By Viola King Forbes
Recently appointed President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen has pledged to make climate change her signature focus. This is reflected in her inaugural plans for the ‘EU Green Deal’, a promise to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050.
The highly ambitious aims of the Green Deal echo those of US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Von Der Leyen has gone so far as to analogise it as ‘Europe’s man on the moon moment’.
Ten goals laid out by the commission include the overarching objective of climate neutrality, to be enshrined in climate law proposed in March of this year. This will be accompanied by aims for:
Larry Elliott, The Guardian’s economics editor, and mastermind behind the first whispers of a Green New Deal in 2007, warned that the scheme, in its matured stage in the US and now also in the EU, was at risk of becoming ‘a theory of everything’, perceivable not as ‘green’, but in fact ‘red’.
Labelled by many merely as a communist manifesto, the deal has already faced attacks, the commission accused of ‘tyrannical’ behaviour, ‘sacrificing life in pursuit of utopia’. Such criticism parallels Poland’s decision to opt out of the 2050 emissions target. Concerns over energy security in a country reliant on coal for 80% of its electricity reflect a lack of faith in the EU’s ability to source promised €100billion transition funds.
However, the commission also faces criticism for not having done enough. Dr Tadzio Muller of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation stated three issues with the deal.
Anticipating such accusations of idealism from multiple angles, Von Der Leyen has attempted to placate all. With action conditional on protection against competition, this ‘deal by Europe, for Europe’ therefore runs the risk of meeting the same fate as previous climate action by attempting compromise.
Many deals, from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement, and the most recent Conference of Parties in Madrid, demonstrate a consensus on the urgent need for climate action, but have gone little further. Likewise, the new EU Green Deal demonstrates the right intent. It acknowledges the action need to effectively address the climate crisis which will requires efforts on a scale comparable to putting man on the moon. Yet, evidence of hesitation remains.
Two scenarios await us. Either we face a climate disaster in pursuit of protectionism-fueled growth, or we attempt an economic transformation founded on sustainability. Turmoil is imminent regardless; until legislators accept this, gridlock remains inevitable.
The EU Green Deal represents progress; change is possible, and in the long term, beneficial. However, if we want control over our future, there must be no compromises to ideals of economic growth. Attempting to fulfill every promise will only result in us failing to deliver them all.
What is the appropriate level of action to fight climate change? Individual, or systemic? This subject of fierce debate was discussed at our event last Monday "Should we really care about plastic straws?".
The speakers Dr Tina Fawcett and Dr Thomas Hale acknowledged the argument for some that focusing on individual action represents not only a complete waste of time, but also a danger:
By Olivia Oldham
What is Article 6?
Article 6 allows cooperation in order for states to achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement (art 6.1). Article 6 sets up three mechanisms for cooperation:
The important thing to understand is that although the Paris Agreement briefly sets out the existence of these cooperation mechanisms, it doesn't detail the rules of how they will operate. Negotiations on these rules were meant to have concluded at COP24 in Poland in 2018, but they were carried over to COP25 in Madrid last December.
How do carbon markets work?
Carbon markets represent the idea that if an entity (a state, or sometimes a corporation) reduces its carbon/greenhouse gas emissions, it can claim a credit. It can then sell that credit at an agreed rate to another entity, enabling it to continue to emit at a higher rate.
Carbon markets are said to have several advantages. For example, they are argued to make global emissions reductions cheaper, theoretically enabling higher ambition/faster reductions. This is said to be because wealthier countries can pay less wealthy countries to implement mitigation measures which are cheaper to carry out in that country. One study showed that carbon markets can be used to achieve nearly double the emissions reductions aimed for in countries' current NDCs at no additional cost.
Whether or not carbon markets actually achieve their potential, they're pragmatically important because they are included in the emissions reduction plans of most countries – though the UK has stated that it doesn't plan to use carbon credits to reach its net zero goal.
Potential pitfalls of carbon trading?
What happened in Madrid in December at COP25?
