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.
“COP” stands for the Conference of the Parties, which is the main decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In other words, officials and representatives from all 197 countries in the UN meet to discuss and coordinate international action on climate change. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 – this year will mark the 23rd conference.
The 2015 Paris Agreement and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol were both agreed at past COPs. The ultimate aim of both of these treaties is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent human civilisation from further changing the climate and avoid the consequences of this.
The technical workings of COP are complex, with many subsidiary bodies working on separate issues. All states are represented, and are invited to review the running of the UN climate process, and to decide how to promote the effective implementation of agreements made at COP.
Scientists and researchers, as well as state leaders and politicians, attend, in order to provide with the background information necessary to ensure the right policy choices are made. They are crucial at the decision-making stage, while state governments are responsible for implementing the resulting policies. The process of establishing the terms of the Paris Agreement in 2015 involved asking countries to submit their own pledges about what they wanted to contribute or achieve in advance, in the hope that allowing countries to set their own terms would create more achievable goals and hold them accountable to their promises. This approach has been adopted in subsequent COPs.
At COP23, the conference will take place in two zones: one for negotiations, meetings, delegation offices and media facilities, and the other for climate action events, exhibits, and media activities. Information-sharing and education will take place alongside the formal administrative process.
The conference this year, COP23, will take place from 6th to 17th November in Bonn, Germany and will be presided over by the Government of Fiji (although Fiji won the bid to host COP23, it doesn’t have big enough facilities to host the conference itself). Its main focus will be continuing to create guidelines for the implementation of the details of the Paris Agreement, covering a wide range of issues from emission reductions to adaptation. The overarching goal is for these guidelines to be completed in 2018 at COP24, which will take place in Poland.
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As humans we are pretty good at living at a range of temperatures, adapting to life at most latitudes and able to find insulation and shelter or cool ourselves in the shade, as and when we get uncomfortable. Of course, the targeted maximum of a 2°C increase of global average temperature set down in the Paris Climate Agreement isn’t an attempt to limit the risk to the structural integrity of ice-creams on July afternoons. Preventing a global temperature increase of this kind is about avoiding human tragedies on a massive scale, from whole islands and cities being engulfed by rising seas, droughts that destroy vital crops year after year, and extreme weather events that flatten homes and lives. The 2°C mark, despite being an objective and quantifiable change, is therefore largely symbolic. Stepping away from global increase to a more local, less apocalyptic scale – in the city of Oxford for example – I imagine people would probably welcome such a modest increase in temperature when braving the wind and rain on their daily commutes.
Localised warming, however, even to the tune of just a few degrees, can be bad news for other less generalist species than humans. Although many species are capable of adapting their behaviour and physiology to new temperature ranges, many more require very specific conditions to survive. Such species typically live in high biodiversity areas, like rainforests, where each species fulfils a very particular ecological niche – eating specific species, foraging or hunting using a very specific method, living in specific places, and so on. This means that small changes, if they occur too quickly for a population to adapt, can have profound consequences.
In Queensland, Australia, for example, the rainforests are home to a great diversity of possum species. One of these species, the green ringtail possum, P. archeri, (pictured) is found only at elevations above 300m limited by its inability to successfully regulate its body temperature at warmer lower altitudes. This is because it has ‘adaptive heterothermy’, meaning that as temperatures rise above and beyond 30°C it ceases to increase its rate of perspiration, in an attempt to avoid severe dehydration. The narrow ecological niche of the green ringtail possum restricts it to the forest canopy, where it obtains most of its fluid from eating foliage. Poisonous compounds in the leaves it eats – a defence against overgrazing – stop the possum from quickly rehydrating itself, eating less often so it has time to break down the harmful compounds it ingests. These possums evolved over many millennia to take advantage of a highly stable ecosystem and climate, which favoured adaptive heterothermy. But with localised warming in the Queensland region, this fine balance is being disturbed, and the green ringtail possum and other species are being constrained to smaller and smaller territories at higher altitudes, which can’t support the same number of possums.
