Rupert Stuart-Smith, Oxford Climate Society President 2017/18
The story of climate change is one of injustice. It is falsely seen by some as a technical issue, existing predominantly within scientific literature. Instead, it is the greatest existential threat to human lives and wellbeing, and global inaction on climate change is a betrayal of every person on Earth by our world leaders. Those who contribute the least to climate change are typically the most vulnerable and have the least capacity to adapt to its impacts, are on the front line of devastating extreme weather events, and the most sensitive to disruptions to food and water supplies. Climate change is the defining issue of the 21st Century; our determination to avoid its worst impacts must be absolute, and our national commitments must be rapidly strengthened.
In this context, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was historic in its ambition, for which it was rightly praised, but unmatched in national-level pledges. Years of international conferences on climate change have seen national delegations haggle over the extent to which our climate should be permitted to warm as a result of human activity, and the Paris Agreement determines 2°C above pre-industrial levels to be the maximum permissible. However, 2°C is not a geophysical red line, or acceptable warming, and it is vital the real human suffering and consequences for the natural world behind any level of climate change are understood and politicians, businesspeople and individuals stand up for our most fundamental rights. Yet national commitments to limit climate change are far too weak to achieve even this insufficient level of ambition and a mechanism to drive up national and sub-national climate commitments is urgently needed (1).
The Paris Agreement serves as an internationally agreed statement of intent and commits countries to ‘[hold] the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C … and [pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’. However, in an effort to ensure a deal would be agreed, all Parties to the UN climate process were instructed to present their own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to limiting the impacts of climate change ahead of the conference rather than to match collective international ambition to national promises. When combined, these are wholly inadequate to achieve the goals of the agreement and are only enough to limit climate change to 2.7°C (2). Even if climate change mitigation efforts were to comply with the Paris Agreement’s minimum demands of limiting climate change to 2°C, this too would fall short of limiting the devastating impacts of climate change to an ‘acceptable’ level (3). As a result, a so-called ‘ratchet’ mechanism must be introduced to drive up national level ambition if we are to maintain a reasonable chance of avoiding humanitarian crises resulting from unmitigated climate change. If emissions continue to rise or even remain level after 2020, the Paris temperature goals become almost unattainable, highlighting the immediate need for rapid increases in ambition to tackle climate change (4). The challenge is clear: if climate change is to be limited to the more just and acceptable 1.5°C, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced directly to zero by 2055, as shown in figure 1 (5). Such rapid emission reductions are challenging, but the longer international efforts are delayed, the greater the risk that this action will no longer be compatible with the protracted democratic decision-making process (6).
The difference between climate changes of 1.5°C and 2°C may appear insignificant, but for the avoidance of human suffering through its reduced implications for extreme weather, our food and clean water, the distinction is vast. The impacts of climate change increase rapidly with rising temperature, and particularly in the interval between 1 and 2°C (3). These include devastating sea-level rise, the collapse of sea ice and many more extreme weather events (figure 2). Science has the challenge of quantifying local impacts of different extents of climate change and society can determine which levels of risk and impact are acceptable, but it is clear that a huge increase in ambition and commitment to reduce human alterations of the Earth’s atmosphere is required. The as-yet not agreed process for increasing this ambition is known as a global stocktake, and is outlined in Article 14 of the Paris Agreement (Box 1, below).
Figure 2: (a) Global mean precipitation change showing a linear response to increasing global temperatures as a result of increased available convective energy in Earth’s climate system. (b) Relative increase in the number of hot days, demonstrating very rapid changes in the region of 1°C-2°C. (c) (near-equilibrium) sea level rise in response to rising global mean temperature, with the largest changes in sea level occurring with global mean temperature change from 1°C to 2°C. (d) Changing Barents Sea March sea-ice area for two climate model simulations, demonstrating a possible collapse in sea ice area before 2°C warming is reached. (e) Risk associated with different climate change impacts. The level of addition risk due to climate change is seen to be considerably heightened between 1°C and 2°C for unique and threatened systems, extreme weather events, and impact distribution (Knutti, et al., 2016).
Every five years from 2023, a ‘global stocktake’ will be taken, comprising an assessment of the progress made in achieving national pledges, how this compares with the action necessary to achieve the aims of the Paris Agreement and how pledges must be enhanced to meet its goals. It offers the opportunity for a collective ramping up of ambition in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in providing financial support to the developing world for adapting to the impacts of climate change and investment in low-carbon technologies. Yet for all the potential of this process, it underlines one of the central conflicts of the Paris Agreement and UN climate process: the dichotomy of necessarily top-down goal setting and the bottom-up, nationally determined commitments which made ratifying the Paris Agreement possible. Raising national commitments to prevent the worldwide erosion of freedoms as a result of climate change must be a collaborative effort which is guided by unrelenting dedication to fulfilling the strictest components of the Paris Agreement. At the same time, it is the only bottom-up, independent nationally determined contributions, the individual determination of which tending to stymie aspiration, that are considered to offer the possibility of being collectively agreed upon. Surmounting this challenge will be central to the success of the global stocktake process.
