the latest in climate science and policy
Earth Day began in 1970, founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson as a teach-in to educate students, with a wider aim of bringing environmental considerations into the public eye. Nelson had been inspired by the large-scale student anti-war movement across America, and realised that this was a path through which environmental considerations could be brought to the national political agenda.
Ecological debt is defined as the level of resource consumption and waste discharge by a population which is in excess of locally sustainable natural production and assimilative capacity. The term was coined in 1992 by the Insituto de Ecologia Politica in Santiago, Chile, wherein the production of greenhouse gases by the developed nations of the north was seen as inequitable. This was exacerbated by utilisation in the north of resources extracted in the south which imposed climatic and social changes not included in the calculations of international debt. Subsequently, a rich versus poor argument emerged, asserting that the impact of exploitation of finite natural resources from these nations had not been fully ‘compensated’ by price, royalties or licensing fees. Surrounding this was a series of ‘debt for nature’ agreements wherein some parts of a nation’s debt was erased in return for the designation of large wilderness areas. However, due to the inherently interrelated nature of ecology and ecosystems, ecological debt has now transcended the physical and political boundaries of any individual nation to become a global phenomenon that involves every person on earth in calculating the suggested debts through collective and individual behaviours worldwide.
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.
Fredrik Eriksson and Lucy Fellingham
An important part of the COP meetings are the demonstrations and “actions” put on by civil society groups, including environmental groups, youth groups, and social justice groups. While major demonstrations are planned in Bonn over the two conference weeks, there are also several smaller demonstrations happening most days inside (or just outside) the venue where negotiations are taking place, in direct view of the national delegates attending the talks.
Today, a coalition of climate justice groups put on a demonstration just outside the negotiation venue in Bonn highlighting the need for increased climate ambitions in the next 2 years. According to Lise, participant in the demonstration and member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, there is a lack of ambitious targets to reduce emissions in the next two years. Lise described how the Paris agreement NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions), including the pledged emissions reductions, will not take effect until 2020, and how the emissions targets leading up to 2020, agreed to in Doha, were left unratified by many countries, leaving the 2018-2020 time frame without solid targets for emissions reductions. “We can already see impacts on the climate,” she said, “and while we still need to step up the ambitions under the Paris agreement, as those commitments fall short [of protecting the climate], we also want to see countries take action before 2020.”
As of the end of October 2017, 84 Parties have ratified the Doha Amendment (an extension of the Kyoto Protocol), but the targets to reduce emissions will not be put into force until the number of Parties reaches 144. The ratification of this agreement would be valuable in pushing forwards momentum for global climate action in the years leading up to 2020, but the emissions targets for the next few years remain unclear.
The protestors aren’t the only ones to have expressed concerns about what needs to happen before the Paris Agreement. At the time of the Agreement, climate scientist Kevin Anderson stated “If we wait until 2020, it will be too late”, while the New Scientist came to the conclusion that the agreement itself will not be enough to limit the warming to just 2ºC. The IPCC’s projected trajectory for the emissions of carbon dioxide (pictured below) show an increase that will lead to a “near-complete” destruction of the Greenland ice-sheet, with 70% of worldwide coastlines projected to experience a sea-level change.
In addition, a large amount climate change that will occur as a direct consequence of our CO₂ emissions is irreversible on a millennial timescale. Unless we physically remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, surface temperatures will remain high and warming of the oceans, bringing a rise in sea level, will continue. It is clear that we must make use of the years we have before 2020 to do everything we can to reduce emissions and that the policy makers need to be aware of the urgency with which this needs to happen.
Author: Felix Heilmann, Oxford Climate Society Vice President 2017/18 and Convenor of the Oxford School of Climate Change
The facts are clear. The most existential threat to our common future comes in the form of emissions created by what our economy runs on at the moment – fossil fuels that heat up the world’s climate. This is the astounding simplicity at the heart of what seems to be one of the world’s most complex problems. It is important to recall this as the climate negotiations make headlines over the course of these two weeks.
It is also worth recalling that there is, all in all, a surprisingly broad agreement from corporate boardrooms to civil society marches on the most fundamental principle on how a liveable future should look like – it is a future in which all major sectors of the society and economy have been successfully decarbonised, e.g. through the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy, increases in efficiency, and the like.
Naturally, there are disagreements on what exactly such a future should look like, and even more disagreement on how to get there – should governments take political action, or should we just trust market forces? Should some countries move first when others are not doing their fair share? The fact that there’s disagreement on these topics, however, is just a sign of a healthy democratic debate.
