By Sue Landau
History was made a year ago when 196 world leaders agreed in Paris on global action to rein in carbon emissions that cause climate change.
Now, as leaders and diplomats prepare for the next climate conference in Marrakesh starting on November 7, the challenge is to put this unprecedented accord into practice.
The 22nd United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP 22, will mark “the beginning of a new generation of COP-focused actions to implement the Paris Agreement,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar, who will chair the meeting, and Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary at the conference organizers, wrote recently in Green Africa Directory.
It took 20 years to produce the Paris Agreement. So diplomats will need all their skills to produce something that compares with last year’s headlines. Yet the issues at stake are no less vital and urgent.
At the top of the COP 22 agenda is adapting African agriculture to the extremes of drought and flooding already caused by global warming. The continent is currently facing its worst food shortage for 35 years because of climate change.
Also critical is how to verify progress on implementing the accord. Diplomats will be pushing for an independent body to monitor pollution in each country, although some countries, including China and India, prefer a system of self-reporting.
And a recurring sore point — the flow of finance from rich nations to help poorer countries adapt to climate change — will again come under scrutiny.
Fossil fuels must be left in the ground.
At COP 21 in Paris, the wealthiest countries promised to find $100 billion a year by 2020. But according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, pledges so far would take total public funding for climate to only $67 billion in 2020.
Updated figures show that total climate finance — public funding leveraged by private investment — came to $392 billion in 2014, the Climate Policy Initiative said in September. But public funding for climate is only a third of the amount governments still spend on subsidizing fossil fuels.
In Paris, nations agreed to work towards limiting rising temperatures to well below 2°C on average above pre-industrial times, and preferably no more than 1.5°C, by the end of the century.
We are already living with a 1°C rise, and emissions of warming gases continue to increase, so the margin is narrow. In figures published in May, analysts at Carbon Brief concluded the world has only five years left at current emission levels to have a two-thirds chance of making the 1.5°C target.
And if the planet is to meet either of these temperature targets, fossil fuels must be left in the ground, according to a report by Oil Change International published in September. Even abandoning coal and just using existing oil and gas reserves would mean a rise of more than 1.5°C, it said.
New steps forward
Over the past year there have been some encouraging steps to close loopholes left by the Paris Agreement:
- Enough countries have ratified the Paris Agreement for it to to have come into force on November 4 this year, ahead of schedule. This matters, even though the accord is voluntary, as it keeps the signatories under a spotlight.
- The first-ever deal to limit emissions from aircraft was signed in Montreal in October. It is legally binding from 2020, but environmentalists criticize it for being based entirely on offsetting emissions by planting trees.
- At the time of writing, the International Maritime Organization was starting a meeting in London to look at climate change and emissions from shipping fuel. A group of shippers have called for ambitious emissions cuts.
- Also, a landmark deal was struck in Kigali in October to phase out the use of hydro-fluorocarbons, highly warming chemicals used chiefly in refrigerators and air-conditioning units. Unlike the Paris accord, it is legally binding, but developing countries have more time to implement it.
Carbon emissions from China might be peaking.
Besides the official accords, there was progress on the ground:
- Investment in renewable energy reached a record $286 billion in 2015.
- The internal combustion engine’s pre-eminence took a dent this autumn. For the first time, electric cars stole the limelight at the Paris Motor Show; Paris decided to ban road traffic from its riverside drive; and Germany’s parliament voted to ban new internal combustion engines by 2030.
- Development of new coal-fired power plants fell 14% in the first half of 2016, with China and India leading the decline, according to CoalSwarm’s Global Coal Plant Tracker.
- Carbon emissions from China, the world’s biggest polluter, may be peaking already, according to a report in March. Research published in Nature in August 2015 suggested that China’s carbon emissions are lower than previously thought.
A lot remains to be done.
But there were also limits to action:
- The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan for the United States, the world’s second largest carbon polluter, has been opposed by 27 states. A first court hearing took place in September.
- The results of U.S. presidential and congressional elections will be known a day after the Marrakesh meeting opens. The outcome is vital as the U.S. Republican Party is practically the only remaining bastion of climate denial.
- Greenhouse gas emissions are going up and gathering pace, Inside Climate News said in May, citing data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2015 greenhouse gas index.
- Temperatures are still rising. “We have enough data this year to call 2016 as the hottest year ever record — and we have three more months left to go,” John Abraham wrote in The Guardian in early October.
And disappointingly, there is much less build-up for COP 22 than for the Paris summit last year. Yet everything remains to be done.
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.