we really had no other choice. While critical of the lack of government action, he is convinced the world will realize that renewables are ultimately far superior to fossil fuels and will ultimately prevail. The question is whether that will happen in time. As far as the Arctic summer sea ice is concerned, I have to go with a Scots expression: “A hae ma doots”.
DateMarch 24, 2017 | 2:31 pm
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Barrow, China, Climate, el Nino, Emissions, Greenland, ice, IFM-Geomar, Living Planet, polar bears, research, science, sea ice, Sea level, Warming, weather
Arctic Council – 20 years in a warming world
20 years does not really seem like a long time. But when it comes to climate change in the Arctic, the last 20 years have brought more change than centuries gone by.
After the warmest winter in the Arctic since records began, the sea ice has declined to its second-lowest level ever. And the “second-lowest” tends to divert attention from the fact that the sea ice cover has dwindled to nearly 2.56m sq km less than the 1979 to 2000 average. That’s the size of Alaska and Texas combined.
So the Arctic Council is celebrating its twentieth birthday at a time when concern over the impacts of planetary warming on the high north could hardly be greater.
I had the chance to interview Julia Gourley, the US Senior Arctic Official on the telephone ahead of the birthday. The US, of course, currently holds the two-year chairmanship of the body. I asked her how the Council had changed over the past 20 years.
“In the early days the Arctic state focused almost exclusively on environmental protection and science issues. But over the 20 years the countries have shifted the focus a bit. Certainly we still spend a lot of time trying to understand the environmental change that’s been going on. We spend much more time now on sustainable development issues, which in the Council generally refer to issues that affect the people of the Arctic, in particular the indigenous people. We’ve learned a lot in 20 years about the people who live there and the challenges they face.”
And those challenges are increasing all the time, especially because of the rapid pace of climate change.
Melting ice, easier access
The increase in human activity, as remote Arctic regions become more easily accessible has turned protecting the region into a whole new ball game. Gourley cites cruise ships, offshore oil and gas development , fishing and shipping as issues which have moved up the agenda.
Clearly, this means more work for the Arctic Council – and has also brought a lot more global interest in the region:
“We have 32 observer entities now, 12 of whom are countries. There are many more in the queue that are seeking observer status. What happens in the Arctic affects the entire planet, so countries all over the world are becoming interested in the region”.
With a big player like China taking a huge interest in the Arctic and looking to establish ports and secure its own access to the region, and political tensions between some of the Council members, such as Russia and the EU or the USA itself, the shadow of conflict always seem to be lurking in the background. Gourley is keen to play this aspect down. She stresses the key role of the Council in keeping the Arctic peaceful and encouraging cooperation. The USA, she says, welcomes the increasing interest by non-Arctic states – although, she adds, each of the Arctic states has their own views on that.
“We feel like we have a lot to learn as a group of Arctic states still about how the Arctic affects the rest of the world, and the more countries that are in the room listening to the discussion and learning from it and can contribute to it, the better. So we encourage non-Arctic countries that have particular expertise, to contribute to the work of the council – the scientific work, the technical work, economic work.”
When it comes to regulating activities in the Arctic, the Council itself is not a regulatory body, but it contributes expertise to others.
“When it comes to shipping, the International Maritime Organisation is the regulatory authority all over the planet. But the Council has a strong interest in shipping in the Arctic, and so the Council has done some seminal work on the Arctic shipping situation, including a very important piece of work in 2009 called the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. That was the first time anyone in the world had looked deeply into the state of shipping in the Arctic in the face of climate change and reducing sea ice. That study is still cited today”.
When it comes to regulating offshore activities like mining and fishing, the Arctic states also have their own regulatory regimes, “ so it’s sort of a mix of regulatory activity by lots of different entities”, Gourley explains.
The US Arctic representative is bound, of course, to take up a diplomatic stance. But while she stresses the Council’s efforts to keep tensions low and foster cooperation rather than conflict, she does make one qualification:
“The tensions in other parts of the world haven’t affected the work of the Council. That said, of course we all have our own national views about a lot of the issues that face the Arctic. But as to working together as a group of eight countries, together with the observer states and NGOs, it really has worked quite well. We’ve managed to carve out a space that we can work in collaboratively. Now, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case. As things change in certain parts of the world it’s not easy to predict what could happen in the Arctic. But at least up to this point, we’ve been able to work together quite well.”
Presumably, with climate change having such a strong and rapid impact on the Arctic, there are bound to be increasing differences of opinion when it comes to striking a balance between preserving the Arctic as it is on the one hand, and on the other developing commercial and industrial activities. The US representative was quite realistic on this one:
“Yes, that’s a real tension. I think that chapter of the Arctic story is still being written. Each Arctic state comes at those questions in their own waters and their own exclusive economic zones differently, and each country’s regime is slightly different. So it’s hard to say there’s a single answer to how we resolve those questions. But it is something that is very real. It’s of concern in particular to a lot of Arctic indignous people, who want to live traditionally but also realize that modernity is moving into their world and in some cases economic development is very necessary to create good jobs and include living conditions. So it is a very real, very alive debate.”
Indeed. The Arctic conundrum in a nutshell.
Tackling black carbon
What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic – and pollution produced in the rest of the world doesn’t stay out of the Arctic.
While the UN has its own body tasked with combating climate change, there are other climate-forcing agents which affect the Arctic particularly strongly, such as black carbon or soot. The Arctic Council sees this as an area where it has a key role to play:
“Black carbon itself is not part of the UNFCCC, so it’s not part of any global regulatory regime. So we are working in the Council on ways to reduce black carbon emissions voluntarily. So I think that’s going to have some very positive results.”
At the end of our talk, I wanted to know whether optimism outweighed concern or vice versa when it comes to the future of the Arctic in our warming world. The answer didn’t surprise me. But the underlying sentiment that in spite of all the tension in the world and the feeling that climate change is gathering momentum and happening ever faster, we all have to pull together, is a message I can subscribe to:
“I think I feel optimistic in a way. Certainly, the melting that’s happening in the Arctic is potentially hugely problematic for the world. I think the science is pretty clear on that front. And it’s not going to change overnight. Even if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented right away, it’s a long time before the Arctic environment can stabilize. But when we have countries working together, if we can keep the conversation going, and we can encourage all of us in the Arctic and Arctic observer states, to work together to keep the conversation going, even if it’s slow, and to keep communication lines working, I think we do have room to be optimistic about that area of the world.”
The next 20 years are not likely to be less challenging than the last for the Arctic Council. On the contrary. You have your work cut out for you. Good luck – and happy birthday.
DateSeptember 19, 2016 | 1:37 pm
TagsArctic, Arctic Council, China, Climate, Emissions, EU, ice, Norway, Oil, science, sea ice, Tromso, UN talks, USA, Warming
China, USA climate pledge – all talk, no action?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
DateSeptember 5, 2016 | 1:27 pm
TagsArctic, China, Climate, Emissions, G20, Living Planet, permafrost, polar bears, Renewables, research, science, sea ice, UN talks, USA
Hottest year – scary, but not for Chinese Arctic shippers?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DateJuly 22, 2016 | 2:19 pm