This cannot be said about a fundamental issue at the heart of climate politics: Far too often are highly necessary points about making today’s policy decisions future-proof dismissed as being “ideological”, and categorically rejected. Too often is climate action seen as a bargaining chip in political negotiations when it is, in fact, in our greatest common interest. Diverse groups within politics still showcase a categorical opposition to climate action, which they claim is an ideological issue – at a time when even companies such as Shell and Siemens have acknowledged its importance. It’s wrong and dangerous that silencing the debate about climate solutions and the necessity for action, or treating them as a bargaining chip, is still a workable political strategy for many parties across the industrialized world. In a healthy democratic culture, problems should be acknowledged, the best solutions debated, and then subsequently implemented. It is time that we close the gap between the pressing importance of the climate challenge and its representation and discussion in politics.
When it comes to life-or-death issues such as the climate crisis, it is not words but actions that matter. Every scientist will confirm that inaction is not an option in this case – we have to get our heads out of the sand, and face down this issue. That’s why it’s time to bridge across political divisions and build powerful coalitions that can create the future we want. This requires action on all sides of the political spectrum, and it can only be hoped that this is – finally – realized universally. In the meantime, we can work on what is crucial for a healthy democratic debate: having a good informational basis and getting the facts right. This is the spirit behind the latest addition to the Oxford Climate Society’s portfolio: The Oxford School of Climate Change. A select group of students will get the opportunity to hear about some of the most important issues in the climate debate from leading academics in the field, and there will also be ample opportunity to discuss solutions for the challenges ahead.
Words won’t safeguard our future – actions will. But words can lead to actions, and that’s why it’s crucial that we lead wide-ranging, expedient discussions on how to get into a safe future. The School of Climate Change will be a part of this effort.
With COP23 due to start in less than a week’s time, now is a good time to take stock of how the world has changed since COP22, COP21 and the Paris Agreement. Leaving aside the United States, which receives a fairly constant level of attention with regards to its climate policy, this review briefly considers the progress of the other big three contributors to climate change – China, the EU and India – in meeting their Nationally Declared Commitments (NDCs). It is important to remember that NDCs are produced internally by the state, don’t represent legally binding contracts, and include no obligate sanction for the failure of a state to achieve its set goals. The Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific initiative that assesses the efforts of different countries to tackle climate change and rates them relative to their impact on the climate, is an excellent resource for exploring the relationship between what is being said about climate policy and what is really going on. The central goals of each NDC, supplied from the UN’s central INDC database, are listed with each entry.
Positive changes in the last three years include the introduction of powers for NGOs to sue companies in breach of emissions regulations, the boosting of government investment in gas and renewable energy sources, and most importantly the significant declines in coal use – in 2016 the communist party assigned $4.6 billion to the closure of 4300 coal mines. There are even whispers that China’s CO2 output may be about to peak. The success of China’s recent glut of environmental policy changes, however, is only a reflection of the goals it set itself in the Paris Climate Agreement, goals which the CAT judges to be insufficient to help restrict global temperature increase to 2°C. Largely this is due to the inadequacy of the supplementary NDC target of obtaining 10% of the nation’s energy from gas and 20% from non-fossil fuels by 2030, a target that is insufficient given the massive contribution China currently makes to global emissions. An emphasis on CO2 in Chinese policy has also contributed to a convenient lack of commitments to reducing some of the other greenhouse gases. Given the gains made in Chinese environmental protectionism in the last few years, however, the state’s pride over the initial progress it has made seems somewhat justifiable.
While the Chinese government has exerted its unilateral control to implement policy changes, the EU has taken a market approach. One way it has done this is through the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), which caps the level of carbon emissions that can be produced by industry within a country. Emissions credits can then be bought and sold by companies allowing them to either raise their limit if necessary or to take advantage of their low emissions. The idea behind this is that EU-wide emissions targets can be met while allowing flexibility of manufacturers that struggle to meet stringent guidelines. But the system has come under scrutiny for failing to produce the declines necessary to meet the 40% target; not least from the EU legislative bodies themselves, which as of 2017 are hoping to crack down on oversupply and devaluation of emissions credits by increasing the rate at which the overall emissions cap is lowered, from 1.74% to 2.2%. Even the EU therefore recognises the inadequacy of the systems currently in place – even assuming the cooperation of member states – for achieving its flagship 2030 goal.
The weaknesses of the Paris Climate Agreement are evident in the lack of significant alterations to the mid-term strategies of parties like China, the EU and India in the wake of its introduction. With countries able to set their own targets, the temptation to produce NDCs that don’t require any ambitious changes in policy seems to have proved too great in many cases. For this reason the CAT rates the efforts of most countries as at least ‘insufficent’ – India being an exception, needing to achieve much less to make a fair contribution to global climate efforts due to the relatively low levels of emissions per capita it needs to negate. Although only two years have past since Paris, making it perhaps too early to lament a lack of change, the inadequacy of some of the biggest polluter’s NDCs is real cause for concern.
More information and nice graphs from the CAT available on their website (http://climateactiontracker.org/) than you can shake a stick at, as well as other relevant articles and papers below:
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.