Forest accounting rules put EU's climate credibility at risk
Forest mitigation should be measured using a scientifically-objective approach, not allowing countries to hide the impacts of policies that increase net emissions, writes a group of environmental scientists led by Dr Joanna I House.
Dr Joanna I House is a reader in environmental science and policy at the Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, UK. She co-signed this op-ed with other environmental scientists listed at the bottom of the article.
When President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the EU’s Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete spoke for all EU Member States when he said that, “This has galvanised us rather than weakened us, and this vacuum will be filled by new broad committed leadership.” The French President, Emmanuel Macron, echoed him by tweeting, “Make our planet great again”.
But as the old saying goes, ‘If you talk the talk, you must walk the walk,’ and what better place to start than the very laws the EU is currently drafting to implement its 2030 climate target under the Paris Agreement. This includes a particularly contentious issue that EU environment leaders will discuss on 19 June, relating to the rules on accounting for the climate impact of forests.
Forests are crucial to limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Deforestation is responsible for almost one tenth of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, while forests remove almost a third of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.
In the EU, forests currently grow more than they are harvested. As a result, they act as a net ‘sink’ of CO2 removing more than 400 Mt CO2 from the atmosphere annually, equivalent to 10% of total EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
New policies adopted or intended by Member States will likely drive them to harvest more trees (e.g. for the bioeconomy and bioenergy), reducing the sink. The controversy is, in simple terms, if forests are taking up less CO2 due to policies, should this be counted?
Based on lessons learnt from the Kyoto Protocol, the European Commission proposed that accounting for the impacts of forests on the atmosphere should be based on a scientifically robust baseline. This baseline (known as the ‘Forest Reference Level’) should take into account historical data on forest management activities and forest dynamics (age-related changes). If countries change forest management activities going forward, the atmospheric impact of these changes would be fully accounted based on the resulting changes in GHG emissions and sinks relative to the baseline. This approach is consistent with the GHG accounting of all other sectors.
Subsequently, some EU member states have proposed that any increase in harvesting, potentially up to the full forest growth increment, should not be penalised. This would be achieved by including this increase in harvesting, and the related change in the net carbon sink, in the baseline.
As land-sector experts involved in scientific and methodological reports (including for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC), in the implementation of GHG inventory reports, and in science advice to Governments, we have several scientific concerns with this approach.
From an atmospheric perspective, a reduction in the forest sink leads to more CO2 remaining in the atmosphere and is thus effectively equivalent to a net increase in emissions. This is true even if forests are managed “sustainably”, i.e. even if harvest does not exceed forest growth.
This is further complicated as the issues are cross-sectoral. Higher harvest rates may reduce the uptake of CO2 by forests, but use of the harvested wood may lead to emissions reductions in other sectors e.g. through the substitution of wood for other more emissions-intensive materials (e.g. cement) or fossil energy. These emission reductions will be implicitly counted in the non-LULUCF sectors. Therefore, to avoid bias through incomplete accounting, the full impact of increased harvesting must be also accounted for.
Including policy-related harvest increases in the baseline could effectively hide up to 400 MtCO2/yr from EU forest biomass accounting compared to the “sink service” that EU forests provide today, or up to 300 MtCO2/yr relative to a baseline based on a scientific approach (up to two thirds of France’s annual emissions).
If policy-related impacts on net land carbon sinks are ignored or discounted, this would:
- Hamper the credibility of the EU’s bioenergy accounting: Current IPCC guidance on reporting emissions from bioenergy is not to assume that it is carbon neutral, but rather any carbon losses should to be reported under the ‘Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry’ (LULUCF) sector rather than under the energy sector (to avoid double counting). EU legislation on bioenergy similarly relies on the assumption that carbon emissions are fully accounted under LULUCF.
