Some cli­mate-change progress made in Poland

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - WORLD AF­FAIRS

GLOBAL WARM­ING IS PHYSICS and chem­istry, and you can’t ne­go­ti­ate with sci­ence for more time to solve the prob­lem: more emis­sions mean a hot­ter planet. Deal­ing with the prob­lem, how­ever, re­quires an in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tion in­volv­ing al­most 200 coun­tries. In big gath­er­ings of that sort, the con­voy al­ways moves at the speed of the slow­est ships.

That’s why the re­port­ing on the UN Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Poland that ended on De­cem­ber 15 two days later than planned, has been so down­beat. It didn’t pro­duce bold new com­mit­ments to cut green­house gas emis­sions. It saw the usual at­tempts by the big­gest fos­sil fuel pro­duc­ers, the United States, Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia, to stall the process. And in the end it just pro­duced a ‘rule­book.’

But that’s all it was sup­posed to do, and it’s not ‘just’ a rule­book. The great break­through at the con­fer- ence in Paris three years ago saw ev­ery coun­try fi­nally agree to adopt a plan for emis­sion re­duc­tions, but the Paris ac­cord was a mere sketch, only 27 pages long.

Flesh­ing it out – what the plans should cover, how of­ten they should be up­dated, how coun­tries should mea­sure and re­port their emis­sions, how much lee­way should be given to poor coun­tries with bad data – was left un­til later. Later is now, and in the end they did come up with a 256-page rule­book that fills in most of those blanks.

“We have a sys­tem of trans­parency, we have a sys­tem of re­port­ing, we have rules to mea­sure our emis­sions, we have a sys­tem to mea­sure the im­pacts of our poli­cies com­pared to what sci­ence rec­om­mends,” said the Euro­pean Union’s Cli­mate Com­mis­sioner, Miguel Arias Canete. It was an ex­cru­ci­at­ing process, and it still leaves a few things out, but it set­tled a thou­sand de­tails about how the Paris deal will re­ally work.

Oh, and one big thing. China aban­doned its claim that as a ‘de­vel­op­ing coun­try’ it should not be bound by the same rules as rich coun­tries like the United States. There will only be one set of rules for both rich and poor coun­tries, although the re­ally poor ones will get a lot of fi­nan­cial and tech­ni­cal help in meet­ing their com­mit­ments.

This year’s con­fer­ence dealt with the de­tails at min­is­te­rial level. Next year UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res will host a sum­mit of the big­gest emit­ters to lay the ground­work for the key 2020 meet­ing. That’s when coun­tries will re­port if they have kept their 2015 prom­ises on emis­sions cuts, and hope­fully prom­ise much big­ger cuts for the next five years.

The rise of pop­ulist na­tion­al­ists like Don­ald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bol­sonaro, both cli­mate change de­niers, will make fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions even harder. It’s all mov­ing far too slowly, but the hu­man fac­tor keeps get­ting in the way. For ex­am­ple, Bol­sonaro wants Brazil to get ex­tra car­bon cred­its for pro­tect­ing the Ama­zo­nian rain­for­est, even as he plans to carve the for­est up with big new roads and cut a lot of it down.

The Paris deal is im­por­tant, but it has come far too late to stop the av­er­age global tem­per­a­ture from ris­ing to the never-ex­ceed tar­get of +2 de­grees Cel­sius that was adopted many years ago, let alone the lower tar­get of +1.5 C that sci­en­tists now be­lieve is nec­es­sary.

We are al­ready at +1 C, and cur­rent prom­ises of emis­sion cuts will take us up past +3 C. At the mo­ment emis­sions are still go­ing up (by 3% this year). Even if coun­tries make fur­ther ma­jor com­mit­ments to cut emis­sions in 2020, it’s hard to be­lieve that we can avoid dev­as­tat­ing heat waves, droughts, floods and sea-level rise, and a sharp fall in global food pro­duc­tion.

So while we are cut­ting emis­sions, we also need to be work­ing on ways to re­move some of the car­bon diox­ide and other green­house gases we have al­ready put into the at­mos­phere. Var­i­ous ideas for do­ing that are be­ing worked on, but they will prob­a­bly be­come avail­able

on a large scale too late to keep the tem­per­a­ture rise be­low +2 C.

So geo-engi­neer­ing – di­rect in­ter­ven­tion in the at­mos­phere to hold the tem­per­a­ture down while we work on get­ting emis­sions down – will prob­a­bly be needed as well. No­body re­ally wants to do ‘so­lar ra­di­a­tion man­age­ment’, but cut­ting the amount of sun­light reach­ing the planet’s sur­face by just a small amount is tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble. It could tem­po­rar­ily halt the warm­ing and give us the ex­tra time we are prob­a­bly go­ing to need.

We are get­ting into very deep wa­ter here, but we may have no other op­tions. If we had started cut­ting our emis­sions 20 years ago (when we al­ready knew where they would even­tu­ally take us), such dras­tic mea­sures would not be nec­es­sary. But that’s not the hu­man way, and so we’ll have to take the risks or pay the price.

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