05/12/16

Can coral reefs recover from bleaching? The case of Tobago

by Salome Buglass

The bleaching of coral reefs is once again making headlines. Reefs across the tropical Pacific, including the Great Barrier Reef and now reefs in the Indian Ocean, are turning white due to warmer than usual sea temperatures as a result of climate change and the current El Niño. This may be the beginning of a series of mass bleaching events occurring at a global scale, similar to those observed in 1998, 2005, and 2010. Caribbean coral reefs may be the next to experience extensive bleaching, starting at the end of the region’s summer (~August 2016). How coral communities recover from the aftermath of bleaching events is a key question concerning marine scientists and managers as it will determine the survival of coral reefs on an increasingly warming planet.

Bleaching in 2010 at Speyside, Tobago

Bleaching in 2010 at Speyside, Tobago

When sea surface temperatures rise above the normal high for the year, it stresses corals causing them to expel the colorful algae that live inside the corals’ tissue and which provide the corals with their brilliant color and most of their energy needs. Bleached corals are weak and the longer they remain in this state, the more susceptible they become to infectious diseases and vulnerable to partial or complete mortality. Severe bleaching events often lead to significant decline in coral “cover” – the fraction of the reef covered by living corals — and changes in the average colony size. For instance, the average colony size declines as a result of partial mortality or fragmentation. Considering that larger corals tend to have greater reproductive output, a decline in abundance and mean size of coral colonies can greatly slow down the ability of the corals to reproduce, regrow, and thus recover following disturbances such as bleaching.

After witnessing the bleaching among the coral reefs that surround my home island of Tobago back in 2010, I decided to dedicate my Master’s thesis to studying the impact and recovery of these coral communities. With Simon Donner from the University of British Columbia and Jahson Alemu from the Trinidad and Tobago’s Institute of Marine Affairs, I examined changes in coral demographics over time (2010-2013) across three near-shore reef systems with different proximity to urban land. In addition, we tallied the juvenile corals at each reef, as their abundances are indicative of different species’ ability to reproduce sexually and survive. We also assessed sediment deposition and composition at each site using simple PVC pipe traps, as high levels of sedimentation are known to affect the growth stages in a coral’s life cycle. Continue reading

04/7/16

The Vancouver Climate Agreement

This week, the students in my course “Climate Change: Science and Society” completed the “22nd” Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Groups of students representing 24 different countries worked feverishly for a week to complete an agreement. Without further ado, we present to you the Vancouver Climate Agreement:

VANCOUVER CLIMATE AGREEMENT

OUTCOME OF THE MOCK 22nd CONFERENCE OF THE PARTIES TO THE
UNITED NATIONS FRAMEWORK CONVENTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE

1. All countries present agree that forests, land use changes, and other sinks shall be included when calculating net greenhouse gas emissions, excluding unintentional and unavoidable natural disasters such as pests and fires. Greenhouse gas emissions including emissions from land use, land use change, and forestry should be reported every five years. Continue reading

04/4/16

Can Canada live up to the promise of the Paris Climate Agreement?

My new article in Policy Options explores whether Canada can reconcile its climate policy targets with the temperature limits in the Paris Climate Agreement. The article is based on an analysis I conducted with Kirsten Zickfeld of Simon Fraser University – the report is available here.

The answer depends on how the world divides up the carbon that could be burned while keeping the planet within the temperature limits. From the report:

If you divide the pie based on each country’s present-day emissions, wealthy high-emitting Canada gets a generous helping for a country of its size (1.6-1.8% of the remaining carbon budget). If you divide the pie based on population, Canada gets a more equitable but much smaller slice (0.5% of the remaining budget).

With a generous helping of carbon pie, future emissions pathways for Canada that are consistent with the temperature limits would look like the figure at left. The 1.5°C limit is “at best unrealistic, at worst politically impossible.” The current Canadian target of reducing emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 could be consistent with the 2°C limit, provided emissions continue to rapidly decline after 2030.

Other countries, however, may not like Canada taking such a generous helping:

Allocating the remaining carbon budget based on present-day emissions places an unfair burden on developing and rapidly industrializing countries that historically have had low per-capita emissions. Despite being far less responsible for climate change to date, and currently having low per-capita emissions, countries like India would essentially be asked to bear an equal part of future mitigation efforts.

