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Two Years after Paris; Where do we Stand on Climate?


The Bonn climate conference wound up in the wee hours of Saturday 18th November, and delegates headed home.  What was accomplished there?  More important: What has the global community accomplished on climate in the two years that have elapsed since the Paris Agreement was finalized in 2015?

Somehow this image talks to me about the impacts we are having on our planet.
© DesignCurial

Bonn, chaired by Fiji, an island nation at some heightened risk compared to countries in Europe or North America, was never expected to accomplish a great deal in the battle against climate change.  Its main goal was to begin the process of negotiating the rules and procedures that would translate the Paris Agreement into actions against climate change.  This was accomplished although some difficult issues were left till 2018.

We are Lagging Behind the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement centers on the individual, but publicly announced, national goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).  These INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) are specific voluntary commitments by each national government to reduce GHG emissions by specified amounts in a specified time.  In UN-speak, countries are invited to include, when reporting their INDCs, “quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how [that nation] considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances”.  As lots of people pointed out to the Naked Emperor, when he announced that the USA would leave the agreement, INDCs are very definitely completely voluntary promises made by independent national governments!

The Paris Agreement was intended to make individual national actions transparent and explicit, and to encourage fulfilling, and strengthening, such commitments by means of that openness.  It remains to be seen whether an economic transition of the scope required to reach the “much less than 2oC” Paris goal will be possible through a multinational agreement to “all please try very hard”, with lots of gold ribbons, bronze plaques, and praiseful oratory directed to those nations doing their very best, and a few catcalls, ‘fossil of the year’ awards, and other opprobrium directed to those who underperform.  The framers either had considerable faith in the ability of nations to act morally, and for the common good, or, more likely, they were in a very tough spot with no other way to move the process forward.  Heartfelt, public encouragement seemed (and still seems) better than doing nothing at all.

As nations signed on, each was expected to provide a statement of its INDC.  The Paris Agreement formally came into force when 75% of signatory nations ratified.  This occurred in time for COP22, the UN climate meeting held in Marrakech, 15-18 November 2016.  COP23, in Bonn, advances the process a few steps further.  There will be a formal ‘taking stock’ at COP24 late in 2018, at which time the progress made as well as the goals announced by each nation will be examined.  It is expected that at least some nations will ramp up their commitments at this time.  If this does not happen, we will know we have a very serious problem on our hands.  A further ‘taking stock’ will take place in 2020, and thereafter, new commitments, performance and goals will be monitored on a 5-year schedule.

As everybody who has been following this knows, the pooled INDCs currently in place are woefully insufficient to achieve the <2oC goal, let alone the ambitious <1.5oC target.  The New York Times recently provided a simple animation to show this.  And PBL, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, provides a complete set of up-to-date, country-specific plots.

For example, here is a global plot, showing total GHG emissions (in Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents) up to 2014, then projected to 2030 under various assumptions.  The “current policies” line (gray with green range) is scarcely below the two versions of “business as usual”, and definitely above the pledges made.  All of these are far, far away from the trajectories needed for 2oC or 1.5oC Paris goals.

Plot of total global emissions as Mt CO2equivalents, 1990 to 2030.  Shown are projections under two business-as-usual scenarios, under a scenario including implementation of all currently announced national emissions policies, and as required under scenarios that would achieve the 2oC and the 1.5oC targets.  Also shown are the expected 2020, 2025 and 2030 global emissions assuming full implementation of all nationally announced emissions policies.  Image © PBL.

Just for fun, the following are individual country plots for Canada, the USA, the European Union, and China.  While China’s emissions are still rising, its trajectory is on track with its pledged reductions in rate of increase, and it will overshoot (i.e. achieve goal earlier than planned) its 2020 pledge.  The EU is also on track for its 2020 commitment, but will not reach its 2030 goal with present policies.  The USA and Canada have both got a lot of work to do.  And remember, all of these 2020 and 2030 goals are woefully inadequate to reach the long-term <2oC goal of the Agreement.

 Plots of total national emissions, as Mt CO2 equivalents, for Canada, the USA, the European Union, and China.  Projections are for business-as-usual, and for full implementation of current INDCs.  The 2020, 2025 (USA only), and 2030 announced national targets are also shown.
© PBL.