Matters on the table included:
No decision was reached despite COP25 going 44 hours overtime, a new record. In large part, this was because a few key countries dragged their feet on some of the key issues under discussion, in particular about the ability to use 'carry-over' Kyoto credits (Brazil & Australia in particular), and the inclusion of loopholes enabling double-counting (particularly Brazil).
In the end, all that was decided was that negotiations will more or less start again at an intersessional meeting in June, and at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2020, under 'Rule 16' of the UN climate process.
How drastic is the failure to negotiate Article 6?
The lack of agreement is deeply frustrating, yes, and it stymies the initiation of a new global carbon credit trading mechanism. But there is still some hope:
Overall, it's very important that a functioning set of rules which achieves the purpose of article 6 to enable "higher ambition in [countries'] mitigation and adaptation actions and to promote sustainable development and environmental integrity" (art 6.1) is agreed upon at COP26. However, the lack of agreed rules doesn't actually prevent ambitious, committed entities from using cooperation strategies to reduce their emissions already.
By Kate Cullen
There’s no denying it; COP25, the United Nation’s most recent round of climate negotiations, was messy and disappointing.
2019 was marked by salient public mobilisations for urgent global action on climate change led by youth, indigenous leaders and others. The IPCC released crystal-clear scientific reports on the grave danger of climate change for our land and food systems as well as our oceans and ice reserves. Financial leaders increasingly engaged with the climate agenda, citing the economic necessity for swift and systematic de-carbonisation and adaptation.
At the same time, conservative, nationalist parties won election-after-election and global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high. These two disparate realities of global climate action and apathy came to a head at the COP25 meeting in December.
Running 40 hours over schedule, COP25 was reported on as a lost opportunity, total disconnect, failure and, at best, a minimum compromise. Country negotiators set out to finalise unresolved pieces of the Paris Agreement rules; notably the establishment of a global carbon market under article 6 (to find out the significance and outcome of this discussion see our post on article 6 here). Another key objective was to ensure transparency and synchronisation in the reporting of climate pledges. Progress was tenuous and ultimately halted by a handful of laggard countries—the US, Brazil and Australia.
As a climate-water scientist and, simply as a young person wanting to live on a just and healthy planet, this disappointment hit especially hard. I attended COP23 as an assistant to a negotiator from the Pacific island nation of Palau. While the summit had its own issues, governments and citizens still had faith the Paris Agreement would ultimately spur meaningful global action. This time at COP25, attending as a researcher and observer from Oxford, the chatter in the hallways and global outlook was not as optimistic.
Yet in a recent piece for the Guardian, Aruna Chandrasekhar, a journalist and colleague in the School of Geography and the Environment, posits:
"But dysfunctional as they are, COPs are perhaps the only international legal forum that are partly open to observers to witness geopolitics and global call-out culture first-hand. And it’s those witnesses – all of us – who must apply the pressure."
In this spirit, I’d like to highlight the stories of a few of my colleagues who also bore witness to the COP25 process and worked to “apply the pressure” as researchers, students and activists.
Alex Clark, a DPhil student in Geography and the Environment, sat down with me in a quiet corner of the United Kingdom pavilion at COP25 to describe his work with Professor Thomas Hale on the Galvanizing the Groundswell of Climate Actions project.
For the last three and a half years, Clark has contributed to Groundswell, as well as the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, which works to build a more formal role for “non-Party stakeholders,” i.e. civil society, scientists, indigenous leaders, youth leaders, etc. in the COP process. At COP26 Alex supported Groundswell project partners and helped drum up support at high level events for the continuation of the Marrakesh Partnership into future COPs. This work was successful and, at least in text, negotiators acknowledged “the important role” non-Party stakeholders play and agreed to extend the Partnership for the foreseeable future.
Natalie Chung, MSc student in Environmental Change and Management, shares:
"I attended COP for the first time with Carbon Care Innolab, an NGO promoting youth participation in international climate policy making. I then got involved in the UN youth constituency YOUNGO and sat in bilaterals with high level leaders and negotiators.
The most rewarding experience was delivering an opening remark on behalf of YOUNGO at the COP25 Presidency's Open Dialogue. The remark calls for mainstreaming citizen science, indigenous and traditional knowledge, as well as incorporation of them into policy making.