Proving the influence of climate change on ecosystems is a relentlessly difficult task, especially when there are other major forms of human disturbance at work. The complex web of interactions between living and non-living factors in an area often produces chains of effect that can magnify the effect of localised warming. In Hawaii, the destruction of lowland habitats to make way for agriculture has forced most native bird species uphill to habitats on the mountain slopes. However, the current threat to the birds is no longer agriculture, but avian malaria carried by an introduced species of mosquito, C. quinquefasciatus. As the malarial parasite can only successfully infect new hosts at temperatures above 13°C, the native birds are only contracting malaria at middle elevations, preserving refuges in the highest areas. Incremental localised warming, however, is already robbing them of this sanctuary, and famous birds such as the Hawaii creeper (pictured) are becoming endangered. The retreat of specialist species uphill to cope with rising temperatures is doomed to be a losing game. Although for some of them are still able to expand upwards, at some point their islands in the sky will shrink to nothing and their retreat will be halted once and for all.
Relevant studies: Krockenberger et al. (2012) ‘The limit to the distribution of a rainforest marsupial folivore is consistent with the thermal intolerance hypthesis’; Benning et al. (2002) ‘Interactions of climate change with biological invasions and land use in the Hawaiian Islands: Modeling the fate of endemic birds using a geographic information system.’
In Yorkshire chainsaws run at dawn, residents scramble outside, realising that a terrifying crime is about to take place, a tree is to be felled. In Sheffield there is an ongoing battle to protect the nature that line the streets of the northern city since an agreement was signed in 2012 between Amey (an outsourced company) and the Labour run Sheffield council to organise the maintenance of the roads in the area. This has recently culminated in a battle to prevent the felling of trees by this company, organised often by local resident volunteers who seek to do all they can do in a peaceful capacity to prevent the chopping down of the trees. What is unique in this battle to my eye is that rarely has there been such intersection between environmental concerns and other social causes and campaigns.
The agreement is a 25 year long private finance agreement (PFI), a controversial way of organising the provision of government projects where they are provided by the private sector using public sector money. Not only does this introduce the profit motive into the maintenance of goods previously run for the public interest but it also removes the traditional methods by which the state was held accountable. When a state failed to provide a service or acted against the public interest it could be held accountable through the usual political methods of elections and lobbying. Now a private provider not only is not held politically accountable but can often lock themselves in as the only provider through the drafting of the agreements to last 25 years like the Sheffield case. No matter the pressure or change in government often the case may be that a council is contractually obliged to deal with the private company. Residents complain they have not been consulted by the felling firm and that the wishes of the community are being ignored.
Then early this year the pressure on the protesters increased, and arrests were made of those more active in preventing tree removal. These figures would scramble to stand around any tree under threat to prevent anybody damaging them. They were arrested under trade union legislation which criminalises anyone who persistently stops someone from carrying out lawful work. The amount of peaceful protests which could be considered illegal under this law does not bare thinking about. Luckily charges were dropped, and now the protesters are suing the police force in return. But now the high court has recently intervened with an injunction against the activity of surrounding the trees, leading to a counter blockade of a depot in Sheffield by protesters. One of those arrested was in fact a Green party Sheffield councillor, leading to even greater anxiety in the community, concerned about how they could respond. Even Michael Gove recently said he wanted to see an end to the felling of the trees, though the Labour council dismissed his demands.
The debacle has made one thing clear, the issues of privatisation and outsourcing whilst traditionally considered economic or social justice issues, in this case also intersects with environmental concerns about maintaining green spaces. Trees have a huge role in urban planning, not merely for aesthetic purposes but as sequesters of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Forests remain one of the best ways to prevent flooding, a bigger and bigger concern as sea levels rise. There have been many identified mental health benefits of green spaces, as well as their purpose in educating communities about the importance of nature and ecosystems.
In a society that increasingly seeks to privatise things held in common, be it nature, healthcare or education there is simultaneously a breaking down of the barriers that kept the groups protecting them separate. In Sheffield you can find anti-privatisation protesters alongside human rights defenders all under the banner of increased environmental protection and democracy. The model of protest used in Sheffield remains one which is local, communities protecting their trees, but it also shows glimmers of being a broad tent movement in defence of nature.