Equity, granted, is also an issue within Canada. I’ve been asked about emissions trajectories for individual provinces (that are consistent with the Paris temperature limits). Those trajectories would depend on assumptions about how Canada’s carbon budget “should” be allocated between different parts of the country. The answer for Canada as a whole is already dependent on assumptions about our slice of the global carbon pie; advancing this analysis to the provincial level would introduce even greater uncertainty, not to mention greater room for argument.

A simple approach would be to simply “scale” the emissions trajectories depicted above to the provincial emissions. Following that logic, the percent reduction targets, and the percent change in emissions by year, would be the same across all the provinces. That method, however, ignores the wide differences in mitigation potential and historic emissions burden. Perhaps the only thing that is clear from this analysis is that there’s no easy solution for Canada.

 

 

03/2/16

Canada’s contribution to meeting the Paris temperature targets

PM Trudeau in Paris (CBC)

PM Trudeau in Paris (CBC)

At this week’s First Ministers’ Meeting here in Vancouver, the federal government begins the politically difficult task of establishing a national climate policy. The first step is coordinating the existing patchwork of provincial policies and carbon pricing systems.

Underlying this conversation is a question that has remained unanswered since Canada’s much-celebrated turn at the 2015 United Nations climate summit in Paris:

Are the existing or proposed national emissions targets consistent with the global promises made in Paris?

Together with Kirsten Zickfeld of Simon Fraser University, I completed a report on future CO2 emissions trajectories for Canada that are consistent with avoiding the global temperature limits in the Paris Climate Agreement.

The analysis in our report suggests that the current Canadian target of a 30% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 could be consistent with maintaining a likely chance (66%) of limiting warming to less than 2°C globally, but only if Canada is given a generous allocation of the world’s “remaining” future carbon budget (based on the present fraction of the world’s emissions). A target consistent with a likely (66%) chance of avoiding 1.5°C of warming globally is extremely limited regardless of the method of allocation. Even under a generous allocation to Canada, national net CO2 emissions would need to decline 90-99% below 2005 levels by 2030.

For more, see the full report available here. I’ll also write more on this subject in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

02/29/16

Oscars so white, planet not so white

In drawing attention to the urgency of addressing global warming during his acceptance speech, Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio drew many cheers. He also drew a few rolled eyes in western Canada.

The film shoot for The Revenant did, as DiCaprio implied in his speech, actually relocate from Alberta due to a rapid change in weather and a lack of snow. The weather, though, was not much of a surprise to Albertans, or to any people who live on the leeward, inland side of a large mountain range.

It was an old-fashioned chinook caused by the difference in the rates that wet and dry air change temperature when forced to rise or fall over a mountain range. The same phenomenon is called a Wuhan in China, a Foehn in parts of Europe, and a Lyvas in Greece.

Naturally, DiCaprio’s speech pushed some buttons.

In scrutinizing DiCaprio’s claim, let’s not forget to see the forest – the climate – for the trees – the weather.

Whistler BC, March 2015

Last year absolutely whupped temperature records both globally, and in much of western Canada.  That was not your grandparents’ chinook: Calgary hit over 17°C, 4°C more than the previous record.  Temperature records were set that month on both sides of the Rockies. Snow depths hit record lows in parts of British Columbia. Ski areas struggled to stay open, or to keep enough snow to get to the bottom, as in this photo from Whistler, BC in early March.

DiCaprio’s speech about scouring the planet to find snow was broadly correct. Winters are getting shorter. It is getting hardeFig12-32r to find snow, particularly in late winter and spring. Since the late 1960s, Northern hemisphere snow cover has decreased 1.6% per decade in March and April and 12% (!) per decade (!) in June, according to the last IPCC report.

Snow cover is expected to continue to decline for decades into the future, especially if we continue doing business as usual. The graph shows the projected decline in March and April snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere under a variety of different climate scenarios, from the last IPCC report (the red scenario is roughly “business is usual”).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s example may not have been ideal. He may need to read up on adiabatic warming and cooling. Nevertheless, the planet is and has been getting less white.

02/4/16

Resettlement due to climate change, past and future

The Gilbert Islands [Kiribati] are, what you call, now, dangerous, high tides and flood. It’s alright in the Solomon Islands, there are mountains.

As the sea-level rises, the fate of people in low-lying Pacific island nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands is uncertain. The growing cost and challenge of adaptation could eventually drive large-scale resettlement to countries safer from the rising sea like New Zealand and Australia.

