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Climate: Some Progress in Poland

Global warming is physics and chemistry, and you can’t negotiate with science for more time to solve the problem: more emissions mean a hotter planet. Dealing with the problem, however, requires an international negotiation involving almost 200 countries. In big gatherings of that sort, the convoy always moves at the speed of the slowest ships.

That’s why the reporting on the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland that ended on Saturday, two days later than planned, has been so downbeat. It didn’t produce bold new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It saw the usual attempts by the biggest fossil fuel producers, the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to stall the process. And in the end it just produced a ‘rulebook’.

But that’s all it was supposed to do, and it’s not ‘just’ a rulebook. The great breakthrough at the Paris conference in Paris three years ago saw every country finally agree to adopt a plan for emission reductions, but the Paris accord was a mere sketch, only 27 pages long.

Fleshing it out – what the plans should cover, how often they should be updated, how countries should measure and report their emissions, how much leeway should be given to poor countries with bad data – was left until later. Later is now, and in the end they did come up with a 256-page rulebook that fills in most of those blanks.

“We have a system of transparency, we have a system of reporting, we have rules to measure our emissions, we have a system to measure the impacts of our policies compared to what science recommends,” said the European Union’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete. It was an excruciating process, and it still leaves a few things out, but it settled a thousand details about how the Paris deal will really work.

Oh, and one big thing. China abandoned its claim that as a ‘developing country’ it should not be bound by the same rules as rich countries like the United States. There will only be one set of rules for both rich and poor countries, although the really poor ones will get a lot of financial and technical help in meeting their commitments.

This year’s conference dealt with the details at ministerial level. Next year UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host a summit of the biggest emitters to lay the groundwork for the key 2020 meeting. That’s when countries will report if they have kept their 2015 promises on emissions cuts, and hopefully promise much bigger cuts for the next five years.

The rise of populist nationalists like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, both climate change deniers, will make future negotiations even harder. It’s all moving far too slowly, but the human factor keeps getting in the way. For example, Bolsonaro wants Brazil to get extra carbon credits for protecting the Amazonian rain-forest, even as he plans to carve the forest up with big new roads and cut a lot of it down.

The Paris deal is important, but it has come far too late to stop the average global temperature from rising to the never-exceed target of +2 degrees Celsius that was adopted many years ago, let alone the lower target of +1.5 C that scientists now believe is necessary.

We are already at +1 C, and current promises of emission cuts will take us up past +3 C. At the moment emissions are still going up (by 3% this year). Even if countries make further major commitments to cut emissions in 2020, it’s hard to believe that we can avoid devastating heat waves, droughts, floods and sea-level rise, and a sharp fall in global food production.

So while we are cutting emissions, we also need to be working on ways to remove some of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere. Various ideas for doing that are being worked on, but they will probably become available on a large scale too late to keep the temperature rise below +2 C.

So geo-engineering – direct intervention in the atmosphere to hold the temperature down while we work on getting emissions down – will probably be needed as well. Nobody really wants to do ‘solar radiation management’, but cutting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface by just a small amount is technically feasible. It could temporarily halt the warming and give us the extra time we are probably going to need.

We are getting into very deep water here, but we may have no other options. If we had started cutting our emissions 20 years ago (when we already knew where they would eventually take us), such drastic measures would not be necessary. But that’s not the human way, and so we’ll have to take the risks or pay the price.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Oh…emissions”; and “The rise…down”)

Crooked Timber

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Immanuel Kant in 1784. It is still true.

On Sunday the 24th ‘Conference of the Parties’ – the 180 countries that signed the climate change treaty in Paris in 2015 – opened in the Polish city of Katowice. The Polish government chose the venue, and it presumably selected Katowice because it is home to Europe’s biggest coal company. It was a thinly disguised show of defiance.

It’s not just Donald Trump who loves coal. It’s by far the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but Poland gets 75% of its electricity by burning coal and it has no intention of changing its ways. In fact, shortly before COP24 opened in Katowice, the Polish government announced that it is planning to invest in a large new coal-mine in the region of Silesia.

1,500 km to the west on the same day, in Paris, municipal workers were picking up the debris after the third and most violent weekend of protests against President Emmanuel Macron. The demos are not as big as those of the great revolt of 1968, but they are certainly the biggest for decades even in this cradle of revolutions.

And what were the protesters (known as the ‘gilets jaunes’ after the fluorescent yellow vests that French drivers must keep in their vehicles) protesting about? In Paris and in other cities, they were building barricades, torching cars, and setting banks and houses on fire because Macron’s government has raised the tax on diesel fuel by 6.5 cents per litre.

This was on top of an increase of 7.9 cents per litre earlier this year, and most French vehicles run on diesel, but the public’s reaction does look a bit excessive. The fact that Macron justified it as a ‘green’ tax intended to reduce fuel use only seemed to make the protesters angrier, and at least until the extreme violence of last Saturday the majority of French people supported them.

