Ex UN-climate chief speaks out on Arctic drilling
One good thing about people no longer being in office is they are freer to come out with their own opinions. Former Executive Secretary of the UN climate secretariat UNFCCC Christina Figueres told Alister Doyle from Reuters this week that drilling in the Arctic was not economical and that warming was a threat to the environmentally fragile region. (Many thanks to the Arctic Institute for flagging that as top story in The Arctic This Week)
Passion versus diplomacy
I interviewed Ms Figueres several times when she was head of the UN climate secretariat here in Bonn. I always had the feeling she was passionate about climate protection and often wondered, as I did with her predecessor Yvo de Boer, whether they did not feel frustrated at the slow pace of climate action and the need to respond diplomatically and tread carefully on the minefield that is global geopolitics. With Yvo de Boer, that was certainly the case.
Back in 2014, ahead of the UN summit on climate organized by Ban-Ki-Moon, Christina Figueres told me in an interview that that mega-meeting was “an opportunity to show, to shine, and to start a race to the top, for everyone to realize that climate is not a one-sector or one company or one country issue, but an every man, every sector, every country issue. That is why it is such a broad invitation to all sectors, all countries, to come forward.”
Competition to halt climate change?
Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see countries racing to be the real climate champions? I would love to be able to say that has actually happened, but based on our global emissions to date and the failure of the latest working meeting in Bonn to make real progress in preparing this year’s climate conference in Poland at the end of this year, I do not have the feeling that there is a “race to the top” in cutting emissions and halting global warming.
The Trump factor
Clearly, one major factor in all this is the election of Donald Trump as US President. At that time, the UN climate chief told me “the second term of President Obama has seen an accelerated and upscaled engagement on climate change in particular. With the latest move of the Obama administration to ask EPA to come forward with regulations on power plants. That is probably the most ambitious action the US government has taken on climate change”.
What a disappointment to see the climate-sceptical US administration backpedaling on all of that and opting out of the Paris Agreement.
No action without catastrophe?
Figueres comes from Costa Rica, a country that she says is a model when it comes to climate action:
“Costa Rica has had a carbon tax for over 20 years, it has internalized the cost of this, and so is one of the countries to which many countries are looking a) for the carbon pricing model we have, also for the system we have of environmental payment for services, which we pioneered in Costa Rica and which is being used in other countries. It’s a country that doesn’t mind experimenting, is very risk-friendly and has actually benefitted from a these forward-leaning policies particularly with respect to the environment and holds a high repute amongst other countries.”
Alas, there have not been many others following the Costa Rican path.
“They have a front-row seat to the havoc climate change is already causing. No wonder they’re moved to action” Katie Quirk wrote in an article for Slate last year. If it is catastrophic impacts that fuel climate action, we may not have all that long to wait.
And “the Arctic has been rendered undrillable,”she told Reuters.
Paradoxically, the easier access to our icy north becomes, the more difficult it becomes to justify commercial activities up there from the point of view of stabilizing the world’s climate.
Yet there are still governments and companies who think it worth drilling in the Arctic. President Trump’s administration is even considering drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Figueres says global emissions should peak by 2020 – a target now highly unlikely to be reached in that short a time.
At the same time, searching for oil and gas in the Arctic would “take years to develop any finds”, she says, suggesting the money would be put to a better use developing renewable energy.
“The stakes are visibly higher than they were just a few years ago,” she said in the recent Reuters interview. Indeed, and they are rising all the time.
DateMay 18, 2018 | 2:41 pm
TagsArctic, Arctic Institute, Climate, Emissions, Figueres, ice, Oil, Renewables, Sea level, Slate, Trump
Arctic sea ice low as UN delegates talk climate in a sweltering Bonn.
It’s been a scorcher of a week here in Bonn. Delegates to the UNFCCC climate talks (one of the interim meetings to prepare the big COP24 which will take place in Katowice, Poland, in December) have been experiencing non-stop sunshine and temperatures up to 30 degrees Celsius. It feels like the height of summer here, although we are only at the beginning of May.
How appropriate as a backdrop to a meeting that is trying to work out the nitty gritty of actually fulfilling the Paris Agreement commitment to limiting global warming to 2 or preferably 1.5 degrees C warming.
“Currently we’re heading for 3 degrees C of warming rather than the 1.5 degrees C agreed in Paris, and the window of opportunity to reverse this is swiftly closing,” was the comment from Jens Mattias Clausen from Greenpeace Nordic.
