International Climate Conference in Paris (COP21) is over and people likeme who have been following enthusiastically every single step of the negotiations can breathe a short sigh of relief, getting back to our daily lives. Not too deep one and just for a minute though – neither us, nor the leaders can sit back and relax now. To the contrary, the biggest journey to fight the climate change is on the way, but yes, a good start has been made and this is really applausible. Even though I am sure you have seen a lot of reports and articles reflecting on those special 2 weeks in Paris, I have some thoughts too share with you too. You might have seen festive rallies and optimistic articles, so now why don‘t us take a look of what our global community has achieved and has yet to achieve.
Good news first. The best treaty that could have befallen us?
“Not a perfect deal, but the best deal”, as the chair of the Least Developed Countries bloc Giza Gaspar-Martins commented on what 2 weeks of intense discussions have brought. And I cannot agree with him more. After reading this article you might feel somewhat low spirited though, unless you were aware of COP21‘s limited possibilities to alter the course of development which is going not in the Earth‘s favour. However, probably the best that could happen in climate change policy, happened in Paris on December 12, 2015. So is there anything that it has changed drammatically?
Despite a few skeptical voices, the fate of the conference in Copenhagen was not repeated and as many as 184 states (other sources claim 187) covering around 94% of global emissions (as of 2010) have decided on goals to save our planet and us by presenting their intended nationally determined contributions (INDC). Even a higher number of delegates came to discuss on what is now known as Paris Agreement, and no one was against. This itself is a big achievement, showing the signs of a global community and a possibility to cooperate when there is a strong need. I have mentioned that earlier, but I will repeat again that there is a big gap between most of developed countries and developing ones, as they are not equally vulnerable in terms of coping with the consequences that are bound to strike them, as well as different geographical locations. Therefore, I was concerned about a possibility for this multi-national group to come up with a single agreement. Indeed, comparing countries profiles behind their alliances which were: Small Island Developing Countries (SIDs), Least Developed Countries and Developing Countries (LDCs and DCs), OECD and others, their different capabilities and expectations, it initially seemed too challenging to come up with a single draft, accepted by all Parties.
What the outcome of COP21 is praised about is that it has created a promising framework for the future cooperation to reach even more ambitious targets together. This framework is based on 5 pillar-like key elements: strengthening climate actions every 5 years, adaptation for the world‘s most vulnerable, a long-term goal, an enhanced transparency and most importantly climate finance to support developing countries which is clearly mentioned in the Paris Agreement – USD 100 billion per year, starting from the year 2020.
This has already boosted a lot of eco-friendly initiatives and will continue doing so. For instance, prior to the conference, some 400 cities across the globe set targets to curb their greenhouse gas emissions and 116 companies (as of December 14, with the list) will use Science Based Targets to reduce their emissions. Other initiatives include the announcements to invest in renewable energy by the world’s biggest companies, such as Google and Goldman Sachs, as well as individuals the launch of Breakthrough Energy Coalition by Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg.
What was left unsaid
The existence of this paragraph might seem contradictory to the second one where I praised the agreement as the best possible. What I want to mention is that even though most of the key aspects were drawn, there are a few absences of important aspects that made me worried and slightly disappointed. Nevertheless, now that we have established a framework of lifelines, I hope all these points will be included in the upcoming conferences and discussions to come.
Interestingly enough, even though the declaration was hailed by many as a prophecy of the end times to the fossil fuel, there was not a single mention of fossil fuel in the document. One concrete action that I would really welcome and which I wanted to see so badly in the draft was a ban of building new ineffective coal power plants. Radical as it might seem, I hope this point will be raised when the budget for development is first allocated.
Other thing that I was not able to spot is the legal definition of a “climate refugee” which is yet to be coined legally. Climate refugees are going to become a more and more usual phenomenon which we should start do deal with as soon as possible, that is, starting from the ratification in 2016, so that the rights of the victims could be defended before long. There is, however, a reference to Warsaw International Mechanism in the Loss and damage part which is expected to cover this issue, or at least an assumption of one.
Despite Paris Agreement itself mentions transparency and forbids cheating by preventing double counting, what I missed there was a clear urge of all Parties not to tolerate corruption which is widespread in some countries and will undoubtedly impedes achieving INDC. A monitoring is promised, but the sole responsibility for curbing corruption which is a serious issue to overcome, as an example of Indonesia has shown (this catastrophe is now at least recognized thanks to Anti-Corruption International campaign), is left for a state. Let us just hope this will be seriously considered in the upcoming conferences and land change policies (which have proved to be a euphemism for burning forests in frequent cases) will be strictly monitored.