Poles clinging to coal despite the fact that the fog of coal smoke that envelops Polish cities in winter kills thousands every year, and ordinary people in France rioting for the right to go on burning cheap diesel in their cars despite a comparable death toll from atmospheric pollution there, suggest that the quest to cut greenhouse gas emissions before global warming goes runaway faces even greater resistance than the experts feared.

Bear in mind that Poland and France are relatively well-educated countries that belong to the European Union, the region that has led the world in terms of its commitment to emission cuts. Neither country has the kind of climate-change denial industry, lavishly funded by fossil-fuel producers, that muddies the waters and spreads doubt about the scientific evidence in the United States. Neither the Poles nor the French are in denial. And yet….

Now, it’s true that Poles have a large collective chip on their shoulder for historical reasons (their entire country was erased from the map for more than a century), so they often respond badly to being lectured by well-meaning foreigners. It’s also true that President Macron is arrogant and has a tin ear for public opinion. But neither nationalist resentment nor clumsy political leadership are in short supply worldwide.

Bear in mind also that the emission cuts promised in the 2015 agreement will not actually come into effect until 2020: we have a mountain to climb and we are not even in the foothills yet. Much bigger sacrifices than a few cents extra on the price of diesel or an end to burning coal will be required before we reach the end of this process, if we ever do.

The question therefore arises: can we really expect that the relatively large (although still inadequate) cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases promised in Paris at the 2015 summit will ever gain the public support necessary to make them happen? If not, then our current global civilisation is doomed.

For the EU, the biggest distraction from the task at hand is the very high rate of unemployment in many Western European countries: officially just under 10% in France and Italy and 15% in Spain, but the true figures are at least a couple of points higher in every case. In fairness to the French protestors, many of them have lost sight of the bigger issue because they just can’t make ends meet.

This unemployment is ‘structural’, and it will not go away. Its primary cause is automation, a process that will only spread and deepen with the passage of time. We are entering this critical period for dealing with climate change – the next five years are make-or-break – just as the world’s economy is undergoing a hugely disruptive transformation that will leave many people permanently jobless.

If you were designing a species capable of making this difficult transition, you would certainly prefer to start with one that was wiser, more cooperative, and less excitable than ourselves, the near relatives of chimpanzees. Something a little less crooked, at least. But this is the timber we have to work with. Good luck.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“For…jobless”)

The Other Shoe

They STILL haven’t dropped the other shoe. The ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C’ contains terrifying forecasts about what will happen when we reach an average global temperature one-and-a-half degrees C higher than the pre-industrial average. (We are now at +1C.) But it still shies away from talking about the feedbacks, the refugees, and mass death.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ordered this special report in 2015, after the Paris climate agreement effectively admitted that the traditional target – stopping the warming before it reaches two degrees C higher – had been set too high. By then, really bad things would already be happening.

So all the countries that want to stop the warming before it goes runaway (everybody except the United States) formally kept the ‘never exceed’ target of +2C, but said that governments should ‘aspire’ to stop the warming earlier, at +1.5C. And they asked the IPCC to figure out how hard that would be.

The answer, revealed at a meeting in South Korea on Sunday, is: very hard. We have effectively wasted the past thirty years, since the climate change threat first became known, and there is now very little time left. In order to skid to a halt, brakes on hard, before we hit +1.5C, we will have to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by almost half (45%) in the next twelve years.

To cut emissions that fast by 2030, we would have to decide to close down all the remaining coal-fired power plants within the next two years. It would take the next decade to get that done and get the same energy from expanded renewable sources (water, wind and solar), leaving us just on track to reach zero emissions by 2050.

Climate scientist John Skea, who worked on the report, summed it up: “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes.” Changes of a scale that people would readily accept if they faced an imminent invasion by Nazis or Martians – but that they are less willing to make when their whole environment is at risk. Humans are funny that way.

The report is a bracing dose of realism in many ways. It effectively says that we can’t afford to go anywhere near +2C. It talks bluntly about the need to end all fossil fuel use, reforest vast tracts of marginal land, and cut down on meat-eating. It even admits that we will probably have to resort to geo-engineering – ‘solar radiation management’, in the jargon.

“If mitigation efforts do not keep global mean temperature below 1.5C,” says the report, “solar radiation modification can potentially reduce the climate impacts of a temporary temperature overshoot, in particular extreme temperatures, rate of sea-level rise, and intensity of tropical cyclones.” Pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere is scary stuff, but so is runaway warming.

So far, so good. At least it’s being honest about the problem – but only up to a point. ‘Not in front of the children’ is still the rule for governments when it comes to talking about the mass movements of refugees and the civil and international wars that will erupt when the warming cuts into the food supply. And they still don’t want to talk openly about the feedbacks.

