the latest in climate science and policy
Climate change is arguably the one disaster that unites the world; something that will wreak havoc across countries and oceans alike due to its all-encompassing nature. Despite the unbiased nature of CO2, climate change itself is not a gender-neutral phenomenon; the impacts are found to have disproportionately negative effects on women, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. With the fate of (effectively) half of the world’s population hanging in the balance, this is something that deserves immediate attention though research in adaptation and prevention specifically targeted at the impacts on women.
Since Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement there have been tears, fears and protests. Whether a calculated decision carefully engineered to garner him further support or a badly understood statement made as a show to the rest of the world that his leadership could- and would- shake things up, it now remains as an action of the past, something that appears irreversible. So what really is the impact of his decision, and how committed is the rest of the US to upholding Trump’s anti-climate stance?
Due to finish last Friday, this year’s UN climate conference limped through the night to dawn on Saturday morning. With all of this year’s proceedings closed, OCS reviews what progress was made towards meaningful action on climate change over the past fortnight.
Rupert Stuart-Smith, Oxford Climate Society President 2017/18
The Paris Agreement (Article 2) seeks to restrict climate change to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’, with the ethically imperative goal of ‘pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’. An important question, discussed in greater detail in my previous article, is whether the more ambitious of these two goals was merely aspirational, or if this is indeed an achievable target.
By some measures, global temperature rise is already knocking on the door of 1.5 degrees. Some studies have argued that we could have emitted enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to reach that level of warming as soon as 2021. But these numbers rely on different assumptions than were made when the goals of the Paris Agreement were devised in 2015, at which time delegates were advised that global temperatures had risen by ‘only’ 0.85 degrees. With this in mind, the 1.5 degree goal in the Paris Agreement should be seen as a very real possibility, with recent studies indicating that net-zero greenhouse gas emissions must be achieved by 2045 (figure 1) or 2055 (partly dependent on our ability to reduce emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases). In other words, achieving the 1.5-degree goal will be extremely difficult and require rapid decarbonisation of every part of every economy in the world, but it is possible.
Figure 1: Future emission trajectories under business as usual (baseline), the Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement (NDC), uniform pricing on all greenhouse gas emissions to deliver a 50% probability of staying within the 2°C target (default 3.4), as with default 3.4 but with a probability of at least 66% of staying below 2°C of warming (default 2.6), as with default 2.6 but minimising the use of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage as a means of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere (No BECCS 2.6), and delivering a 50-66% probability of remaining below the 1.5°C target (van Vuuren et al. 2017)
If we can understand the 1.5-degree target as being achievable and set with the intention of it being fulfilled, rather than a meaningless phrase added to placate many of the world’s countries at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change, who may otherwise have walked out of the discussions at Paris, the implications are huge. No longer will the biggest emitting countries and companies be able to drive global temperatures up beyond safe levels and then be able to claim that by the time we understood the science of climate change and came to a global consensus on its prevention, it was too late to do anything about it. We know it will be tough, and that we must be fully determined in our ambition to achieve rapid decarbonisation, but the knowledge that this trajectory is possible will greatly strengthen future claims of responsibility for causing climate change.
With this in mind, any future, not prevented impacts of climate change, including forced movement of people due to sea level rise, economic losses from extreme weather attributed to climate change, loss of life, and non-economic losses should be subject to ‘loss and damage’ claims. Those failing to play their part in preventing further climate change now, and pushing warming beyond global targets are responsible for its impacts. The fact they now know they can do something about it will simply add to their responsibility, should they fail to act now. And if they don’t, they should be liable to compensate those affected by conscious decisions to contribute to the devastation resulting from climate change – stories of which can be heard from delegates throughout COP23.
