‘Time is short’ to stop climate change

Experts have linked conflicts and migration to the effects of climate change, such as droughts. [Tim J Keegan/Flickr]

With the COP21 climate change conference on the horizon, scientific experts have warned that this is the international community’s last chance to reach a long-term agreement. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.

The planet continues to break temperature records just about every month. August 2015 was the warmest since global records began in 1880, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is not an isolated event, as the first six months of the year have been the warmest on record. Various official international agencies have said that 2014 had the highest average temperature.

Spain is no exception. This summer, Spaniards had to live through the longest heatwave and hottest July on record since the State Meteorological Office started keeping reliable records.

The fact that the earth is experiencing a period of warming is now unquestionable. “Warming of the climatic system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen,” summarised the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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The IPCC’s fifth report, presented in late 2014 and compiled by a group of 800 scientists, will be used as the basis for the COP21 conference on climate change, due to be held in Paris in December. It is hoped that the conference will result in a legally-binding, universal agreement on climate change, which is already causing havoc in the form of extreme weather events. “Undoubtedly, climate change is the greatest environmental problem facing us,” said José Manuel Moreno, Professor of Ecology at the University of Castilla-La Mancha and one of the scientists involved with the IPCC. “This year will beat all the records,” he added.

“Scientifically speaking, there is no argument to be made against climate change and no government can say otherwise,” he insisted.

Man-made disaster

Why is the planet heating up? “The influence of humans on the climate is clear,” said the IPPC report. One of the main contributing factors are greenhouse gas emissions, originating in the energy and transport sectors, as well as changing land use, linked to deforestation. “It is extremely probable that humanity is responsible for global warming,” concluded Moreno, based on the findings of the IPCC report. “A 95% probability,” he elaborated.

“It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.” These are the words of Pope Francis, written in his first encyclical letter, “Laudato si”, in which the pontiff stressed that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity.

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Pope Francis’ letter is framed within the context of international declarations and political statements that have warned of the effects of global warming and the need to stop it. A few days before the pontiff’s letter was published, the G7 adopted a statement showing its commitment to creating a world without fossil fuels.

The problem is that we produce more CO2 than the planet is capable of absorbing. Scientists suggest that the current concentration of CO2 is at its highest level in 800,000 years. Various experts have claimed that it is necessary to leave what remains of fossil fuel reserves unused if we are to avoid reaching the point of no return. This includes a third of the planet’s oil reserves, half of the natural gas and 80% of coal that is still yet to be extracted from the ground.

The IPCC warns that by the end of the century, temperatures will have risen by 3.7 to 4.8 degrees Celsius, if control measures are not adopted. Scientists have estimated that the maximum temperature increase that can be dealt with by the end of the century is two degrees. To achieve this, emissions have to be cut by 40-50% by 2050 and to have been eliminated totally by the end of the century.

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“We have already lost a decade,” said Alejandro Lago, director of the UNESCO Chair of Land and the Environment at the King Juan Carlos University, Madrid. In December, Paris will host the international climate summit, with replacing the now-expired Kyoto Protocol as the ultimate objective. As Spain’s Environment Minister, Isabel García Tejerina, said, the pact that comes out of the Paris talks “will be forever.” In other words, a short-term commitment is not the aim of the game, a roadmap with no expiration date that will last until the end of the century and which will eliminate emissions worldwide, is the target.

“Climate change is happening,” warned IPCC expert Moreno. “Regardless of what we do from now on, the temperature will continue to rise,” he said, referring to the tonnes of CO2 that have already been emitted into the atmosphere. “We’ve eaten 60% of our carbon-budget already, in 20 years it will be exhausted,” he added.

“Kyoto was a drop in the ocean to Paris,” Moreno warned. The Kyoto Protocol had little effect on the two largest emitters, the US and China, but it seems that Paris will rectify this situation. Both nations have already presented their emission-reduction commitments for the coming decades to the United Nations.

US President Barack Obama, unlike most of his predecessors, has prioritised the fight against climate change during his final term as commander-in-chief. The Chinese government, under mounting pressure from the adverse health effects of pollution on its citizens, has also committed to investing in renewable energy and reducing its CO2 emissions.

Link to sustainability

The climate goals set out by the IPCC and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intertwined, given that it appears likely that achieving SDG 13 (take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts) seems largely dependent on a long-term deal being made in Paris.

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The Paris agreement is expected to include every country on earth, not just the developed nations, as was the case with the Kyoto Protocol. By the end of September, 80 out of nearly 200 governments had submitted their emission-reduction commitments, among them the major world economies. The agreement will be based on a voluntary contribution model, which will apply to everyone in the international community.

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Christiana Figueres, the UN’s Executive Secretary on climate change, told El País earlier this year that, “We have a wide, multi-lane motorway stretching out before us. The motorway leads to the ultimate goal of restoring an ecological balance between emissions and the planet’s capacity to absorb them. Everyone on the motorway is going to the same destination, but at different speeds in different lanes.”

For now, we already know that the commitments presented by various countries are not currently sufficient to prevent a temperature increase of over two degrees by the end of century, because an emissions cut of 40-50% by 2050, as proposed by the IPCC, has not been submitted. To address this, the European Union has already suggested that each nation re-evaluate its commitments every five years.

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Over the next few weeks, in the build-up to the Paris conference, national governments will continue to negotiate the legal text. The main bones of contention may be how emissions reductions will be monitored and how to finance policies that mitigate the effects of climate change. The creation of a Green Climate Fund has already been pledged, which will be worth $10 billion a year and take effect in 2020.

Alejandro Lago appreciates that this time “there is greater mobilisation” among world leaders than there was before, but warns that “many opportunities have been squandered before” at previous climate summits. “Time is short,” insists Moreno, urging national representatives to leave Paris with a concrete deal in place. He added that “there is no plan B” in terms of reducing greenhouse gases.

Various international organisations have already analysed what effect a switch to a green model would have on the world economy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that $30 billion worth of fossil fuel assets would be devalued in 2050, just in the energy sector. Additionally, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have urged national governments to eliminate oil, gas and coal subsidies.

While the agreement continues to be negotiated, the effects of climate change continue unabated. “We will not be able to solve the refugee crisis or to defeat poverty without tackling climate change,” explained Carole Dieschbourg, Luxembourg’s environment minister, in mid-September. “The droughts in Iraq and Syria are linked to climate change,” said Moreno. These droughts triggered crop losses. “When people cannot feed themselves, they leave, they migrate,” added the professor, citing several international reports that link conflicts to global warming.

  • 11 December 1997 Adoption of Kyoto Protocol
  • 16 February 2005 Entry into force of Kyoto Protocol
  • 30 November - 11 December 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), Paris

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