People forget that this is a governmental project run through the United Nations – the InterGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change – not just a scientific one. Scientists write the body of the report, but the executive summary (the only part that most policy-makers and journalists will ever read), is negotiated between the scientists and the governments.

The governments take climate change very seriously these days, but they worry that too much frankness about the cost in lives of going past 1.5C will create irresistible pressure on them to take radical action now. In the ensuing struggle between the scientists and the politicians, the executive summary always gets toned down.

What got removed from the summary this time was any mention of “significant population displacement concentrated in the tropics” at +2C (i.e. mass migrations away from stricken regions, smashing up against borders elsewhere that are slammed shut against the refugees).

Even worse, ‘tipping points’ are barely mentioned in the report. These are the dreaded feedbacks – loss of Arctic sea ice, melting of the permafrost, carbon dioxide and methane release from the oceans – that would trigger unstoppable, runaway warming.

They are called ‘feedbacks’ because they are self-reinforcing processes that are unleashed by the warming we have already caused, and which we cannot shut off even if we end all of our own emissions.

If you don’t go into the feedbacks, then you can’t talk about runaway warming, and going to 4, 5 or 6 degrees C higher average global temperature, and hundreds of millions or billions of deaths. And if you don’t acknowledge that, then you will not treat this as the emergency it really is.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“If mitigation…warming”; and “People…governments”)

An Old American Tradition

It’s not just Donald Trump. The United States has a long record of negotiating international agreements and then running away from them. The rest of the world has an equally long record of heaving a sigh of regret, telling the Americans it will be happy to have them back when they get over it, and carrying on without them. It will do it again over the Paris accord on climate change.

We have had many expressions of synthetic shock since Trump finally announced that he was abandoning the climate accord last Thursday, after wringing every last drop of drama out of his totally predictable decision. Then we had the equally predictable affirmations from everybody else that they would carry on regardless. It’s all as stylised and traditional as a Noh play.

The tradition actually dates back to the early 20th century, when the United States was the prime mover in creating a new international institution to prevent war, the League of Nations, at the end of the First World War – and then refused to join it. The League could probably not have avoided the Second World War even if the US had been a member, but its absence certainly didn’t help.

Then came a longish period, from the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 to the arms control agreements of the 1960s and 70s, when American leadership actually did make the world a safer place. But by thirty years ago it was back to the bad old ways, with the United States not signing (or signing and then “unsigning”) the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Criminal Court, and the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change.

In each case, the rest of the world just went ahead and put the treaty into effect anyway – and in no case did the American defection destroy the deal. It’s already clear that Trump’s decision will not sabotage this deal either. The other major powers will all stick with the commitments they made in Paris eighteen months ago, because they are all really frightened by what will happen if they don’t.

“We need the Paris agreement to protect all of creation,” said Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Then she, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy issued a joint statement saying “We firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies.”

“As far as the Paris accord is concerned… our government is committed, irrespective of the stand of anyone, anywhere in the world,” said Japan’s Finance Minister, Taro Aso. “I’m not just disappointed, but also feel anger.” And China’s President Xi Jinping modestly explained that his country has only become the world’s leader on climate change by default. “It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”

The absence of the US government will not derail the project. The commitments of American states, cities, organisations and individuals on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions will continue to provide at least half of the cuts promised by ex-president Barack Obama. Since those promised cuts were to be spread over ten years, the damage may be even less if Trump turns out to be a one-term president.

The commitments made at Paris in 2015 were voluntary national promises. There were no negotiations about how big the contributions of various countries should actually be: Trump only talks about “renegotiating” the deal because he never actually read it.

The sad fact is that all the cuts promised by all the countries at the Paris conference were not enough to keep global warming from going past the never-exceed level of plus 2 degrees C. When the United Nations added the numbers up, the world was still heading for plus 2.7 degrees.

Take all the promised American cuts out of the equation and the world will be heading for around plus 3.0 degrees instead, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. Either way, we cross the threshold and tumble into runaway, irreversible warming.

However, the world still has twenty years or so before we pass through plus 2 degrees. Everybody at the Paris talks understood that they would have to hold another conference in around five years’ time and come up with bigger cuts then. It’s salami tactics, which is bad science but good politics, and it could still deliver the goods.

By five years from now, Trump may no longer be a problem. Even if he’s not impeached or dead, he might lose the 2020 election. He might even choose not to run again; he’s already complaining about how hard the job is.

So the US might rejoin the rest of the world in 2020 – or it might not, but the rest of the world still has to go on trying to save itself even if the United States chooses to be a free rider.

The other hundred and ninety-odd governments of the planet understand how very bad it will for everybody if we break through the two-degree boundary. They are obliged to act with or without the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“We need…front”)