If you want to find more about the crisis in Sheffield check out the campaign website here: https://savesheffieldtrees.org.uk/
British waters are home to a diverse array of marine biodiversity, providing a variety of habitats for species from sheltered sea locks to deep-water coral. Importantly, the marine life populations these habitats support are vital for local livelihoods and industries, from fishing and trade to tourism. Yet these valuable waters have become increasingly under threat from unsustainable economic and harvesting activity, and, critically, challenges presented by climate change.
How are British waters valuable ecologically?
British waters, from inland estuaries to the deeper waters offshore, are home to over 330 different types of fish, from species occupying fundamental roles at the base of the food chain to wonders such as basking sharks, dolphins and Atlantic grey seals and a diverse array of birdlife.
Where does climate change come into this?
As greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, climate change is accelerating, having serious effects on the world’s weather systems and conditions and putting the delicate balance of many of the world’s natural ecosystems and habitats, including those of British marine life, at risk.
Home to a diverse range of marine and dependent terrestrial species, it is vital that we keep our oceans healthy, both to support the species they are home to and the industries and livelihood that depend on them. The ocean performs a variety of invaluable- and, crucially, irreplaceable- ecosystem services: for instance, around half of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the sea, or specifically by phytoplankton, and absorbs around half of manmade CO2.
However, due to the complexity and scale of the problem of climate change, and the fact that we still know so little about our planet’s oceans, there is no quick solution. Despite covering 71% of the Earth's surface, our knowledge of the effects of climate change in oceans is limited compared to terrestrial ecosystems, making the problem harder to tackle and the scale of the impacts harder to predict. Attempts to address climate change need to work with related issues such as overfishing and pollution of the seas- the WWF, for instance, has already developed initiatives to bring together actors from governments, science, industry, and stakeholders to find sustainable ways of managing our shared marine environment. In this way, it is important to understand the threats the world’s oceans are facing as a problem that cannot solely be addressed by tackling climate change- if our world’s oceans are to remain sustainable for future generations and marine biodiversity, the issue needs to be tackled in all its complexity.
Climate change continues to pose a significant threat to British marine life, whether directly as a result of changing marine conditions of indirectly through adverse effects on prey distribution. Atlantic Grey seals, for instance, often sighted in colonies around UK waters, are experiencing threats as a result of changing distributions of their prey, particularly sand eels, for which they will come into increasing competition with fishermen and other predators as prey availability dwindles.
Other terrestrial species reliant on marine environments and ecosystems are also expected to be affected: coastal erosion and flooding are already posing threats for species such as the Atlantic Grey seal, where rising sea levels are seeing the the isolated shingle beaches that grey seals favour to give birth to their pups in the autumn become narrower, increasingly the likelihood of pups being washed away. Internationally important breeding colonies of terns that nest close to the sea edge are also at risk from rising sea levels and increasing stormy weather. Wetland birds are also at risk: species such as the redshank will find their habitats inundated by the sea while moors and wet grasslands will dry up during hot summers, all of which carry wider implications for the food web and are expected to see changes in migration patterns in response to the stresses brought by habitat change in response to global warming.
The vast effects of climate change in these areas has been observed in particular in the Orkney islands. Warming of British waters offshore is thought to have completely altered the plankton regime, meaning dependent species such as sand-eels have nothing to feed on. As a result, sand-eel numbers have dropped dramatically and seabirds are struggling to find food.
Our oceans remain a vital resource for both livelihoods, economic activity and, crucially, biodiversity, and exist in a complex relationship with our atmosphere and natural ecosystems. Attempts to address climate change therefore need to take into account how changes implemented at one site carry repercussions for the rest of the ocean system. While this is by no means an easy undertaking, it remains crucial that our world’s oceans are healthy and protected from overexploitation and pollution, the effects of which will only become more severe in light of climate change and continue affect wildlife in British waters.
When travelling in South-East Asia, you learn to expect the unexpected. But residents, authorities and tourists are beginning to expect stronger natural disasters more frequently, a trend related to climate change. Typhoons are tropical hurricanes common in South East Asia, storms that form over oceans with a temperature of at least 26.5°. Evaporation occurs and winds near the surface bring this warm, moist air towards the centre of the storm, which rises rapidly in its ‘eye’. Greater pressure differences in the upper atmosphere and increased water vapour concentration result in stronger winds and intense rain, the characteristics of a typhoon. Typhoons have varying strengths, which are categorised and responded to differently in each nation.