This contentious issue was a major obstacle to progress at last year’s UN climate conference (COP22) and is an example of the failure of the Paris Agreement to address key tensions, choosing instead to ingrain them in the agreement rather than coming to consensus. Further to this, the absence of punitive measures for non-compliance with national climate pledges must be addressed in the global stocktake, and a mechanism to hold countries to their promises should be introduced. A comparison to the strong oversight of compliance with trade agreements, for which the human consequences of non-conformity are trivial in comparison to those of climate change, is apt.
The commitments made to action on climate change under the Paris Agreement by Parties such as Argentina, Brazil, China, the EU, India, Indonesia and Japan require little or no deviation from current policy, offering hope for significant over-achievement of their climate pledges (7). It is in countries such as these, whose contribution to climate change are among the greatest, where there is the most potential for collective standing up for the rights of the citizens of the world by tackling climate change. Only through collaborative action, in which countries do not fear the potential economic repercussions of acting alone, will the worst impacts of climate change be avoided; this cannot be achieved by bottom-up action alone, and a robust global stocktake process is required.
The impacts of climate change extend to everyone on Earth, and their disproportionate consequences for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities mean that comprehensive action to limit its effects must be a global priority. Political reticence on climate change mitigation threatens millions and is in neglect of the duties of democratic governments to their citizens. The global stocktake should be the strand of the UN climate process which addresses these failings and aligns national commitments with collective ambition. When correctly presented, climate change is principally an issue of justice and human rights, particularly for future generations. Comprehensive action on climate change is not bold, it is necessary. To preserve human wellbeing, the international process for enhancing ambition on tackling climate change must be highly effective, quickly agreed upon and implemented in full.
1. Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2°C. Rogelj, Joeri, et al. 2016, Nature, Vol. 534, pp. 631-639.
2. Jeffrey, Louise, et al. 2.78C is not enough – we can get lower - Climate Action Tracker update 8 December 2015. Berlin : Climate Action Tracker, 2015.
3. A scientific critique of the two-degree climate change target. Knutti, Reto, et al. 2016, Nature Geoscience, Vol. 9, pp. 13-19.
4. Figueres, Christiana, et al. Three years to safeguard our climate. Nature. June 29, 2017, Vol. 546, pp. 593- 595.
5. Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. Millar, Richard J, et al. 2017, Nature Geoscience, Vol. 10, pp. 741-747.
6. Climate policy after the Paris 2015 climate conference. Viñuales, Jorge E, et al. 1, 2017, Climate Policy, Vol. 17, pp. 1-8.
7. The Paris Agreement: resolving the inconsistency between global goals and national contributions. Höhne, Niklas, et al. 1, 2017, Climate Policy, Vol. 17, pp. 16-32.
8. Adoption of the Paris Agreement. December 12, 2015. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The key aim of COP22, which took place in Marrakech last year, was to begin the process of taking the Paris Agreement and using it to make an action plan for countries to go forward with. The expected outcome was that the words spoken and the promises made in the Paris Agreement would be turned into palpable, constructive actions.
However, on the Wednesday, only the third day of the conference, Donald Trump was announced as the president-elect of the USA. If Trump, who infamously tweeted in 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”, was to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement as he promised, much of the progress made at COP22 might be rendered futile.
On August 4th this year, the US State Department released a statement confirming that the US would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The Department also contacted the UN head office, informing them that the US intends to leave the accord as soon as possible.
However, under the terms of the Paris Agreement, no country was permitted to back out of the agreement until 4th November 2020 – which, somewhat promisingly, will be one day after the next US presidential election. The US intends to respect this agreement: the State Department released a statement confirming that “The United States will continue to participate in international climate-change negotiations and meetings, including the 23rd Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to protect U.S. interests and ensure all future policy options remain open to the administration.” In September 2017, the European Union climate commissioner Miguel Cañete reported that Trump officials had said they would not pull out of the Paris Agreement, and were offering to reengage, suggesting that Trump is withdrawing from his hard-line course on climate change and pursuing a policy of renegotiation.
Regardless of this uncertainty, COP22 continued to set out the details for the Paris Agreement, which are not expected to be completed until 2018, with a progress review at COP23. At COP22, officials worked to define the issues at stake and outline the action needed to cohesively combat those issues – listing what documents, what workshops, what information will need to be supplied to achieve the ends of the agreement.