How will people be received? What challenges will they face adjusting to a new environment? Will they be able to maintain their culture? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the past may be a guide.

101

Ghizo Town, Solomon Islands

The above quote is from an elderly man who was part of a mid-20th century British colonial program that relocated roughly 2,300 people from the Gilbert and Phoenix Islands to hilly Ghizo in the distant Solomon Islands because of fears of resource constraints and overcrowding. I interviewed him in 2011 during a visit to Ghizo. I wanted to learn about the Gilbertese* resettlement experience and see if there were any lessons for future climate change-driven resettlement of people from Kiribati and nearby atoll nations.

It was a fascinating and moving experience. Just a few years before, a tsunami had struck tiny Ghizo, taking a large physical and emotional toll on the small Gilbertese community. Another elder described the events to me:

When it [the lagoon] was drying up, they were surprised, they went to go see the sea, rather than running up the hill for their lives. They kept being surprised, then it was too late.

Of the fifty people killed, thirty were Gilbertese, including many children. Despite three generations in the earthquake- and tsunami-prone Solomon Islands, many people in the community did not know the signs of an impending tsunami (see the terrific 2009 paper by Brian McAdoo and colleagues). This gap in cultural knowledge and the challenges of rebuilding after the tsunami revealed some of the many unforeseen long-term consequences of resettling in a new environment and society.

The history of the Gilbertese resettlement and the lessons from my interviews are described in a new paper in the journal Natural Resources Forum. The paper reveals how uncertainty about land rights still persists, 60 years after the original resettlement, and is linked to a number of other present-day challenges the community faces.

The findings may help inform thinking about resettlement due to climate change – including the importance of establishing and funding permanent mechanisms for dealing with land and resource disputes. I also hope that describing the Gilbertese experience can, in general, help disavow the mistaken popular idea that there is “empty” land in other countries where the people of Kiribati and other low-lying islands can easily resettle.

A personal note: This research was made possible by many people who were willing to share often difficult thoughts and memories, but who must remain nameless due to research ethics. No thank you can be adequate. All I can say is that, for a decade now, I have traveled to the Pacific Islands and back to learn about climate change and people’s capacity to adapt. Each trip, I come home changed by the incredible generosity, openness, and overall decency of the people I meet.

Sources:

Donner, S.D., 2015. The legacy of migration in response to climate stress: Learning from the Gilbertese resettlement in the Solomon Islands. Natural Resources Forum, 39: 191-201.

McAdoo, B.G., Moore, A., Baumwoll, J., 2009. Indigenous knowledge and the near field population response during the 2007 Solomon Islands tsunami. Natural Hazards 48: 73-82.

* The colonial term “Gilbertese” is used because the Solomon Islands community, established before Kiribati’s independence, self-refer as Gilbertese rather than as i-Kiribati. The word Kiribati itself is derived from the pronunciation of Gilberts (kee-ree-bas) in the local language.

01/12/16

Yangdidi highlights experiences of Super Typhoon Maysak survivors

by Sara Cannon

In June 2015, I visited the Ulithi Atoll in the outer islands of Yap, Micronesia for the third time while working with One People One Reef. Just a few months before, on March 31, 2015, the communities had survived Super Typhoon Maysak which slammed the islands with 265 km/hour winds. I remember the way my heart sank as the familiar sight of Falalop, the largest island in the atoll, became visible in the window of the small twin-engine airplane (a sight that would have otherwise filled my heart with joy). The typhoon’s damage was obvious even from a distance.

Outer Islands High School, Falalop, Ulithi (April 2015). Photo via Brad Holland

Outer Islands High School, Falalop, Ulithi (April 2015). Photo via Brad Holland

The impacts of Maysak were devastating. Most of the trees were gone, and in the lack of shade, the sun was relentless. The majority of the islanders’ homes were destroyed, along with much of their infrastructure. Only homes made of concrete were still standing. Ulithi’s high school, one of only two high schools in all of Yap’s outer islands, was virtually flattened. In normal years, students from an approximately 250 km radius come to Ulithi for high school; the only other high school in the outer islands is located in Woleai, over 550 km away. There was no running water and a recently completed multi-million dollar solar panel project on Falalop was ruined. Water filters were provided by the International Organization for Migration and electricity was being provided sporadically via a diesel-power generator.

