Why the fuss about 0.5°C?

An essential part of the COP experience are it’s side events, ranging from official UNFCCC plenary sessions to NGO panels, training workshops, local museum tours and demonstrations. It is impossible to even visit a significant fraction of these, so I have attended a rather random subset of them.

First, I went to an official IPCC plenary session: Not surprisingly, a central theme to this year’s COP has been SR15, the IPCC’s 1.5C report that was timely published on Oct 8. Limiting global warming to 1.5 instead of 2C might sound arbitrary, however, here’s a number of compelling reasons to do so: 

  • Several hundred million fewer people will be exposed to climate-related risks and poverty by 2050, with 50% fewer people being exposed to water shortages
  • Average sea level rise will be 10cm less by 2100 (note that this has profound influence on groundwater supplies in coastal areas, such as Miami – as well as areas prone to flooding, such as Bangladesh)
  • crop yields (wheat, maize etc) will shrink by 1-4% less
  • Insects will lose 50% fewer of their geographically inhabitable regions (this may have profound effects for agriculture as well)
  • 30-10% of coral reefs will be preserved (but 99% will die at 2C)

 To add to this, the WHO just published a health report on 1.5C, which estimates that the accompanying reduction in air pollution alone would save 1 million lives a year globally by 2050. It is estimated that the 15 most polluting countries forfeit 4% (ca. $2.8Tr) of their GDP due to air pollution-related health issues, while limiting warming to 1.5C would cost 1% of global GDP (clocking in at ca. $0.8Tr). As such, WHO sees climate change mitigation as an economic opportunity, not a cost.

The WHO report also re-emphasises the crucially important relationship between climate change, health, environmental pollution, sustainable land use and preservation of biodiversity: Healthy humans require access to clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter. Global warming puts all of these at stake individually, but also leads to combined effects: E.g. cattle health, and thus food security, is disproportionally endangered if water shortages occur concurrently with rising temperatures.

Or, as a quick summary for process fetishists: We can as well trash most of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals immediately if we are not prepared to step up our ambitions in fighting climate change.

Why I am attending COP24 in Katowice

At last year’s COP23 in Bonn, things were focusing on finance-related aspects surrounding the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The basic outcome was a renewed affirmation of the developed countries to contribute to a £100bn annual World Bank fund split in equal parts between climate change mitigation and adaptation in less-developed countries. Of course, this sum is not yet anywhere near the estimated real costs, which are frequently quoted to be an order of magnitude higher. This year sees the crucially important implementation of the Paris rulebook, which is actually about how to do things in practice. 

Unfortunately, there are a number of circumstances that induce doubts as to whether Katowice will be a success.

On the one hand, a US under Trump cannot be expected to commit to anything interesting, on the other hand having economy-obsessed Poland as conference chair doesn’t really help either: Remember, Poland was once single-handedly preventing the EU from signing the Doha Amendment, which is a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol up to 2020.

Poland, which still derives 80% of its total power from coal, has repeatedly publicly declared that it does not wish to constrain its energy sourcing. In fact, the Polish government is viewing COP24 as an opportunity to broker jobs in the fossil fuel industry, and, in particular, coal. Two large coal companies were in fact invited to sponsor the event which is, at the very least, an eccentric decision given the UNFCCC emphatic efforts on phasing out coal altogether in recent years.

Speaking of the latter, one thing I am equally worried and amused about is the unveiling of Poland’s “Forest Carbon Farm” programme. As far as I understood, Poland suggests to chop down it’s beautiful 9.5 million hectares of forest and replant it with mostly beeches, which are meant to absorb enough CO2 such that Poland can continue business as usual in the meantime. Apart from the fact that it takes at least a decade for a forest to regrow to absorb reasonable amounts of CO2, I am also suspicious as to the overall quantity of carbon stored. If my numbers are correct, studies on reforestation in Australia concluded that a similar amount of forest replanting could save 50-60 mega tons of CO2 a year (which would amount to ca. 10-20% of current annual Polish emissions). As global emissions need to be roughly halved by 2030 in order to implement Paris, this would nowhere nearly be a sufficient offset. Additionally, reforestation at such a scale would be unprecedented and itself linked to additional emissions from working machinery and infrastructure. Add Polands rapidly growing population and possible effects on biodiversity to this equation, and even more question marks appear. We will have to wait for official numbers though, which are meant to be supplied during the COP.

One the positive side, the Talanoa dialogue initiated by host country Fiji last year is going to be continued this year.  Unlike other processes, Talanoa also includes non-state actors. This is crucial particularly as the US government has repeatedly declared its ambition to withdraw from the Paris agreement. Talanoa provides a pathway for non-state actors, such as America’s Pledge representing about half of the US, to be involved in the NDC negotiation process that will lead to renewed pledges by 2025.   