- Compromise the consistency between the EU climate target and the IPCC trajectories. The EU objective of reducing GHG emissions of -40% by 2030 (-80/95% by 2050) compared to 1990 is based on the IPCC 2°C GHG trajectory for developed countries. This trajectory is based not just on emissions, but also on land-sinks. Hiding a decrease in the land sink risks failure to reach temperature targets and would require further emission reductions in other sectors to remain consistent with IPCC trajectories.
- Contradict the spirit of the Paris Agreement, i.e., that “Parties should take action to conserve and enhance sinks”, and that Parties should ensure transparency in accounting providing confidence that the nationally-determined contribution of each country (its chosen level of ambition in mitigation) is met without hiding impacts of national policies.
- Set a dangerous precedent internationally, potentially leading other countries to do the same (e.g. in setting deforestation reference levels). This would compromise the credibility of the large expected forest contribution to the Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement needs credible and transparent forest accounting and EU leaders are about to make a decision that could set the standard. Including policy-driven increases in harvest in baselines means the atmospheric impacts of forest policies will be effectively hidden from the accounts (while generating GHG savings in other sectors). Basing forest accounting on a scientifically-objective approach would ensure the credibility of bioenergy accounting, consistency between EU targets and the IPCC 2°C trajectory, and compliance with the spirit of Paris Agreement. The wrong decision would increase the risks of climate change and undermine our ability to “make the planet great again”.
Disclaimer: the authors express their view in their personal capacities, not representing their countries or any of the institutions they work for.
Joanna I House, Reader in Environmental Science and Policy, Co-Chair Global Environmental Change, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol, UK
Jaana K Bäck, Professor in Forest – atmosphere interactions, Chair of the EASAC Forest multifunctionality report, University of Helsinki, Finland
Valentin Bellassen, Researcher in Agricultural and Environmental Economics, INRA, France
Hannes Böttcher, Senior Researcher at Oeko-Institut.
Eric Chivian M.D., Founder and Former Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard Medical School
Pep Canadell, Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project
Philippe Ciais, scientist at Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Gif sur Yvette, France
Philip B. Duffy, President and Executive Director Woods Hole Research Center, USA
Sandro Federici, Consultant on MRV and accounting for mitigation in the Agriculture and land use sector
Pierre Friedlingstein, Chair, Mathematical Modelling of Climate Systems, University of Exeter, UK.
Scott Goetz, Professor, Northern Arizona University
Nancy Harris, Research Manager, Forests Program, World resources Institute.
Martin Herold, Professor for Geoinformation Science and Remote Sensing and co-chair of Global Observations of Forest Cover and Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD), Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands
Mikael Hildén, Professor, Climate Change Programme and the Resource Efficient and Carbon Neutral Finland Programme, Finnish Environment Institute and the Strategic Research Council, Finland
Richard A. Houghton, Woods Hole Research Centre USA
Tuomo Kalliokoski University of Helsinki, Finland
Janne S. Kotiaho, Professor of Ecology, University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Werner A. Kurz, Senior Research Scientist, Natural Resources Canada
Beverly Law, Professor, Forest ecosystems & society, Oregon State School of Forestry, USA
Donna Lee, Climate and Land Use Alliance
Anders Lindroth, Lund University, Sweden
Jari Liski, Research Professor, Finnish Meteorological Institute, Finland
Brendan Mackey, Director, Griffith Climate Change Response Program, Griffith University, Australia
James J. McCarthy, Harvard University, USA
William R. Moomaw, Co-director Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, USA
Teemu Tahvanainen, University of Eastern Finland
Olli Tahvonen, Professor forest economics and policy, University of Helsinki, Finland
Keith Pausitan, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University, USAColin Prentice, AXA Chair in Biosphere and Climate Impacts, Imperial College London, UK
N H Ravindranath, Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST), Indian Institute of Science, India
Laura Saikku, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
Maria J Sanchez, Scientific Director of BC3 (Basque Center for Climate Change), Spain
Sampo Soimakallio, Senior Scientist, Finnish Environment Institute
Zoltan Somogyi, Hungarian Forest Research Institute, Budapest, Hungary
Benjamin Smith, Professor of Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Sweden
Pete Smith, Professor of Soils & Global Change, University of Aberdeen, UK
Francesco N. Tubiello, Team Leader, Agri-Environmental Statistics, FAO
Timo Vesala, Professor of Meteorology, University of Helsinki, Finland
Jeremy Woods, Imperial College London, UK
Dan Zarin, Climate and Land Use Alliance
Adaptation for people and planet - Are we thinking about adapting to a new climate, or resisting the change?