Despite the discouraging outcome of COP among parties, this experience enabled me to realize young people have the power make a substantial difference and deliver a message of hope. In the future, I hope to coordinate regional networks of youths in Asia."
Hannah Nicholas, MSc student in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, adds:
"I found the experience both incredibly valuable and incredibly frustrating. There was a huge disconnect between the COP negotiations and the reality of the climate emergency…the greatest take-home message that I may share is that, despite the disappointing outcomes, we must all continue to engage with the climate movement.
The solutions to the climate emergency are there, the political will is not. We must stand behind the science to demand urgent political change. Use your voice, use your vote, call out politicians who are not doing enough. Continue to educate and raise awareness, maintaining hope that together we can create change."
Lisa Thalheimer, DPhil student in Geography and the Environment, reports:
"Together with [various partners], the Environmental Change Institute’s Lisa Schipper and I chaired a side event on displacement, human migration and climate change.
The session was very well attended. We discussed the consequences of environmental migration for Europe and deconstructed the widespread "threat" narrative, a meaningful step towards changing the securitisation narrative on climate mobilities.
COP25 gave me the opportunity to experience the laborious process of policy-making first-hand…[it] showcased that we as researchers need interdisciplinary collaboration and must communicate our research findings equally diversely to bring climate mobilities to the top of policy agendas globally."
By Laura Watson
What is a COP?
A Conference of Parties- it is the highest or decision-making authority of the Convention. Since 1995, there have been 25 COPs to discuss the Convention, based on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
What is the UNFCCC?
The UNFCCC is an international treaty standing for United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change. The treaty has the ultimate objective to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system." It was ratified in 1994 following the Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, with 196 countries signing it, symbolising near universal aknowledgement of climate change being an issue. The Treaty ratified in 1994 does not include measures for enforcement.
What happens at a COP?
During these conferences, the implementation of the Convention is reviewed and discussed, along with discussion of any new laws needed to aid further implementation steps.
Who is involved?
How are the Parties organised?
Parties are traditionally grouped regionally into the Asian, Eastern European, Latin American and Carribbean, African and Western European States.
However, these regional groupings often don’t represent the significant interests of the Parties involved in the climate negotiations, thus other groupings also carry significance. These groups include:
Key COP outcomes
COP 3) 1997-Kyoto Protocol
COP 15) 2009-Copenhagen Accord
COP 16) 2010 Cancun
COP 17) 2011-Durban Alliance
COP 21) 2015-Paris Agreement
Cop 25) 2019- Madrid
By Bridget Stuart
Veganuary 2020 has put ‘Vegan’ at the top of our newsfeeds, at the front of our supermarket shelves and plastered it across shop fronts from Greggs to KFC. According to the Vegan Society, there are 600,000 vegans worldwide and this number only continues to grow. People become vegan for many reasons; faith, ethics, and ever increasingly, for the environment. But in the face of climate breakdown, could a plant-based diet for all, be the solution? And even if so, what are the key issues that must be addressed?
In terms of the environmental benefits, you can’t beat the vegan diet. A report by the Proceedings of the National Sciences of the USA predicts that global food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would fall by 70% by 2050 if the entire world went vegan (1). As an individual in the UK, a vegan diet reduces food-related carbon emissions by 40% compared to the average UK diet (1). With atmospheric CO2 now above 400ppm, worldwide veganism could be a fairly rapid solution for greatly reducing future emissions.
Also, the vegan diet is significantly more efficient than an animal diet, which uses 17 times more land, 14 times more water and 10 times more energy (2). In the UK, intensive animal agriculture uses 77% of agricultural land and produces only 18% of calories consumed (2). In terms of protein, beef requires 100 times more land to produce one unit of protein, in comparison to pulses, maize or rice (3). This represents a huge inefficiency and when the global population hits 10.5 billion in 2050, there will simply not be enough farmland. Research by Harvard University estimates that 40 million tonnes of food would be sufficient to feed every human annually, and yet the animals would need 760 million tonnes (19 times more) (4).