Achievements in Bonn

So, what was achieved in Bonn?  Well, the good news is that the retreat of the USA has not led to other countries slacking off further.  If anything, Trump’s idiotic denialism and intransigently xenophobic nationalism has been good for the climate process.  Apart from a single US-mounted public event extolling the value of coal as an energy source, the members of the official US delegation worked constructively with other nations to improve the Paris Agreement, and there was an abundant presence by governmental representatives of States reporting that they were still committed to Paris, even if the White House was not.

When the US-mounted a session on the virtues of coal, including words from the CEO of Peabody Coal (a noted funder of denialism), it was drowned out by singing protestors for 10 minutes, and then continued in a half-empty room. Photo © Lucas Schultze/Getty Images.

Michael Bloomberg likened this promotion of coal at a climate event as akin to promoting cigarettes at a cancer conference.  But I guess now the loyal base can be told that the President tried to explain the alternative facts on coal, but the rest of the world would not listen because they are so unfair to the bigly great USA.  Some of them will believe him.

Closer to the agenda, there was some quiet progress made on a number of issues.  Negotiators reported they had made some real progress on refining the rules that will make it possible to verify whether nations are living up to their commitments on Paris, however the development of that rule book is not expected until (and will have to be in place for) next year’s COP24 meeting in Poland.  Some progress was made in encouraging China, India and other developing countries to become more transparent about how they are reducing emissions growth, but there was little progress in defining the amounts of international aid to be provided by developed countries.  Fiji and other island nations were disappointed that there was little willingness shown for sweeping steps to compensate weak nations already suffering the brunt of climate impacts.  (If the attitudes that have led the USA to be so very slow at supporting Puerto Rico in its time of need are widespread among nations, I fear the poor and weak among nations will get lots of nice words and a bit of charity, but not much else.)

There was wide recognition at Bonn of just how much further countries must go to achieve the Paris goals, but there were no surprise announcements.  Nations were biding their time till next year, while coming to grips with how much the global political landscape has changed since the heady days of Paris.  And Canada got mentioned from time to time, for doing constructive things, like helping lead in the push for countries to sign on to eliminate use of coal by 2030.

Packed venue for the Powering Past Coal event spearheaded by Canada and the UK with the Marshall Islands (somewhat more popular event than the other coal event on the agenda at COP23).  Image © UNClimateChange/Flickr


Meanwhile back in the real world?  An open letter.

So, what is happening on the climate front elsewhere in the world?  I’ll begin with the open letter published by some 15,000 scientists, including me, and timed to hit the media during the Bonn meeting.  I don’t usually sign open letters that are sent to me over the web, but this one seemed worthwhile.  A group of eight biologists, chiefly tropical forest specialists, at universities in the USA, Australia, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Nigeria conceived this project, arranged for publication as an open access article in BioScience, a respected journal, and then used the web to invite other scientists to sign on.  Publication was timed for Bonn.  The lead author is Bill Ripple of Oregon state University.  The article is titled: World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.  It appears 25 years after the Union of Concerned Scientists mounted a similar effort to coincide with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (the conference at which, among many other things, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, parent of the Paris Agreement) was established).

The 1992 warning identified a number of disturbing trends caused by human activities.  They expressed concern about current, impending, or potential damage on planet Earth involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth.  In their view, if continued, the trends observed would prove more than the biosphere could bear, with grave consequences for mankind.  Their article sparked the development of thinking about what are now called the 9 planetary boundaries.  I’ve commented on them in previous entries here.

Figure 1 from the World Scientists’ Warning, depicting nine trends that refer to the eight concerns expressed 25 years previously (CO2 emissions and temperature both reference climate change).  Only the rate of emissions of ozone-depleting CFCs shows improvement.  Figure © W. Ripple et al.