During my visit, people were still reeling from the damage, but were eager for the opportunity to talk about what they had been through. Because Ulithi has no phone or internet, it’s a challenge for community members to share their experiences with the outside world. With the blessing of Ulithi’s communities, we created Yangdidi, a website that highlights the stories of Super Typhoon Maysak survivors. I worked closely with Kelsey Doyle, a graduate student in Journalism at New York University, and John Rulmal, Jr., a community leader and organizer from the island of Falalop, to compile a series of audio, visual, and written interviews from a wide breadth of community members from all over Ulithi.

To the Ulithian people, yangdidi (or “wind force”) describes what has happened to their islands. The force of Maysak’s winds has drastically shaped the future of this remote atoll. With sea levels rising, and scientists predicting that cyclone intensities will continue to increase due to climate change (2015 set a new annual record for category 4 and 5 hurricanes and typhoons), wind and flood damage from storms may become all too common in the low-lying island nations in the Pacific.

12/15/15

The Paris climate agreement awards

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The agreement reached at the U.N. climate summit (“COP21”) in Paris is truly groundbreaking and historic. At the same time, the promises made by the participating countries are not close to sufficient to avoid dangerous impacts from climate change.

To shed some light on what just transpired, I present awards for the best, worst, and most dubious achievements in the Paris climate agreement:

Best overall provision

Winner: Net emissions reaching zero

For the first time, the world’s governments from the U.S. to Tuvalu to Saudi Arabia to China have recognized that we should reduce emissions to zero by sometime in the latter half of the century. The wording is certainly clunky – “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” – but this is an award for overall achievement, not best screenplay.

Best source of confusion

Winner: Is the deal binding?
Runner-up: Why include targets that may be impossible to achieve?

Technically speaking, the agreement is legally binding. Article 15 establishes a “mechanism to facilitate implementation of and promote compliance.” However, that does not mean every feature of the agreement is legally binding. Compliance in this case effectively means meeting the reporting and target creation promises listed in the agreement. The emissions targets in each country’s Nationally Determined Contributions are not binding under international law.

Naturally, a lot of people are upset that the emissions targets themselves are not legally binding. Yet this is an example of politics being the art of the possible. Negotiators wanted to create a deal that all countries would accept and that their governments would ratify. Many countries would never have ratified a deal that included punishment for failing to meet their target. Without binding emissions targets, the U.S. in particular can avoid a certain-to-fail vote in the Senate on ratification (see the next award). Had the negotiators given in to pressure for binding emissions targets, the agreement most likely would have failed.

Hunter Cutting has a clear breakdown of the enforcement mechanisms on the Road Through Paris blog.

Best word

Winner: “Shall”
Runner-up: “Should”

In international legal-ise, “shall” implies a binding commitment, while “should” implies a non-binding intention. There are 141 shalls in the Paris Agreement and only 41 shoulds. The final decision on the agreement was held up for several hours because of a supposedly mistaken “shall” in the following statement:

Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets (Article 4)

This “shall” was changed to “should” at the behest of the U.S. (through intermediaries) to ensure that emissions targets were not legally binding under international law.

Largest gap in the agreement

Winner: Ambition vs. actual emissions targets
Runner-up: Actual vs. pledged climate finance

It is well known at this point that the emissions targets volunteered by individual countries are not sufficient to meet the temperature targets in the Paris Agreement. The “ratcheting” provision in the agreement lays the groundwork for strengthening these targets. Each country is required to submit a new Nationally Determined Contribution every five years that is as, or more, ambitious than the last one:

Each Party’s successive Nationally Determined Contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current Nationally Determined Contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition (Article 4.3)

Given this provision, the current emissions reduction pledges from individual countries could be seen as the minimum reductions expected in the future. Although I am not entirely convinced by their analysis (notably the treatment of non-CO2 forcings and feedbacks), an analysis by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan finds that improving the emissions pledges every five years could limit warming to less than 2°C.

Best (and most misunderstood) newcomer

Winner: 1.5°C temperature limit

The inclusion of a “safer defense line” of 1.5°C has received a lot of attention. Prominent scientists, like Kevin Anderson, have correctly argued that it is next to impossible to avoid more than 1.5°C of warming without widespread implementation of negative emissions technology – things that can suck CO2 out of the air.

The feasibility argument, though technically correct, misses some of the reasons why countries want temperature targets in this agreement.