Sea ice on the wane (again)
Coming back to work after a long break, a catch-up look at twitter, #Arctic drew my attention first to a tweet from @ArthurWyns telling me “next week it will be 20°C warmer than usual on the #Arctic!!!”
Then came one from @ketil_Isaksen, about one of my own favourite Arctic places:
Still working out the rules
Given all this, I can well understand why a lot of people involved in the talks in Bonn are feeling frustrated at the slow progress being made.
The delegates are charged with finalizing the rules for the actual implementation of the Paris Agreement. You can be forgiven if you thought things had already moved beyond that stage.
Yes, the wheels of international climate diplomacy move very slowly.
At a press briefing organized by the Climate Action Network (CAN), Li Shuo, a Senior Climate & Energy Policy Officer with Greenpeace stressed: “This is a mini Paris here. We really are trying to finalize all the detailed rules for the Paris Agreement. That’s a daunting task.”
The Polish dilemma
The next COP at the end of this year will be held in Katowice, the heartland of Poland’s coal industry. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if that turned out to be a turning point in the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable, climate-friendly forms of energy? The city itself says it wants to go green, as one of our correspondents reported in the latest edition of my radio show Living Planet. But, alas. There are absolutely no signs that the Polish government is planning to change its policy any time soon.
“We have seen worrying signs that the Polish presidency thinks that it will sufficient just to get some kind of rulebook,” said Alden Meyer, Director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, also at the event organized by CAN.
He went on: “We don’t have to wait for the IPCC special report in October to know that what’s on the table and being implemented falls far short of what’s needed to reach the temperature goals countries agreed to in Paris.”
Coal and climate
I asked him how he saw Poland’s stance on all this at the moment. In spite of the government’s support for coal and reluctance to see to see the EU step up its goals, he stressed that “the role of the presidency is to put their domestic considerations aside and operate on behalf of the entire world community”.
Well, we can try to be optimistic.
“We retain some hope that Poland in its role as the presidency will be different from Poland in its role within the European Union and in its domestic energy policies”, said Meyer, they have to ensure that “the first review of the Paris Agreement, actually triggers much stronger climate commitments”.
Li Shuo noted that Poland was rather late in “shaping up their team” for the climate conference.
“There’s really no clarity from the incoming Polish presidency on how they plan to deal with the political process at Katowice. So we need to hear more from Poland”, he told me at our meeting.
The state of play
When I hear after a week and a half of a two-week working meeting that some progress has been made on technical issues of implementing the rules of the climate agreement, it does not make me feel confident that the international community is going to meet the emissions targets on time. “Other discussions are really stuck because of political differences”, said Li Shuo – mostly relating to the INDCs, or “nationally determined contributions”.
Concerned scientists’ representative Meyer reiterated the urgent need for progress on adaptation, with a lot of climate impacts already being felt: “No matter how successful we are on meeting the Paris temperature limitation goals, those impacts are going to continue to mount over the next several decades because of inertia and momentum in the climate system”.
What happens in the Arctic…
That would also apply to the Arctic region, where temperature rise is not only completely altering things for people and nature up there – it is also changing weather patterns and ocean circulation, with severe implications for the whole planet.
“What is missing is leadership and guidance, especially coming from the presidency”, said Li Shuo. And the spectre of another President is also hovering over the Bonn talks.
However, the Polish government has been preparing for the end-of-year climate extravaganza in other ways. It has passed a bill specifically for the UN summit which bans all “spontaneous gatherings” in the southern coal-mining city of Katowice between November 26 and December 16, which covers the entire period of the conference. It also submits registered participants to government surveillance and allows authorities and police to obtain, collect and use personal data of attendees without their consent or judicial oversight.
We’re still trying to get an official UNFCCC statement on that one. Good ground for getting the whole world on board to halt climate change?
DateMay 8, 2018 | 3:12 pm
TagsArctic, CAN, Climate, Emissions, EU, Greenpeace, ice, Living Planet, polar bears, Renewables, research, science, Svalbard, UN talks, Union of Concerned Scientists, Warming
Working for an international broadcaster which has Africa as one of its key target groups, I often find it difficult to interest some of my colleagues in what is happening in the Arctic. So my attention was caught instantly when I came across an article by Chelsea Harvey in the Washington Post: A climate chain reaction: Major Greenland melting could devastate crops in Africa.
