Going, Going, Bonn: UN Climate Negotiations Kick Off

Posted November 09, 2017

Dr. Conway's Climateside Chat, November 9, 2017

Syria started the United Nations’ COP23 climate talks, which began this week in Bonn, Germany, with the surprising announcement that they will become a signatory to the Paris Agreement. This leaves Trump’s America as the only country to reject a prosperous future for our species on this planet.

I feel the need to specify “Trump’s” America here because while Trump and his fossil fuel cronies forsake reason for madness, the rest of our country has continued moving forward in addressing the largest problem humanity has ever faced. As of Oct. 24, 1,780 businesses, 252 cities and counties, nine states, 339 colleges and universities, and 213 faith organizations are signed onto the “We Are Still In” declaration. According to their website, this accounts for 40 percent of the US population and $6.2 trillion of the U.S. economy. A great start for the country, especially considering that this scale of nonviolent resistance against the wishes of the federal government is unprecedented in American history.

As the U.S. slowly finds its way forward, how does the world at large stand as we enter this latest round of climate negotiations on the eve of World Science Day for Peace and Development?

Well… it’s not great. As of now, not a single major industrialized nation is on target to meet their Paris Agreement goals — pledges that are not even sufficient to keep global warming under the politically-motivated 2°C limit that scientists agree will still cause dangerous climate impacts. While this may sound bad, countries set their climate targets with the intent of strengthening them over time to constrain warming to “safer” levels. This process of bolstering climate goals is set to be a major theme of COP23 over its two week duration.

"This needs high level commitment. We do not have the luxury of having lots of philosophical discussions. We have to roll our sleeves up and get through the agenda points." Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fijian climate delegate

So how much of a course correction do we need? A substantial one, unfortunately. 

As the below figure shows, there is a difference of about 23 gigatonnes (51,000,000,000,000 lbs!) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) between current goals and what is needed to have a good shot at limiting warming to 1.5°C between now and 2030. This means that global climate goals need to be boosted by over 40 percent  — a daunting figure considering the glacial pace most countries have taken committing to even modest climate action. (If you are interested in exploring this further, Climate Action Tracker’s interactive data visualization tool allows you to explore each country’s impact.)

This figure will be updated by the UN next Wednesday. Stay tuned!

There is hope, however. After Trump announced he would be pulling the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, there was fear that he would cause a domino effect of countries either withdrawing from the Agreement or weakening their climate goals. In fact, the opposite occurred. Nicaragua and Syria both signed on. Several other countries, including China, India, France, and Germany, are now stepping forward as newly dedicated climate leaders.

China in particular is attempting the most ambitious energy revolution in history, cancelling thousands of megawatts of planned coal plants, becoming a world leader in solar development, and moving more rapidly than perhaps any other nation in switching to an electric vehicle fleet — all while supporting the world’s largest population and without sacrificing economic growth. This transition has not been without controversy, but they are clearly signalling their commitment to serious national climate action in a way that the U.S. — the country that has contributed the most to climate change — has not.

Thankfully, even our disjointed and delayed collective actions are showing promising results. Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have flattened and are primed to begin dropping in earnest in coming years, while the global economy shows no sign of flagging. This decoupling of economic growth from GHG emissions is a tremendous accomplishment for a civilization as entrenched in fossil fuels as ours, and is a powerful indicator of the ongoing energy revolution.

"We want to advance further, faster, together to meet the goals set out in the Paris agreement. We need an operating manual for the Paris agreement. This has to be the launchpad for the next level of ambition on climate change action, because we know the pledges [to cut emissions] made so far are not enough to take us to [meeting the Paris goals]." Patricia Espinosa, UN’s chief official on the climate

There is no time to be complacent, however, since atmospheric GHG levels have continued to rise to historic highs as we saturate the planet’s ability to absorb the excess carbon we are emitting.

When considered alongside the devastating climate upheaval that we have witnessed in just the last few months, the stakes for the COP23 conference are high. But the parties to the conference make it clear that they are ready to work together to give our species a fighting chance. May they be successful!

—Jon Conway, Ph.D., Greenpower Research Director

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