Notable outcomes included the approval of a five-year workplan on “loss and damage” to start in 2017, which tackles issues such as non-economic losses and migration – impacts of climate change that cannot be adapted to. Much debate took place on how to create a fair “rulebook” on the Paris Agreement that all countries could share. Discussion on the technicalities of this will continue at COP23. Finally, countries were instructed to submit their own opinions on the finer details of the Paris Agreement by June 2017. This is hoped to help countries adhere to the pledges made, and inform future discussions on the Agreement.
Not all areas of discussion ended successfully, however. Discussions on how much funding each country should be putting towards combating climate change made little progress, and were left essentially incomplete, closing with a final statement urging countries to continue to work towards spending an annual $100bn by 2020. “Orphan issues”, referring to tasks set out within the Paris Agreement for which no one has been assigned responsibility, were also a hot topic of debate. No resolution was made on responsibility for some key issues such as goals for climate finance or timeframes for future climate pledges.
Do countries ever actually stick to climate-based agreements? Should there be further international measures in place to pressure them to uphold their end of the bargain?
This year’s COP23 conference in Bonn (essentially a conglomeration of different countries, both participants and observers) aims to effect positive change in the habits, minds and policies of world leaders that will be translated into actions affecting us all and the future of our planet. Despite all the good intentions, does COP actually result in much difference? Whilst a meeting of scientific minds in one place is bound to be highly generative in the ideas it produces, the actual change resulting from these summits is nearly always voluntary, with countries signing up to emission targets, waste reduction goals and energy saving protocols that rarely result in any negative repercussions or punishments. Furthermore, in the collation of efforts to tackle global climate change, the differing abilities of MEDCs and LEDCs to make large scale changes in their pollution or energy uses is often overlooked, with perhaps unfair benefits to more developed Western economies, who have already progressed through the industrial growth stages of the DTM.
A recent COP conference (21, in 2015) was in Paris, and gave rise to the Paris agreement, which will officially begin in 2020, and aims to mitigate or offset greenhouse gas emissions, a leading cause of global warming. It is also Twitter-famed as the point where the US withdrew from the policies set by the UNFCCC and the Paris agreement itself, and Donald Trump was christened a certified Climate Change DenierTM (however, insights into environmental legislation reveal that this doesn’t actually remove the US from all commitments straight away, and that it may in fact be a highly politicised move). The Paris agreement itself is based around the principle of Nationally Determined Contributions, where countries set themselves ‘ambitious’ targets to cut emissions- however these will not be binding by international law, and there is no real way in which they can be enforced. There is also an underlying fear that the US withdrawal may prompt a mass-exodus of countries from the agreement, causing it to collapse.
The Kyoto Protocol was an international agreement (linked to the UNFCCC) in place from 2008-2012 that aimed to reduce international emissions. This was enforced through monitoring of emission targets and self-reporting by the parties involved, however even the ‘main’ countries (Japan, Canada, much of the EU) weren’t able to meet the reduction targets set. Despite its segregation of developing and developed countries, which recognises the differing needs of different places, Kyoto also failed to realise the need for all countries worldwide to cut emissions, even if developing countries are less heavily penalised or have lower targets- a perhaps more valuable approach would be to have an incentive to develop new types of sustainable energy alongside continuing industrialisation in LEDCs? Overall, the Kyoto protocol is widely recognised as a failure in terms of what it achieved with emissions figures themselves, but a win in terms of setting the ball rolling.
Copenhagen, home of the COP 15 conference in 2009, reached even less of an agreement than the Kyoto COP due to the fact that no global agreement was reached at all. This was in part due to reluctance of key governments to enter a global deal where they would have to negotiate with each other (potentially causing conflict).
On the whole, climate based agreements, whilst ultimately a catalyst for change and a step in the right direction (not just in the physical changes they bring about, but also in the attitudes they shape along the way), still have a long distance to go before they are fully effective and provide the right sorts of political incentives to either force or encourage countries into compliance. Whilst the Paris agreement is certainly flawed, it is leaps and bounds ahead of the Kyoto protocol, which in turn completely knocks the lack of an agreement from the Copenhagen summit out of the park. The continuing COP summits hold out hope for a future of discussions and further changes, but until a cohesive strategy for actually effecting these changes is in place, violations and failure to uphold them seem to be a continuing risk. With an increasingly segregated world, where countries are withdrawing not only from these independent frameworks but also from major political bodies such as the EU and UNESCO, what hope is there of this cohesive solution? Only the Bonn COP will tell.
OCS Media Team
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