This presents a moral conundrum: meat for the few or food shortages for the many?
Globally enforced veganism could also bring huge economic savings. By 2050, it is estimated that the global economy would save £440 billion (1). This money could be funnelled into green innovation and technology. The World Health Organisation (2015) also reports potential annual savings of between $700-1000 billion, as a result of a projected decrease of 8.1 million deaths annually due to veganism (1). A healthy, balanced vegan diet can significantly reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
However, the question we should be asking is “can we all go vegan?”. In poor or isolated communities, a strict vegan diet may not actually be possible. For example, there may not be sufficient raw plant-based resources available to provide all the energy and nutrients people need. If transport or storage and preparation facilities are also lacking, this could lead to serious health issues. For example, what would happen to the Innuits, who survive predominantly on only meat and eggs? Even in more urban societies, cooking a balanced vegan diet with natural ingredients from scratch is time-consuming and requires access to fresh fruit and vegetables, which can be expensive. Ready-made vegan food is also relatively expensive and may not necessarily be that sustainable, as it comes packaged in plastic, for example.
If hypothetically, the entire planet is capable of sustaining a healthy vegan diet, is it actually fair to suggest universal veganism is the solution? Many non-Western nations already eat significantly less meat than most Western developed countries, for religious, cultural or economic reasons. For example, in 2013 the average person in the US and Australia consumed over 100kg of meat. This figure dwarfs the meat intake of the average Ethiopian who eats around 7kg of meat per year (5). This level of consumption has not led us to the climate crisis, it’s the excessive consumption by western countries driving unsustainable farming practices that is the issue. In my opinion, it would therefore be grossly unjust to suggest every nation should go vegan in order to compensate for the excesses of the West.
Even if intensive farming is avoided in favour of extensive farming (the opposite of intensive), it is no more sustainable as it requires much more land, so veganism still wins here. However, there is a new contender; ferming. This yields so-called farm-free protein flour, which is produced from bacteria and water through a process called precision fermentation. The Finnish company ‘Solar Foods’ has calculated the protein they can manufacture is 20,000 times more efficient in terms of land than meat and 10 times more efficient than actual photosynthesis (6). Vegan or not, this technology will be hugely significant.
Therefore, despite being vegan myself and wholly believing it is the best choice of diet for our environment in this day and age, I do not think ‘we should all go vegan’. It is neither globally feasible, nor fair. Big meat-eating Western countries have a responsibility to rapidly reduce and regulate their own animal product market. This will shoulder a bit of the well-deserved blame, set an example and provide monetary pressure on global food trends.
What is ultimately required is the top-down regulatory change of the intensive agriculture system and a restructuring of the Western economy and Western ideals surrounding meat. As unrealistic as this may seem however, there is hope. As lab cell-cultured meat and bacteria-cultured protein develops, a solution which doesn’t require ‘conventional’ veganism at all is perhaps on the horizon.
By Kristiina Joon
Disappointingly, 2019 saw global carbon emissions continue to rise, as outlined in the UN Emissions Gap Report.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a recorded-breaking level of 415 ppm as measured by the Mauna Loa Observatory; this is roughly 1.5 times higher than the concentration at the beginning of the last century.
The good news is that whilst 2019 saw emissions rise, the rate of increase is slowing down. “Emissions from coal, oil and natural gas expanded by about 2% globally in 2018. In 2019 it is predicted emissions rose by 0.6% and this is about a third of the growth rates we’ve seen of the previous years, so it is actually a quite significant slowdown.” says the Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project.
The bad news is there is no sign of these emissions peaking in the next few years. Given that the level of warming depends on the total, cumulative emissions, the longer we allow them to rise, the more drastic will the cuts to emissions need to be to stay within 1.5°C or 2.0°C warming scenarios.
What does our procrastination mean in practice?
In order to keep warming under 2 degrees carbon dioxide emissions must fall by 25% over the next decade. Yet 1.5 degrees is the only chance of survival for many regions and we would need to cut emissions by a staggering 55% to achieve this.