Despite the apparent logic of this, much of the developed world (perhaps unsurprisingly, given their large historical emissions and responsibility for climate change) remain unmovably opposed to developing mechanisms through the UN climate process to facilitate loss and damage claims. The latest attempts to block this process has been led at COP23 by the US, EU, Canada and Australia, whose contention that financing should be excluded from negotiations on loss and damage is apparently grounded in the fact that not every natural disaster can be attributed to climate change. The absurdity of this argument is underlined by recent and rapid advances in the science of attributing (probabilistically) extreme weather events to climate change. Since we can now model to what extent climate change influenced a particular event, we can determine with ever growing certainty how responsible for climate-related losses are those who contributed most to climate change.
If we can formalise a regime for loss and damage, and render the biggest emitters liable for the impacts of their actions, this would be a small but significant step towards addressing the vast injustices of climate change. For the developed world to continue to ignore their moral duty on this matter is simply unacceptable.
This article follows Oxford Climate Society’s side event at this year’s UN Climate Conference, on 12 November 2017, and is in part inspired by the talks given by the speakers, Professor Myles Allen and Kya Raina Lal.
Rupert Stuart-Smith, Oxford Climate Society President 2017/18
Since the fairly disastrous 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen (COP15), the slogan of many of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change has been “1.5 to stay alive”. Six years later, the Paris Agreement (and all its signatories) implicitly acknowledged the inadequacy of the 2°C goal agreed in 2009, and recognised that limiting climate change to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels ‘would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change’. Yet with the global policymaking focus of the past few years firmly centred on limiting climate change to 2°C, relatively few efforts have been made to understand the future emissions permissible if we are to stay within 1.5°C.
In fact, the answer to the question of our ‘carbon budget’ for 1.5°C is perhaps more dependent on what story you want to tell than the predictive abilities of climate modellers. Depending on what baseline of ‘pre-industrial’ temperatures is used, it is possible to come up with very different (but equally scientifically accurate) estimates of the extent of past manmade climate change.
Millar et al. (2017) use a baseline of average global temperatures from 1861-1880 (equivalent to that used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and calculate that global temperatures have risen 0.93°C from the baseline to the present decade (when the influence of short-term variability from El Niño is excluded). Based on their projections, only a further 200 Gigatonnes of carbon can be added to the atmosphere between now and 2055, and by that point we must have reduced our net carbon emissions (the balance of release into the atmosphere and removal from it) to zero, if we are to have a reasonable chance of limiting climate change to 1.5°C. To put this into context, current annual net CO2 emissions are approximately 10.4 GtC, leaving less than 20 years of emissions at current rates to exceed the 1.5°C carbon budget identified by this paper.
Figure 1: Idealised mitigation trajectory for limiting climate change to 1.5°C. Dashed line shows a peaking of global emissions in 2020, followed by linear decline to net zero in 2055. Thin solid orange line is the climate response to the emissions scenario in 66% of CMIP5 models, showing a warming of under 1.5°C. Thick solid line shows the 50th percentile of the climate response to this scenario. Source: https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-why-the-one-point-five-warming-limit-is-not-yet-a-geophysical-impossibility.
Based on Millar et al., to stay within the 1.5°C budget, unwavering commitment to rapid global decarbonisation is required, and emission reductions of 4-6% per year will be needed in the 2030s and 2040s. This rate of CO2 emission reductions is historically unprecedented and requires worldwide replacement of existing capital. This will include a revolution in our energy systems through the development and massive deployment of renewables, and an as-yet undemonstrated scale of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and CO2 Removal (CDR), for instance through Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS). The rate at which this transition can happen is limited due to the lifespans of existing infrastructure and the inertia of our economic system, and Millar et al. advocate for immediate and ambitious emission reductions to have any chance of keeping up with the precipitous fall in emissions demanded by their 1.5°C scenarios.
At the same time, the key message of Millar et al. is that the 1.5°C temperature goal is not impossibly ambitious, even though current national pledges require dramatic strengthening. With current national commitments falling far short of global ambition on climate change mitigation, technologically and economically feasible scenarios such as those this paper propose can provide a strong framing for the global stocktake process to increase national level climate commitments.