The targets, especially 1.5°C, are a signal to countries like the Republic of the Marshall Islands that the world recognizes harm will come with more warming. Without mention of 1.5°C as a “safer defense line,” this would be an agreement dictated by the developed world, not a truly global deal that reflects the challenges of the whole planet. In Paris, the U.S., Europe, and a coalition of small island developing states and least developing countries successfully used the proposed language for a 1.5°C target to isolate and eventually win over rapidly industrializing countries like India and South Africa who were blocking progress on an agreement.

The temperature targets lay the groundwork for the adaptation, capacity building, and finance sections of the deal. They also ensure that if it actually becomes feasible to achieve stabilization of the climate at 1.5°C, for example via some affordable air capture technology developed decades from now, there is an international agreement in place that may compel those with access to the potential technology (likely developed countries) to take action.

Biggest disappointment

Winner: Climate finance

For all the concern about non-binding emissions targets, the finance provisions are arguably the weakest part of the deal. The parties agreed to keep the $100bn/year target for 2020, to consider higher targets in the future, to have developed countries continue to take the lead, and to seek a balance between mitigation and adaptation finance, a major concern of the developing nations. Other than the agreement to submit communications about climate finance every two years, none of the provisions are binding.

With climate finance, the devil is in the details. It is difficult to separate “climate” aid from other development aid, and to ensure that “climate” aid does not come at the expense of other initiatives. The Paris Agreement did not tackle any of the really difficult questions surrounding finance. More to come on this in later posts.

Most hollow victory

Winner: Loss and Damages

After much debate, the concept of “Loss and Damages” was elevated to equal status in the UNFCCC as the core challenges of mitigation, adaptation, and finance. There is now an entire Article (#8) in the convention about “averting, minimizing, and addressing loss and damages associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” However, the Paris Agreement basically shunted aside any chance of reparations – payment to developing nations for past, present, or future damages due to climate change. The decision document stipulates that:

Article 8 of the Agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation

Instead, Article 8 focuses on support and cooperation on things like early warning systems and emergency preparedness. These are very valuable but are not what developing countries envisioned when “loss and damages” was first proposed years ago.

Best new provision with an unfortunate name

Winner: Global stocktake

It may sound like a global anti-capitalist movement, a financial accounting trick, or a farm convention, but the global stocktake is a very critical part of the Paris Agreement. The Parties agreed to report every five years on their progress, not just towards their emissions targets, but towards their adaptation and climate finance targets.

Biggest break from the past

Winner: Collective responsibility

The agreement that all countries should eventually reduce emissions broke a 20-year deadlock between developed nations, known as “Annex 1” under the Kyoto Protocol and developing nations. There is still recognition of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “respective capabilities” of different countries: the world does not expect the same targets from a major power like the U.S., a rapidly industrializing country like India, and a least developed country like Madagascar. Yet for the first time, all countries accepted that they should participate in the mitigation effort.

Most half-assed reference to something a lot of people care about

Winner: Climate justice

Despite lobbying by activists and many countries including India, the references to climate justice in the agreement in the adaptation and global stocktake were cut from the final text, leaving just this somewhat dismissive phrase in the preamble:

Noting (i) the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice,” when taking action to address climate change

Most fascinating number

Winner: 55%
Runner-up: 1.5
°

The Paris Agreement will enter into force once “at least 55 Parties to the Convention accounting in total for at least an estimated 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions” ratify or approve of the deal. According to 2014 data from the Global Carbon Project, China (27%) and the U.S. (16%) together represent 43% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions. If these fractions stay constant, it may be possible, albeit unlikely, for the agreement to come into force without ratification by either of the two biggest emitting countries.

Most overlooked new provision

Winner: Capacity building (Article 11)
Runner-up: Loss and Damages (Article 8)

Meeting many of the provisions in the agreement – from increasing ambition on mitigation, to managing climate finance, to implementing and reporting on adaptation plans – is challenging for many developing countries. This is especially the case in small island countries where complying with the reporting requirements of international agreements can consume all of the time of top government bureaucrats. However, this also links to the next award.

Best way to support international development consultants

Winner: National adaptation plans
Runner-up: Capacity building

Under the Paris Agreement, countries need to create national adaptation plans and “periodically” assess adaptation actions, climate impacts, areas of vulnerability, and monitoring and evaluation of adaptation. While important, this will be a boon for consultants with experience in least developed countries and small island developing states where the capacity to do such bureaucratic work is more limited.