The earlier we act, the easier this will be. 10 years ago, if countries had acted on the science, governments would have needed to reduce emissions by 3.3% each year. Now that figure has more than doubled to a reduction of 7.6% every year.
Sources of CO2
Despite commitments to reduce fossil fuel use, almost all human activities that produce greenhouse gases saw a rise in emissions in 2019 compared to 2018. This includes the burning of fossil fuels for generating electricity, transportation, cement production needed for construction, and land-use change. The burning of coal continues to be the largest contributor of global emissions, followed by oil. Together these two sources contribute to about 70% of the total emissions. Gas emissions add up to about 20% of the total emissions, and the production of cement gives 5-10%.
However, whilst coal is a large contributor, it is on the decline whereas the burning of natural gas is predicted to have risen by 2.6%. Unfortunately an increased use of gas is not replacing coal but being used as an additional source of energy in many regions.
Emissions from land-use change are difficult to quantify and estimates have large uncertainties, so it is difficult to report an exact number.
Who are the major emitters?
Country rankings change considerably when comparing absolute and per capita emissions: per capita emissions are by far the highest in the US and have now in China reached a similar level to the EU. The largest emitters have the opportunity to make the biggest changes globally.
The graph above shows territorial emissions. Such a measure of emissions can unfairly square the blame on countries like China because it doesn’t take into account consumed emissions, which can be significantly larger in regions like the EU and the US. As major importers of energy and goods, they have a very high level of consumed emissions in addition to territorial emissions. EU per capita emissions are higher than Chinese when consumption-based emissions are included. The graph therefore covers a multitude of sins - namely those of regions with much higher carbon footprints than at first appears.
This is not to say China is absolved of its responsibility to reduce its emissions (if China’s increase in CO2 emissions were removed from the global total, the rest of the world managed to lower emissions by -0.02GtCO2.) Rather, we must accept our collective responsibility and take the disastrous rise in emissions alongside the extreme weather events of this past year as a wake-up call to take on more fundamental changes.
United Nations Environment Programme (2019). Emissions Gap Report 2019
Friedlingstein et al. 2019 ‘Global Carbon Budget 2019’, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 11, 1783–1838, 2019
By Laura Watson
Permafrost is a key carbon sink - it stores frozen methane. Worryingly, it is thawing much more rapidly than scientists ever predicted. This means that carbon dioxide and methane that has been locked in this permafrost for millennia, is being released into the atmosphere at a much faster rate than previously thought. This is increasing the pace of climate change – just when we are trying to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The impact is drastic. To put it simply: with every 1oC rise in average global temperature, permafrost may release the equivalent of four to six years’ worth of coal, oil, and natural gas emissions. To avert a climate crisis we need to act much faster than we previously thought.
So what exactly is permafrost?
It is defined as ground (soil, rock or organic material) which remains at or below 0°C (so frozen) for at least two consecutive years. This can be found on the ground, or below the sea – essentially in any areas where temperatures rarely rise above freezing. Permafrost can show huge variations across the planet – it can vary in thickness and can be continuous or discontinuous (with continuous being a single sheet, and discontinuous permafrost broken up into areas for example in the shadow of a mountain).
With slow and steady permafrost melt, 200 billion tonnes of carbon would be released to the atmosphere over the next 300 years. However, this may be a vast underestimate as around 20% of permafrost land is more prone to melt for reasons listed below.
Why is the permafrost melting faster than expected?
What does the melting of Permafrost mean for 1.5oC targets?
There is uncertainty as to whether we will reach 1.5oC warming by 2030 – or sooner – as we are unsure how far we really have risen above pre-industrial temperatures. We are operating with rough estimates because monitoring technology is a relatively recent development and calculating averages for today's temperature is not entirely accurate either.
Whether or not we have until 2030 to avert climate catastrophe remains unclear. What we can be certain of, is that unforeseen impacts from tipping points such as the melting of the permafrost, could alter these rates.
What can we do to manage the melting?
Overall, while research into melting permafrost is new and unexpected, it is being measured so mitigation steps can be taken to ensure that a tipping point isn’t reached and to avert a climate catastrophe.