DateJune 9, 2017 | 11:17 am
Tags#saveOurOceans, Africa, Arctic, Climate, Greenland, ice, ocean acidification, Renewables, research, science, Sea level, UN talks, Warming
Trump’s alternative reality? No warming, cool oceans, intact coral
“Irene, have you heard the news? Looks like Trump has pulled out of the Paris Agreement.” While the US President kept the suspense up until Thursday night – has he, hasn’t he, will he, won’t he -I struggled to reconcile his action with what I was hearing from a wide spectrum of highly intelligent people with decades of research and experience to their credit.
I was in Kiel this week, on Germany’s Baltic coast, attending a working meeting of the scientists involved in BIOACID, a national German programme (supported by the BMBF, Federal Ministry of Education and Research) to investigate the “Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification”. It has almost run its course, eight years of research in the bag.
And what I was hearing did nothing to allay my concern about the impacts of our greenhouse gas emissions. We are rapidly and undeniably changing the planet we live on – land and sea. And that applies particularly to the Arctic.
The scientific evidence
Can President Trump really fail to see the dangers of our human interference? Is he really oblivious to what climate change is doing to the ocean that covers 70 percent of the surface of our planet?
Maybe he lives in a parallel universe, where alternative facts prevail.
Back in 2010, I was able to witness the work of some of the scientists assembled in Kiel this week at first hand, as they lowered mesocosms, a kind of giant test tubes, into the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Svalbard. The aim was to find out how the life forms in the water would react to increasing acidification of their environment, as our greenhouse gas emissions result in more and more CO2 being absorbed into the ocean.
Drawing the threads together
Ulf Riebesell is Professor of Professor of Biological Oceanography at, GEOMAR, the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, and the coordinator of BIOACID.
When I first met him, he was kitted out in survival gear, supervising the transport and deployment of the mesocosms from Germany up to the Svalbard archipelago. He doesn’t need the cold-weather gear this week, in a summery Kiel, where he gathered representatives of the different working groups involved in the German project to draw some threads together as the project approaches its conclusion in November.
Good timing. The results will be ready to hand to the delegates attending this year’s UN climate extravaganza, COP23, in Bonn. Another key piece in the jigsaw puzzle of how climate change is affecting the world we live in and will determine the future of coming generations.
All creatures great and small
The scientists assembled represent a wide range of expertise. From the tiniest of microbes through algae, corals, fish and the myriad organisms that live in our seas- they have been trying to find out what happens when living conditions change for our fellow planetary residents – and how all this affects an ever-increasing population of humans and the complex societies we live in.
The ocean is changing at an unprecedented rate. It is becoming warmer, even in the depths, and it is becoming more acidic.
The work of Riebesell and his colleagues has shown that in our rapidly warming world, the CO2 that goes into the ocean is reducing the amount of calcium carbonate in the sea water, making life very difficult for sea creatures that use it to form their skeletons or shells. This will affect coral, mussels, snails, sea urchins, starfish as well as fish and other organisms. Some of these species will simply not be able to compete with others in the ocean of the future.
The Arctic predicament
Acidification is not something that affects all regions and species equally. Once again, the Arctic is getting the worst of it. Cold water absorbs CO2 faster. Experiments in the Arctic indicate that the sea water there could become corrosive within a few decades, as Ulf Riebesell has told me on several occasions since I first met him on Svalbard in 2010. “That means the shells and skeletons of some sea creatures would simply dissolve.”
Scientists warn that a combination of acidification, warming and stressors like pollution of all sorts will ultimately affect the food chain. (Indeed that is already happening).
Warming as usual?
While the BIOACID project comes to an end and the scientists fight for new funding to carry on research into ocean acidification, which requires a combination of field-work and modelling, the world continues on course for far more than the two degrees – or 1,5 set out in the Paris Agreement.
“The Paris Agreement is the single best hope for protecting the ocean and its resources”, the magazine reads. But it stresses: “the limits agreed on in Paris will not prevent sea levels from rising and corals from bleaching. Indeed, unless they are drastically strengthened, both problems risk getting much worse. Mankind is increasingly able to see the damage it is doing to the ocean. Whether it can stop it is another question”.
Bending the truth?
At the meeting in Kiel, I asked Professor Hans-Otto Pörtner, the other coordinator of BIOACID, senior scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute and co-chair of the IPCC Working Group 2 for his view of the current situation, with US President Trump getting set to leave the Paris Agreement:
“Climate change is clearly human made, responsible leadership means that this cannot simply be denied or ignored. I think this is a call for better education and information of the public so that it cannot be misled by bending the truth – and this is what it comes down to. As the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put it: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts”. In its previous analysis of decision-making to limit climate change and its effects, the IPCC also noted that climate change is a problem of the commons, requiring collective action at the global scale. Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently.”