Not so good news. The situation of carbon
In spite of good news, there is a lot of hardships that are about to overcome in order to make a difference and not let the most disastrous consequences. I am not going to frighten with the figures of the sea level rise, for instance, which is prone to happen every time the ice covered territory shrinks. Yet you might have heard of the island nations, such as Maldives or Marshall Islands which do not require too drastic temperature increase just to be flooded completely. That is why the climate change is not only about the diversity, but also about the justice.
Some pessimists who had voiced their skepticism about COP21 credibility now doubt about whether or not some countries will abide by their INDC commitments. The treaty does not enforce or binds the agreement even after it is ratified which is going to happen between 22 April 2016 and 21 April 2017. However, while no one can guarantee the countries will keep their promises, there is, sadly, another even more worrying thing – that is the greenhouse gas (CO2, CH4) concentration growth in the atmosphere.
It sounds obvious, because that is the axis of our whole combat against climate change which is based primarily on the decarbonisation. However, even with the INDCs, the temperature is scheduled to exceed 2°C and reach 2.7°C (International Energy Agency data), with the CO2 concentration intensifying quicker than we would like to. As a contrast, business-as-usual trends would be simply catastrophic with the temperature increase up to 4-5°C, with CO2 levels more than 2 times higher than estimated in 2015 (Climate Interactive Croads, 2013). This means we will have to take a global decarbonisation strategy even more seriously and we might need an active interference or developed carbon capture and storage technologies.
One of the key findings is that the INDCs will bring global average emissions per capita down by as much as 8% in 2025 and 9% in by 2030. However, it is far from being enough. According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), CO2 emissions have to drop by 40-70 percent compared to 2010 levels and reach zero or below in order for the 2°C threshold not to be reached. That is still far above 1.5°C threshold which is, please excuse my scientific based pessimism, now impossible to reach. In my opinion, the latter figure would be possible only if we managed to manipulate the climate by scrubbing CO2 out of the air using the most advanced technologies which is practically impossible also because we run short of time. As a result, having referred to it only once, this article is going to focus on a more attainable, yet still disastrous for some 2°C threshold.
Yet, I do not claim INDCs are useless or irrelevant. To the contrary, even though they are insufficient the way they are now, they alone could lead us almost to the right track which would be at least 40% drop of the CO2 levels (compared to 2010). However, not all INDCs are ambitious enough in the first place. According to Climate Action Tracker, only 5 out of 31 INDCs assessed are sufficient not to exceed the cap of 2°C. However, none of the countries with highly satisfactory strategies (Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Morocco and The Gambia) are considerable contributors to global CO2 emissions. The biggest polluters, China and The United States, had their INDCs rated as merely “medium”, an evaluation that does not guarantee remaining below 2°C. To my own disappointment, a combined INDC presented by the European Union has this modest evaluation as well. On the other hand, developing countries with their (mostly) sparse and small energy markets are the ones which will raise the energy demand for the years to come. So, even though quite a few of them already have a renewable energy sector taking a significant energy market share, it is crucial to keep such tendencies, not without a lack of financial support though.
In order to better imagine the amount of CO2 emissions that we can allow ourselves without destroying an environment is a so-called emissions budget, calculated by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its calculations are estimated to preserve a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 2 °C. Having this in mind, the world can support a maximum carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “budget” of 3 000 gigatonnes (Gt). As a comparison, the budget that we have already used until 2014 is 1970 Gt. This would suggest that the CO2 emissions have to reach their peak in 2020, a totally unattainable goal under current tendencies.
Climate change as a gigantic turnip
There is a Slavic folktale about a turnip that has grown so enormous, that a grandfather who had planted it could not pull it up himself, so a big group of his fellow family members and even animals were recruited to help by aligning in a row. Finally, after hard efforts, an aim was achieved and the turnip was pulled out. Making a loose parable out of it, the humankind now has a huge and threatening turnip that we have to pull out before it grows as enormous that we will have to flee. However, differently from the folktale, not only grandparent and his family, but all the people alike from other villages have to come. If climate change is a threatening turnip, COP21 has already gathered almost all village and forest dwellers together and collectively decided it to pull it using thick ropes. The problem is that we will need them thicker as it grows and the angle might have to be altered once in a while too. Yet, we are already standing, gathered, and I hope no one leaves for home until we successfully pull the turnip up together.
- http://www.ipcc.ch (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)
- http://www.wri.org/ (World Resources Institute)
Audrius Sabūnas is a Graduate student in Energy and Environment at Vytautas Magnus University.
This article was also posted in a personal author’s blog (http://bakaintheair.wordpress.com)