Best word(s) I had to check in a dictionary

Tie: “mutatis” and “mutandis”

Mutatis mutandis is a Latin legal term meaning “(once) the necessary changes have been made.”

Most ironic omission

Winner: “market”
Runner-up: Green Climate Fund

The section on creating an international carbon market (Article 6) never actually mentions “market” because of opposition from countries like Bolivia to the concept of market-based mechanisms.

Most curious omission

Winner: Green Climate Fund
Runner-up: Migration

Despite being created by the UNFCCC to distribute climate finance to the developing world, the Green Climate Fund is not mentioned in the finance section of the agreement. The role of what was supposed to be a central node in the global climate finance system is now quite fuzzy. The omission likely reflects disappointment among developing countries that the initial outlays from the Green Climate Fund were loans and small grants aimed to leverage other larger investments, rather than solely public sector grants. People are asking how the Fund is different from other existing multilateral lending agencies.

Best overall performer

Winner: The United States
Runner-up: France

Like it or not, this is the deal the Obama Administration wanted: ambitious, global, but without the binding emissions and financing targets which would have ensured defeat at home.

Best “pound for pound” fighter

Winner: The Republic of the Marshall Islands
Runner-up: Bolivia

This small atoll nation and its charismatic foreign minister Tony de Brum played a central role in the “High Ambition Coalition” that broke a stalemate over language surrounding temperature targets and responsibility for emissions reductions. Think about this: an island chain home to just 60,000 people whose very existence is threatened by climate change and a place treated terribly in the past – the U.S. is still compensating the Marshallese for damages from hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s – played a central role in getting the world to agree on a deal to address climate change. If this were a movie, you would say it was not realistic.

Final award: Best unresolved issue

Tie: Aviation and shipping

The Convention does not cover aviation or shipping, which represent roughly 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and are among the fastest growing sectors. Emissions from aviation and shipping are governed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). There is some talk of the UNFCCC taking governance back from the ITO and IMO if they do not implement agreements of similar ambition to the Paris Agreement, but there was no mention of shipping or aviation in the agreement.

 

Stay tuned! The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change will return. COP22 in Marakkech, Morocco begins on Nov 7, 2016.

12/7/15

Why would Canada support the 1.5 C temperature target?

On Monday at the UN Climate Summit in Paris, Canada made a decision that shocked and confused many in the policy world.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna stated that Canada backs the idea of eventually limiting global warming to less than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. This lower temperature limit is advocated by many developing countries, including low-lying small island states like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu.

Picture1

From a numbers standpoint, Canada’s new position may look crazy. The lower temperature target appears, practically speaking, next to impossible to achieve.

The world is currently far off the pace to stay within the existing 2 °C limit agreed upon by most of the major world economies, including our neighbour to the south. If you add up all of the emissions reduction pledges made by the different countries meeting in Paris, the world is on pace to warm by as much as 3.5 °C or more.

To have a good chance of staying within the 1.5 °C limit, the world can only emit another 270 gigatons of carbon dioxide. At the current rate of emissions, we’ll blow that entire bank in less than a decade. Then, the only way to keep within the target will be to rely on what scientists call “negative emissions” – to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, using technologies that either do not yet exist, are unproven, or have never been implemented at large-scale.

Is this yet another case of Canada’s rhetoric on climate action being unmoored from the reality of greenhouse gas emissions?

In fact, the decision is about respect. In pushing to include reference to a 1.5 °C limit, Canada is saying that the people of small island developing states and vulnerable countries like Bangladesh matter.

Despite what you’ve probably heard, the popular 2 °C target is not dictated by science. The 2 °C target is a political decision made largely by the developed countries – the same countries that are most responsible for climate change.

The fact is that there is no scientifically definable “safe” amount of climate change. Science can provide us with a guide to the impacts of different levels of warming. The amount of warming we deem as “safe,” however, depends on our values and our perception of risk.

If you live in a small island nation in the tropics, more than 1.5 °C – not 2 °C – of global warming certainly seems dangerous.

For example, with more than 1 m of sea-level rise, around 90% of countries like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati could become so prone to flooding as to be uninhabitable. While there’s large uncertainty about the rate of future sea-level rise, evidence from the distant past suggests the risk of losing the major ice sheets increases sharply with more than 1.5 °C of warming.