Call to action
Indeed. We are all in this together.
But there is not only bad news:
“It remains to be seen to what extent U.S. emissions will be driven by federal policy, or actions at the State and city level, or by market and technological changes”, Professor Pörtner told me.
There is, it seems to me, an upside to President Trump’s decision to live in his own alternative reality. It galvanizes those of us who live in the real world to make sure climate action goes ahead. China and the EU closed ranks this week. States, companies, civil societies and committed individuals across the USA are stressing they will press on with the green energy revolution regardless.
In the interests of the icy north – and the rest of the planet it influences so considerably – we really have no choice.
DateJune 2, 2017 | 11:37 am
TagsArctic, BIOACID, Climate, CO2, Emissions, Geomar, ocean acidification, Paris Agreement, research, science, Trump, UN talks, Warming
Deciding Arctic future in Fairbanks and Bonn
It is hard to tell where the most influential conversations on the future of the Arctic are being held right now. Fairbanks would be the one where “Arctic” features most directly, at the summit of the Arctic Council. But the UN climate talks are also happening here in Bonn at the moment, and what was originally planned to be a fairly technical working meeting on implementing the Paris Agreement has been overshadowed by the question of whether the world’s second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter the USA might leave that Agreement, as threatened by President Trump.
The US climate question-mark
Either way, on both stages, the USA is at the centre of things. The election of Donald Trump and the establishing of an administration set on dismantling environmental protection and climate legislation has increased the size of the question mark hanging over the Paris goal of limiting global temperature rise to the two degrees – or rather 1.5 degrees – experts consider the absolute maximum to avoid dramatic feedback effects and potentially catastrophic climate change. And as far as the Arctic is concerned, even that would be too high. The icy north is already melting rapidly.
When the talks started in Bonn on Monday, a preparatory meeting for this year’s climate mega-event, also to be held here this November at the headquarters of the UNFCCC, people were anxiously awaiting a meeting that was still scheduled to take place in the USA on Tuesday, when the President was to make the decision on the Paris Agreement. It has since been postponed. The fact that it has been rescheduled until after the G7 meeting later this month, which will be attended by President Trump, supports the view that there is more to this than just a collision of appointments. Paula Caballero, the Global Director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute WRI, is in Bonn for the talks, and she told me in an interview the US Cabinet is divided on this issue and President Trump still has to make up his mind. She is hopeful that good (business) sense will prevail and President Trump will be influenced by those – in his immediate surroundings and on the international stage – who point out it makes sense from all points of view to stay in that Agreement and promote the shift to renewable energies and emissions reductions. Will the G7 meeting convince Trump to stay in the Paris Agreement?
Energy revolution from the bottom up?
You can read that interview, in which Ms Caballero outlines the ins- and outs of the US-Paris Agreement decision and stresses why it is in everybody’s interests for the US to stay in – on the DW website, or listen to it in the latest edition of Living Planet. One thing that is clear is that the momentum of the shift to renewable energies is picking up across the globe, regardless of the attempted rollback in the USA.
On Living Planet I also talk to two women in the programme who are pushing ahead with climate protection at the city level. Laura Kavanaugh and Maryke Van Staden work with ICLEI, a worldwide alliance of “local governments for sustainability”, which held a “Resilient Cities” forum, also here in Bonn, last week. Their message is quite clear. Cities around the globe are already feeling the impact of climate change now. Urgent action is required. The same is true of the Arctic, which is being hit so much harder and faster than the rest of the planet by climate warming.
Clearly, progress to halt global warming is key to preserving the Arctic ice. That makes it all the more interesting that the Arctic Council summit in Fairbanks is being hosted by none other than the “new” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as the USA has held the rotating Chairmanship of the Council for the last two years. Given that Tillerson is former CEO of the fossil fuels giant EXXON Mobil, there will be a keen interest in anything he says on or off the record, with regard to climate change and the prospect of future oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. Given that he is the first Republican Secretary of State to attend an Arctic Council summit, unsurprisingly there is much speculation about whether this indicates an increased US interest in the Arctic – and with what motives. Joel Plouffe has some interesting insights on that aspect.
The Trump administration is keen to boost Arctic drilling, hoping to benefit from easier access thanks to Arctic warming and decreasing sea ice cover. It is to be feared that this is the main reason for the upsurge in US interest in the region. The same applies to Russia.
— Heather Exner-Pirot (@ExnerPirot) May 11, 2017
Heather Exner-Poirot notes with interest that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was the only one of the Arctic foreign ministers to hear Tillerson’s speech at the reception in Fairbanks on Wednesday evening.