What is clearer than ever is the need for rapid action!
By Hebe Larkin
One day I woke up and the sky was blood red.
It was 2009, I was nine years old, and I thought the world was going to end. The sun was glowing dimly through the haze, people were suddenly wearing face-masks and we would find layers of dust on everything for weeks afterwards. It wasn’t quite the end of the world, but the aftermath of a huge dust-storm that had blown across Sydney. It was so unusual that you can even find a Wikipedia page about it.
Today, my nine-year old fears of apocalypse have retuned. As bushfires rage in Australia, the obscured sun, the choking air, the face masks, have become the new normal. When I flew back home to Sydney this December, the day after the hottest-ever day on record, where the average temperature topped 41.9C, the pilot gave us the weather forecast. Of course, he said, you can see the smoke haze above the city. We descended from blue sky above the haze, into the layer of smoke.
This bushfire season has been extraordinarily bad, but follows a trajectory that climate scientists have warned government about since the 1980s. Human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels, has been linked with climate change and rising temperatures. In Australia, 9 out of 10 of the country’s warmest years have occurred since 2005. These higher temperatures create the perfect condition for bushfires, in the following ways:
Already during this bushfire season:
And this won’t be the end of it – the bushfire season still has its course to run.
Understandably, in a country where two-thirds of people believe the climate emergency to be the world’s greatest threat, the response from citizens has raged alongside the bushfires that ignited their anger. Protestors have marched on conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s house to demand action, while he was abroad on a family holiday.
But government response has been slow, even non-existent. At the recent climate summit in Madrid, Australia was singled out as being one of the worst-performing countries on its Paris climate targets. At its current rate, it won’t meet its target of 26-8% below 2005 levels. Indeed, the deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, while agreeing that Australia needed to take more action on climate change, viewed it as a discussion for the future. He then went on to support the coal industry.
If Australia is to have any hope of mitigating the risk of unprecedented bushfires and heat waves, it needs federal policy put in place to reduce emissions across all sectors. Otherwise, the red skies of 2009 will become the new normal.
By Bianca Pasca
Following our event on ‘Race Empire and Climate change’ which explained how the global north’s responsibility for and failure to respond sufficiently to the climate crisis constitutes a form of neo-colonialism, this week’s “What you need to know about…” post will focus on the impact of climate change on indigenous communities who are not mere victims but potential leaders in the fight against the climate crisis.
This article will explain:
2) How even climate change mitigation strategies harm indigenous communities
Biofuels- biofuels are less damaging than fossil fuels because they are carbon neutral, the CO2 released when they are burnt as fuel is balanced by the CO2 absorbed the tress before they are processed into fuel.
3) Why listening to indigenous communities can help tackle the climate crisis
Marginalisation of indigenous communities is of course a threat to their survival as their interests are not represented on the world stage. Yet it’s also detrimental to our collective efforts to tackle climate change as we could learn much from understanding the special relationship indigenous people have with the natural environment. Eg:
· Flooding - In Bangladesh, villagers are creating floating vegetable gardens to protect their livelihoods from flooding
· Tropical storms- in Vietnam, communities are helping to plant dense mangroves along the coast to diffuse tropical-storm waves.
· Droughts- In Guyana indigenous communities are relocating form the savannah to forest areas during floods and are planting their staple crop, cassava on moist flood plains where other crops are unable to survive.
Unfortunately, the example set by indigenous communities falls into oblivion because their traditional knowledge is largely oral and remains outside of academic forums, thereby remaining marginalized in literature such as the IPCC reports.
Human rights-Indigenous communities are also leading the way in making governments accountable for climate change by making a link between inaction and violation of human rights. For example, indigenous Australians from the Torres Strait islands are filing a complaint to the UN that identifies the Australian government’s failure to mitigate the impact of climate change as a violation of their human rights.
The UN’s ruling is non-binding but may succeed in pressuring the Australian government into action, proving that platforming indigenous people and the protection of their rights and interests is fundamentally linked to the fight against climate change.
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.