What Ripple and colleagues have done is draw attention to these trends again, noting that mostly they have continued exactly the way they were trending 25 years ago.  Further, of the two which have changed direction, the catch of marine fisheries has fallen because our reduction of global marine biomass (90% since the 1940s) has reached the point that we can no longer catch the amount of fish that we used to – this is not a case of changed policy but of a trend reaching its endpoint – the emptying out of the oceans.  Of the nine trends, the only one showing improvement in the past 25 years is the rate of emissions of ozone-depleting CFCs.

Looking at these graphs, it is easy to despair, and that is probably not helpful.  It’s also possible to draw attention to the scales on the vertical axes and ask whether the downward trend in hectares of global forest, or that of freshwater resources per capita would look quite so alarming if the scale had been extended down to zero.  Still, even with these caveats, the lack of change in trends that were common knowledge and warned about a quarter century ago does cause me to wonder what it will take to get us to change our behavior in sensible ways.  The article was picked up by a number of media, so it had its 15 minutes of fame.  I just hope we do not have a third such message in 2042 with the trends still unchanged.  (Come to think of it, if they don’t change, we might not be writing such messages any more.  These are serious problems and we are not doing enough about them.)

So how are GHG emissions this year?

In the middle of all this, I came across a graph conveying a powerful message.  It is one thing to explain that one of the huge problems with our impacts on the planet is that we are causing changes that are very rapid compared to similar changes in the past, that the problem is as much one of rate as of extent of change.  It is another thing to show this effectively.

Change in CO2 concentration now and in the recent past.  Image © WMO

The graph appeared on the front page of the latest WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.  It’s not exactly the Wall Street Journal, but it’s an 8-pager released annually by the World Meteorological Organization.  The image accompanied a report that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere had continued to grow in 2017, and had reached levels not seen in the last 800,000 years.  (Interestingly, some media reports reported the level as higher than in the last 3 million years which is also approximately correct, but WMO was concentrating on time periods for which we have direct measurements of CO2 in air rather than indirect proxies.)

The more interesting thing about the graph, however, was that the rate of growth in 2017 – 3.3ppm CO2 increase during the year – was the fastest ever recorded since direct measurements began in 1958, although this was spurred on by a very strong el Niño.  And the really clever thing about the graph is that it pairs direct, high resolution measurements of CO2 concentration in air bubbles in ice deposited in the early Holocene, when very rapid warming was taking place, and direct measurements in the atmosphere today.  The two data sets have been selected to display about an 80ppm change in CO2 concentration, and then the horizontal axes have been expanded/compressed so that the change takes place over the same width of space on the page: two lines rising sharply upward to the right.   The two lines represent a change of about 80ppm in CO2 concentration, although the early Holocene line on the left shows a change from ~190ppm to 270ppm, while that on the right shows the recent change from 320ppm to 400+ppm.

So, the same amount of change in each graph.  But look at the time involved: ignoring the time prior to 17000 years ago, the early Holocene graph spans 7000 years before the 270ppm amount is reached.  By contrast, the same absolute change in CO2 concentration took place between 1960 and 2017 – 57 years.  Now see the narrow vertical line at 11500 years ago in the left-hand graph?  The one you barely noticed at first.  That’s 57 years also!  Now do we all appreciate what scientists mean when they say the rates at which we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere are unprecedented?  You bet we do!  Hell, I can scare myself just by looking at this figure.

And so, it is time to summarize.  The Bonn climate conference went off with few hitches, made reasonable progress, but there is still a very long way to go.  The US delegates behaved reasonably well, which is about as positive as you can get from the White House (also known as #HOTNE – home of the naked emperor).  Virtually every country has got to put its shoulder to the wheel more effectively than it has done – so I guess I had better continue prodding Canada to step up and really do our part.  A relatively large subset of scientists from around the world put out some disturbing information, trying to stress the point that we seem to have made little progress on the environmental crisis in the past 25 years – although we sure have written a lot and conferenced a lot trying to achieve change.  And finally, I found a wonderfully effective graph of real CO2 data that displays in a very convincing way how much more rapidly we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere than was the case in the early Holocene when the Pleistocene ice sheet was melting at its most rapid rate.

I wonder what winter of 2017/2018 is going to bring here?  I think I need to go find a reef or two.

This seems better than snow and ice to me.  Photo © Imago/OceanPhoto