Cooperation – on climate science?
Finland will take over the helm of the Arctic organization at the end of today’s meeting. Finland has said it aims to protect the Arctic during its chairmanship by adhering to the Paris Agreement. Good luck Finland. You have an interesting couple of years ahead of you.
The theme of the US Chairmanship has been “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities”. The Council says this was reflected in much of the work completed by its six Working Groups and Task Forces over the last two years.
One key issue in focus is science. The “Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation” is up for approval and signature in Fairbanks.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has taken drastic measures to cut budgets for climate science and environment protection. Not without reason did scientists takes to the streets around the world in protest. So there was a considerable feeling of relief when David Balton, the State Department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs and chair of the Senior Arctic Officials over the past two years announced on Monday that the US remained commited to Arctic climate change research.
“The US will remain engaged in the work the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout,” he told reporters.
“I am very confident there will be no change in that regard”.
To drill or not to drill…
It remains to be seen exactly what that will involve. It is hard to understand how Trump’s considering pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement can be reconciled with any commitment to protecting the Arctic from climate warming. It seems more likely that he is keen to benefit from the effects of climate change making the Arctic more accessible for commercial development. After all, scientific research in the Arctic can take many forms.
On April 27, the President signed an executive order aimed at rolling back restrictions on offshore drilling, including offshore Alaska. Barack Obama had issued orders closing off areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans to oil and gas drilling.
In the meantime, ten environmental and Alaska Native groups are suing the federal government over Trump’s new order. The groups are led by the League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice. They say the order exceeded Trump’s authority under federal law.
In ADN, on May 3 Erica Martinson quotes Niel Lawrence, NRDC senior attorney:
“These areas have been permanently protected from the dangers of oil and gas development. President Trump may wish to undo that, and declare our coasts open for business to dirty energy companies, but he simply lacks the authority to do so under the law.”
Icy battle over future energy
While the legal wrangling continues – and the number of lawsuits involving climate change is on the increase – the Arctic continues to warm at a rapid rate.
The “Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic” (SWIPA) report published in April indicates that the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of sea ice in summer in just two decades, and that projections of global sea level rise are underestimated.
The signs do not bode well for the Arctic. What happens in the region depends very largely on how fast the world is able to halt global warming. With the world’s second-biggest emitter set on exploiting the impacts of global warming in the region and reversing measures to protect environment and climate, the main question is how much influence the USA will actually have, and how resilient the transition to renewable energies will be.
Claudia Kemfert, a leading climate economist, recently published a new book in German about what she sees as the fossil fuels empire “striking back”, a campaign to discredit the green energy revolution. She warns against complacency and underestimating the influence of the fossil fuels lobby.
At the UN talks in Bonn, the influence of those fossil fuel lobbyists on the negotiations has become a key topic of debate.
Government representatives with the common goal of achieving climate protection are not the only ones attending the talks. Alongside the environmental activists on the sidelines, lobbyists from various sectors are also there to promote their own interests. And these include industries which do not stand to profit from restrictions on emissions. All these groups are allowed to attend the international climate conferences hosted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
A recently published report from Corporate Accountability International, a United States-based nongovernmental organization, highlighted the strong power of trade and business organizations at climate-related events.
One group cited in the report is the National Mining Association in the US, which, the ngo notes, supports increased coal consumption and contributes to climate change.
The United States Chamber of Commerce is another regular participant. The largest lobbying group in the country – and the largest chamber of commerce in the world – is in favour of nuclear power, offshore oil production and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
When it comes to the Arctic, the stakes have never been higher, politically, economically and of course environmentally.
Even the implementation of the most ambitious emissions reduction measures will not halt the increasing accessibility of the once virtually unnavigable Arctic Ocean in the near future. That guarantees that this will not be the last Arctic meeting to be attended by top-level politicians from the world’s most powerful nations. Meanwhile, the lobbyists will continue their attempts to prolong the fossil fuels era in spite of all the scientific evidence indicating the dangers it holds for the planet.
Perhaps the most important thing about Tillerson’s attendance in Fairbanks is the attention it draws to what is happening in the high north. And the UN climate process can only benefit from the transparency emerging over exactly who is advocating and influencing what in the negotiations.
DateMay 11, 2017 | 2:30 pm
TagsArctic, Arctic Council, Bonn, Climate, Emissions, Exxon, Fairbanks, Living Planet, research, science, Tillerson, Trump, UN talks, USA