IMG_0253There’s arguably even greater concern among larger island countries like Fiji about coral reefs, a key source of food, income, and coastal protection in small island countries. The world’s coral reefs are already in trouble due to warming and acidifying ocean waters. If warming can be kept to less than 1.5 °C, two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs could be spared from serious degradation this century. With 2 °C or more of warming, reefs covered with living corals may become a thing of the past.

If you live in a small island nation in the tropics with historically low greenhouse gas emissions, there is a colonial air to the 2 °C limit. The rich countries are controlling your fate – through climate policy – and not even listening to your input.

Canada may look hypocritical in backing a 1.5 °C limit but not promising greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, the move has the potential to be more than mere tokenism and false hope.

Including the lower limit in the climate deal is a way of officially recognizing the harm likely to come to these more vulnerable countries. It will help ensure that these countries receive the needed international assistance, including terms of financing, investment in adaptation, and migration programs, which they have been promised through the UN system but has been slow to materialize.

11/19/15

Seven key issues to be addressed at the Paris climate summit

The U.N. climate conference in Paris is the most anticipated meeting of the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the convention’s inception over 20 years ago. Following on agreements at past summits, the Paris meeting is supposed to generate the comprehensive long-term global agreement for addressing climate change.

The good news is that the negotiators are not starting from scratch. In meetings over the past year, the parties to the UNFCCC have already worked out a 54-page official draft of the Paris deal. Those pre-meetings are often less actual negotiations between countries about text of the agreement than lobbying by countries or groups of countries for inclusion of text in the agreement. The optional passages and square bracketed text in the draft therefore provides a good guide to the most contentious issues.

Based on the draft text, and my work on these issues, here are seven of the most contentious issues that need to be resolved in Paris:

1. What form will the agreement take?

A central question is whether whatever deal emerges from Paris will have teeth. The desired words most often used in the media and by activists is a “legally binding” treaty. Such wording is contentious but also very vague. “Legally binding” can mean a lot of different things and, as this terrific dissection of the legalese posted at Carbon Brief concludes, may be largely irrelevant given how easy such rules can be to evade.

In the end, some aspects of the deal like the reporting structure may be what people consider “legally binding.” But don’t expect legally enforceable penalties for non-compliance with greenhouse gas targets – no major emitting countries are open to that, nor would they agree to pay even if a deal were in place.

Frankly, even more contentious than “legally binding” may be the use of the word “treaty”. The U.S. negotiators don’t even want the Paris deal to be called a “treaty,” because anything called a “treaty” needs to be ratified by the Republican-controlled and increasingly unhinged Congress. Be prepared for whatever emerges from Paris to be called anything – deal, agreement, understanding, accord, eye-wink, drum circle – except a “treaty.”

2. Mitigation targets

In advance of Paris, each country has submitted an action plan known as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). The system is a huge improvement on the past vacuous system of naming emissions targets without any explanation as to how it may be met.

However, the collected action in all the INDCs still falls well short of meeting the goal of limiting global warming to 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures. A key unresolved question will be whether the final agreement includes stated global greenhouse gas emissions targets and whether there are any “enhanced” national contributions made to help meet those targets. Just to get a sense of the discord on this key subject, here is the first of three options under the conditional heading “Collective long-term goal” in the draft text:

Option 1: Parties aim [to achieve the global temperature goal], in accordance with the best available science [and the principles of the Convention], through [long-term global [low-[carbon][emission] transformation] [[climate][carbon] neutrality]], [and the peaking of their [net] emissions] [by 2030][by 20XX][as soon as possible], [with a [x]40–[y]70 per cent net emission reduction below the 2010 level by 2050][according to the global carbon budget distribution based on climate justice], and [overall reductions][[net] zero emissions] [over the course of the resent century][by 2050][by 2100]

A follow-on question is how progress will be measured and policed. One success at Paris may be mandating a standardized national system for reporting progress towards emissions targets. A minor victory would be simply forcing country submissions to (finally!) all use the same baseline year.