A guest blog from Dr Wade Hadwen, Research Fellow from Australian Rivers Institute and the Griffith Climate Change Response Program:
Anthropogenically-forced climate change represents a major challenge to both the human and natural world. Given the rate of change and the inertia in the global climate system, there is a pressing need to address the major challenges that climate change poses – in other words, we need to think now about how we can adapt to climate change. The aim of climate change adaptation is to recognise, understand and respond to the impacts of climate change on the particular subject in question, whether that is a species, an individual, a household, a community, an industry or a nation.
Ideally, adaptation strategies should reduce the vulnerability of the subject in question to the climate change impact of concern, but this is not always the case and it really depends on the approach and actions taken to adapt. Indeed, there are a variety of pathways to take when adapting to climate change and depending on the approach selected, the goals and outcomes of the endeavour can be quite different. In general terms, and depending on the system, we tend to opt for adaptation approaches that either build adaptive capacity or build resilience. Building adaptive capacity suggests that we can do things to improve the adaptive potential of subjects, whether they are human subjects or other species. The IPCC defines adaptive capacity as “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes), to moderate the potential damage from it, to take advantage of its opportunities, or to cope with its consequences”. An example of this building capacity approach lies in the local ‘water grid’ solution to securing water security for southeast Queensland, whereby water engineers and managers have optimised the connections within the water storage system to climate-proof the region in terms of water supply. Importantly, especially in the context of what climate change will do to sea level and the water cycle, this approach to building adaptive capacity actually makes it ‘harder to move’, because very significant investments and commitments are involved, where moving can be both a physical activity or a change in behaviour away from the current normal condition. In simple terms, focusing on adaptive capacity enables us to consider adjustments which enable us to continue living our lives as we do currently, rather than looking for opportunities and embracing change.
In contrast, building resilience refers to a deeper goal of strengthening and empowering subjects (or systems) to withstand and bounce back following particular climate stressors, especially extreme events. The focus here is on enabling the subjects in question to cope with change and embrace the opportunities that that change will bring. Here we openly recognise that things change and that the system is dynamic. Indeed, enabling the dynamism of a natural system, rather than constraining it to a single state in time and space, sits at the very core of the building resilience approach to climate change adaptation. In essence, the building resilience approach applied in ecosystem-based adaptation gives species and ecosystems ‘room to move’. An example of a ‘building resilience’ strategy is the current management of all Great Barrier Reef lagoon catchments, where strict targets for sediment and nutrient reductions are set with the sole purpose of taking some of the non-climatic pressures off the reef, to enable it to respond to and adapt to climate change pressures.
Whilst both of these adaptation approaches can be applied in natural and human systems, our approaches tend to diverge when we are adapting specifically for human systems or species/ecosystems. Put simply, we typically aim to build capacity in human systems (and this is also a central plank of sustainable development initiatives), whereas we aim to build resilience in natural ecosystems. These goals are quite different and it should, therefore, come as no surprise that the outcomes of these approaches are also different. So why do we adopt different strategies in our approach to climate change adaptation for ecosystems and human communities? And what might the outcomes of these different approaches be for the subjects of the adaptation interventions?