Alternative estimates of the future emissions compatible with limiting climate change to 1.5°C, using different measures of global temperature and baseline periods (such as 1750, since when global temperatures have risen more than they have since the mid-nineteenth century), indicate far smaller emission budgets. Under some estimates, cumulative emissions committing us to 1.5°C will be reached as soon as 2021.
The question is: is the bigger the panic the better? Does presenting climate change mitigation in line with the 1.5°C goal as being an unsurmountable challenge propel individuals, companies and world leaders into action? Or rather, in line with Miller et al., are we more likely to be able to inspire the behavioural, economic and policy revolutions required if science explains that we have a chance to avoid the vast human suffering brought about by inadequate climate change mitigation and warming of over 1.5°C, but only if we act now?
Join Professor Myles Allen, a co-author of the Millar et al. paper, the Oxford Climate Society, Oxford Martin School and Environmental Change Institute in a discussion on the findings of the paper and these questions on Sunday at COP23, in an event chaired by Kya Raina Lal.
Full details: https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/event/2514
According to the UN website, “women commonly face higher risks and greater burdens from the impacts of climate change in situations of poverty, and the majority of the world’s poor are women.” The gender imbalance of decision making bodies and labour markets, which are largely male-dominated, often mean women are unable to contribute equally to climate-related policy making and implementing action against climate change. These beliefs, however, are not reflected in the gender balance of COP23 attendees.
Despite the progressive nature in relation to many of the events and discussions taking place at COP23, the gender imbalance at COP23 is striking. At COP21 in 2015, women compromised only 38% of participating delegates. These numbers have not changed in the last two years, with 62% male to 38% female party delegations attending COP23. Three countries or parties sent all-female delegates - Latvia, Albania and Guyana - although nine sent all-male delegates, notably including North Korea, Libya and Somalia. The UK was unusual in choosing to send twice as many female delegates as male.
The side event ‘Guaranteeing Rights and Gender Equality in all Climate Action’, which took place on 7th November, aimed to highlight opportunities for advancing human rights, gender equality and food security through national climate policies as well as the Paris Agreement implementation guidelines. Climate Change and Resilience Information Centre CARE chaired the discussion.
Lydia Essuah, a representative from Ghana, spoke about Ghana’s governmental frameworks instituted to guarantee human rights and promote gender equality in climate action. One such example was the Adaption Fund Project, which aims to empower women through providing access to financial support and livelihood interventions. In addition to this, The Sustainable Land and Water Project helps farmers vulnerable to climatic variability, such as drought, by funding new farming techniques and training forest fringe communities on wildfire. This in turn provides the local community with food and land security in an environmentally sustainable way, targeting the most fragile ecosystems in Africa. Over 9000 land users have adopted the new practices, resulting in progress benefiting almost 25,000 people, of which 40% are women. Implementation of this at a national level will, Essuah claimed, “advance the cause of the ordinary woman.”
Noelene Nabulivou, representative from Diverse Voices and Action for Equality, on the other hand, argued that not enough action is being taken to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality on issues of gender and climate change. Failure to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C and address further loss and damage, Nabulivou claimed, will endanger frontline and vulnerable communities such as the Pacific small island states, where the complex geopolitical context – here she highlighted the epidemic levels of violence against women and girls in these communities - plays a crucial role in hindering climate action.
Bridget Burns of Women’s Environment and Development Organisation advocated for more gender-divided data and analysis on the impacts of climate change, as well as demanding gender balance in the UNFCCC. She also highlighted the need for finance for the UN Gender Action Plan, which is unlikely to achieve its aims without an increase in funding. She reported that progress on making gender a focus in UNFCCC processes is underway.
Gender Day at COP23 will take place on 14th November, where attendees hope to highlight how gender-responsive climate policy and action will be able to generate economic benefits and raise ambition for our aims in climate action, in addition to transforming the lives of women and girls internationally.
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.
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.
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.