3. Temperature thresholds

Despite the tacit acceptance of 2 °C as the “safe” climate threshold in the western media, neither the world’s governments or the world’s scientists ever agreed on that threshold. The Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Country parties continue to argue fervently for a 1.5 °C target on the basis of the difference between projected long-term sea-level rise and the impacts on coral reefs at 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming. This is reflected in the still unresolved language in front-and-center Article 2 of the draft text:

The purpose of this Agreement is [to enhance the implementation of the Convention and] to achieve [its][the] objective [of the Convention] as stated in its Article 2. In order to strengthen and support the global response to the urgent threat of climate change, Parties [shall][agree to] to take urgent action and enhance [cooperation][support] so as to:

(a) Hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 2 °C][below 1.5 °C][well below 2 °C][below 2 °C or 1.5 °C] [below 1.5 °C or 2 °C][as far below 2 °C as possible] above pre-industrial levels by ensuring deep cuts in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions;

The likelihood of staying below an even more stringent temperature threshold aside….this issue is not going to disappear. Countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives see this as a matter of life and death, not to mention a matter of respect. (There’s a PhD thesis out there for someone who wants to tackle the geopolitics of the ongoing argument over temperature thresholds).

4. Climate finance

The contention over finance is not to be underestimated. There may be as much or more discord over financing, especially for climate change mitigation and adaptation in the developing world, than over emissions targets.

The developed country parties have previously agreed to “mobilize” US$100 billion/year by the year 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change. Yet many of the key details, which my colleagues Milind Kandlikar, Hisham Zerriffi, and I describe in a 2011 article in Science, remain unresolved. Here are just some of the outstanding questions:

  • Is the $100 billion/year a ceiling, or a floor, such that financing is expected to increase beyond that level after 2020? [an unresolved accounting issue – is this in 2020 dollars?]
  • What will count as finance? Depending on what counts, the world may be up to 70% of the way to the goal.
  • How will the UNFCCC ensure that finance is “new” and “additional” to existing development aid?
  • What fraction of funds will be funneled through the new U.N. Green Climate Fund, which disbursed its first grants this fall?
  • What fraction of contributions may be private investment?
  • Are middle-income countries like China expected to be “donors” in this system?

5. Loss and Damages

This is another seemingly intractable issue. At the 2013 meeting in Warsaw, the parties agreed to set up a legal mechanism for providing compensation for “loss and damage” due to climate change. No one really knows how this will work. The obstacles are many, from the reluctance of developing countries to assume legal responsibility for any damages, to the chances of developing countries agreeing to more financial transfers when existing aid goals have yet to be met, to the basic scientific challenge of calculating the fraction of damage (e.g., from a storm surge) that can be attributed to climate change, let alone to specific parties to the convention.

It is therefore not surprising that the two options under Loss and Damages (Article 5) in the draft text are a) a long set of legal text, and b) “No reference to loss and damage (no Article 5)”

6. Recognizing different responsibilities

Underlying the first five issues is the core ethical question of how to appropriately address the inequality of climate change. Some countries are historically more responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions, better equipped to adapt to climate change, and better able to reduce emissions without hurting economic growth or overall well-being. Language surrounding “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “respective capabilities” is contentious at every UNFCCC meeting; the phrases each appear 12 times in the draft text, always in square brackets or as options.

While the targets and mitigation plans may be more important than the language recognizing the basic inequalities of climate change, the decisions around such language could symbolize how committed the developed country parties are to their mitigation targets and the agreement as a whole.

7. How will the agreement enter into force?

International agreements do not officially come into effect the day the meeting ends. There are usually provisions which mandate that the agreement comes into effect only after it is ratified by some fraction of the governments of the countries involved. A game of legislative chicken ensues.

Delays can be deadly. The Kyoto Protocol is case in point. The parties agreed it would not come into effect until ratified by countries representing >55% of the industrialized world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That took eight years. By the time Kyoto came into force in 2005, Canada’s emissions had ballooned to 30% above the agreed-upon target.

The parties are far from agreement on this key issue. From the draft text:

This Agreement shall enter into force on the thirtieth day after the date on which at least [X] number of Parties to the Convention [and] [or] on which Parties to the Convention accounting for [x] per cent of total [net] global greenhouse gas emissions in [[date][1990][2000][2010][2012]] have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession [whichever occurs first, coming into effect not earlier than 1 January 2020][.][, with such Parties to the Convention accounting for X per cent of total [net] global greenhouse gas emissions [in [date] [1990][2000][2010][2012]] [but not earlier than 1 January 2020].] [placeholder for starting and ending date of the Agreement]

How this problem will overlap with the Obama Administration’s push to avoid ratification by Congress is unclear. One thing is certain: the choice of X in the above paragraph could end up being as important as anything else that happens in Paris!