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.
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