But how is climate change affecting typhoons and their consequences on society? Rising ocean temperatures associated with climate change provide the storms with more energy, meaning that wind speeds increase and precipitation intensifies. This can generally be associated with greater destruction and risk, problematic in South East Asia particularly in terms of structural preparation, response time and life insurance. Yet the effect of increasing severity of typhoons in this region must be considered with regard to the inequality of wealth across its nations.
I recognised this when travelling in Hong Kong and Vietnam, countries both hit by typhoons during my visit. In Hong Kong, the typhoon was the third in two weeks, and by far the least significant. Hong Kong categorises the typhoon by wind speed, and has associated warning signals; T1, T3, T5, T8, T9 and T10 in order of threat. Typhoon Hato struck Hong Kong on the 23rd August, and although it killed 12 people, these were in different regions of southern China. This can be attributed to the T10 warning being raised for the first time in 5 years. The preparation that this enabled with a foresight of the typhoon’s severity meant that government buildings, offices, schools and transport shut down, reducing the possibility for death.
Comparatively, Vietnams's preparation is unbelievably different. While there was some evacuation of mainland villages, while staying on Cat Ba Island I wasn’t made aware of the imminent Typhoon Doksuri, classified as a ‘severe typhoon’, until its arrival. Boat services were stopped, stranding me on the island for another day. When it made landfall, Doksuri killed 4, cut power across the nation and destroyed many buildings that were without structures designed to withstand the effects of a typhoon. The lack of widespread durability for storms in a nation experiencing them frequently is particularly concerning given their increasing intensities as a result of climate change, as well as the tourism that is growing in popularity in Vietnam.
I’m sure you're aware of the damaging effect of fossil fuel consumption on the atmosphere, and resultantly our climate. But what you may not be aware of is the massive global subsidising of their use, rationalised by some as necessary to keep the world economy running. And staggeringly, global fossil fuel subsidies currently stand at $5.3 trillion - yes, that’s trillion - or roughly 6.5% of the gross world product (GWP) in 2015. It might be suggested that this figure should be dropping with the increasing international investment in renewable energy sources, but between 2013 and 2015 it rose by $400 bn, or by around 8%.
The study from IMF academics was published back in August in the journal World Development, and is the first of its kind in the way it defines and quantifies fossil fuel subsidisation. Rather than just taking into account the direct subsidies towards lower fuel prices (just 0.7% of GWP in 2013), they also include indirect costs due to fossil fuel use such as air pollution deaths and global warming, which in all are over 7 times larger than the direct costs. Unsurprisingly, coal and petrols received much greater amounts of subsidy due to their more harmful emissions and more widespread use than, for example, natural gas. And whilst it is also no surprise that China, USA and Russia provide the greatest subsidies (in that order), the magnitudes are surprising. China subsidised fossil fuels three times as much as the US in 2015, with the US providing more than double the subsidies paid by the entire EU, despite the former having more than 150 million fewer citizens. Startlingly, simply eliminating these subsidies would reduce global carbon emissions by over 20% and air pollution deaths by over 50%, which are two major areas of concern in the modern era.
Whilst these figures are estimates they should be fairly accurate, and the authors hope that the study places heightened strain on policymakers to consider factors such as health and emissions when investing in energy. Difficulty comes when considering the power and control exerted by fossil fuel companies in policymaking, directly via lobbying and indirectly via campaign funding. However in any government and economy, decisions tend ultimately to be made for financial reasons, and whilst fossil fuel reserves are running low and becoming costlier to extract, the effects of their use are straining health services more and more. Eventually the cost of fossil fuel use to the bank balance and citizens health will be too great to ignore, and clean, renewable energies will be required to keep us functioning. One can only hope that with the fitness of our planet, economies and people at heart, world governments finally wake up, and that change comes sooner rather than later.
The study can be found here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X16304867
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