This is also one way in which the Green Economics Institute, the NGO that I am registered with, enters the process. In Paris, GEI was part of the successful lobbying efforts to push small island states and lesser developed countries to nudge the plenary debate toward agreeing on the 1.5C target instead of 2C. Now integrated into the Talanoa process, GEI is directly in touch with the president of Fiji. This year, GEI will once more work hard on pushing climate ambitions toward a pathway that is actually likely to achieve 1.5C.

Same as last year, my primary role will be again to support GEI’s operations at the conference, which includes staffing the exhibition stall (which has been frequented by several prime ministers) and reaching out to other actors. However, as conferences are inherently random, it is likely that unexpected events will happen: Last year, I found myself entering a diplomatic process with the Turkish delegation and also lead a rather quixotic interview with one of Putin’s climate advisers, which you can read here.

It is frequently conjectured that after the reality of climate change adaptation has finally kicked in, geoengineering will eventually overcome its bad image and increasingly move to the centre of attention. I will be looking out for even the most feeble indications that this may be happening. Secondly, as recent participant of Oxford Climate Society School of Climate Change, I was able to chat to IPCC 1.5C lead author Myles Allen about the need for early onset carbon capturing and sequestration (CCS) by the fossil fuel industries. Disliked by for-profits and environmentalists alike (for different reasons), economic analysis seems to suggest that CCS is an imperative and should be kickstarted as early as humanly possible. I will try to see if I can gather some opinions on this by governmental and non-governmental actors, and, of course, I will be particularly interested in challenging the UK and German pavilions.

I’ll try to keep this blog up to date about the conference proceedings, but also check out Twitter.



COP23: Interview with Putin’s climate adviser

By Chris Witt, UNFCCC COP23 Bonn 2017

Me: Professor, great to meet you. I really enjoyed your presentation earlier. However, I had a chat with a Turkish delegate recently and he and others have voiced the view that Russia is not doing enough to combat
climate change. Do you agree with this?

Prof S.: Well, so actually, I have a very different view – namely that Russia has been doing more than pretty much anyone else by cutting down carbon emissions by 50%, as compared to 1990. No other country can claim that! You shouldn’t just simply point the finger at Russia therefore.

Me: That’s really interesting. You know, this is partially why I really wanted to have this interview with you because I was assuming that you might have a different view. There are so many different views out here, it
can get really complicated. However, the benchmark you are stating here I find a bit peculiar as it dates back right to USSR era. But it is great to hear that Russia has in fact silently done more than even very innovative
countries like Denmark and the Netherlands. That’s fantastic! However, emission reduction at this point seems to be less of a relative matter, but rather we all need to work together and reduce emissions as much
as we can individually. How do you see Russia’s potential of reducing emissions even further?

Prof S: In fact, the West is very much responsible for the current situation: Germany, everyone, is importing great amounts of oil and other fossil fuels from us. You know, we have great amounts of air pollution in Murmansk now because everyone is importing coal. Not exporting is not an option for us, because we also need make sure our books are balanced.

Me: Certainly, the West is indeed very lucky to have access to such vast amounts of Russian resources. However, I am a bit concerned that we end up with this classical situation of where producers and consumers are scapegoating each other and in the end nobody wants to accept any responsibility for the status quo. I’d be really interested in your personal opinion though: Do you personally think that there are some additional measures that Russia could take?

Prof S: Oh yes, certainly, we could do even more but you know it’s always a matter of finding arguments that are indeed convincing. In the end, we are not really interested in any non-economic arguments because we are doing very well, and we are set to do really well for the time being, so that’s what we are most interested in.

Me: As you mentioned economic arguments: When we speak of economic sanctions, I wonder,- even though of course this is absolutely not how one would ideally want to treat one another – could it be true that economic sanctions might have the interesting side effect of stimulating climate protection efforts in Russia?

Prof S: Er – yes, well I suppose as long as those sanctions are focusing on fossil fuels, potentially one could say that.

Me: On a different note, I just attended a seminar where it was mentioned that while climate change will have a stimulating effect on Russian agriculture in the 2020s, by 2030s there is likely to be a steady decline in productivity – mostly because southern regions are becoming less arable but northern regions will be less economical to access, mainly due to a lack of existing infrastructure and population there. But I assume the current government is potentially not going to be around then anymore, so do you feel a certain sense of problems being postponed to the future?

Prof S: Well, to be honest with you, it’s simply that the effects of climate change cannot be managed really at this time. For now, we are doing very well and we will be doing really well for the forseeable future. Maybe things will change, but it will probably still be cheaper just to deal with the effects. In the end, you need to find arguments that the government finds convincing. Trust me, I have been doing this job for 20 years now.

Me: I trust you on that. Let’s work together on finding more convincing arguments! Would you mind if we took a quick photo together?