In natural systems, the building resilience approaches are built around the premise that many species already have high levels of adaptive capacity and the factors limiting the expression of that capacity are the other (non-climatic) stresses in the environment. To this end, the ecosystem-based approach to adaptation, which typically aims to build species and ecosystem resilience by reducing the non-climatic threats in the system, is often promoted as the best adaptation approach as it will enable natural processes, species and entire ecosystems to adapt to the climate change threat. In short, these approaches enable species to adapt by giving them ‘room to move’ in evolutionary, physical and physiological senses.
In human systems, adaptation approaches focus on building adaptive capacity in order to optimise the conditions of a particular component of the system (ie ensuring water security). The approach to building capacity infers that unlike other species (which are considered to have high levels of inherent capacity to adapt), humans need assistance in building their capacity to cope with and respond to climate change impacts. Whether this is true or not is up for debate (although there is plenty of evidence that we are a very adaptable species!); the critical difference in approaches taken for human and natural system adaptation is that in natural systems we seek to reduce the level of human intervention (build resilience) and in human systems we seek to increase the level of human intervention, by way of adjusting to the threats through changing management, infrastructure, behaviours and so on.
What we need to do now, rather urgently as our climate continues to heat up, is consider whether an adaptation philosophy which focuses on building system resilience is likely to be a superior approach over one which enhances, or optimises, capacity for just some elements of the system. Should we be understanding, accepting and enabling change, or resisting it and holding our line in the sand in the face of unprecedented global change? If we can answer this question openly and honestly, together for both natural and human systems, we have the best chance of ensuring that the necessary transformations that will come in response to climate change are opportunities rather than catastrophic challenges.
Zombie anthrax, climate change unknown unknowns, and the problem of attribution
A remarkable climate change story last week gained very little popular or political traction despite receiving considerable media coverage:
‘A 12-year-old boy has died and 20 people have been infected in an anthrax outbreak in Russia's northern Yamalo-Nenets region… Scientists believe that climate change was the main reason behind the outbreak, as abnormally warm weather caused permafrost melting and exposed a reindeer corpse infected by anthrax decades ago…’
While the healthy impacts of climate change have been well documented, surely none of us to date have imagined something like this - a ‘zombie’ anthrax outbreak – actually happening outside a science fiction narrative.
Perhaps this is an example of what Donald Rumsfeld (when he was U.S Secretary of Defence) famously described as ‘unknown unknowns…the ones we don't know we don't know… that tend to be the difficult ones.’
It is not as if the ‘known knowns’ are not bad enough. From India over the weekend come this news reports:
‘A river, swollen by raging monsoon floodwaters, had torn down a bridge on the main road between Mumbai and Goa. More than 30 people are thought to have died when the great stone structure crashed into the torrent, taking with it two buses and a number of cars. Some of the bodies were swept more than 60 miles downriver in two days.’
As the journalist noted:
‘…the important point is that the region is awash with water. Just a few months ago, it was a very different story. The previous two monsoons were unusually weak. The result was a terrible drought in northern India, and parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh. And it was exacerbated by another extreme weather event - record heat. India experienced its highest temperature ever this summer, a blistering 51C. Rivers ran dry; water holes evaporated; reservoirs became dusty plains. And, once again, the statistics were staggering. More than 300 million people were affected by water shortages…A city of half a million people was left completely dry. It had to rely on supplies brought in by train.’
Has the climate change problem become so normalised that we accept zombie anthrax and droughts that leave an entire city without water as un-noteworthy? How can it be that 300 million people are affected by water shortages as the result of extreme weather events but that this does not register in our popular media as a climate change disaster?
Perhaps part of the problem resides in the difficulties of scientifically attributing a specific weather event to climate change. So long as the general view is that science cannot prove a specific weather event is the result of climate change then the matter is best ignored to avoid, among other things, the wrath of the flat Earth brigade.
This problem was the focus of a recent study by the USA National Academies of Sciences on the ‘Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change’. A major conclusion of the report was that a definitive answer to the commonly asked question of whether climate change ‘caused’ a particular event to occur cannot usually be provided. This is because event attribution studies generally estimate how the intensity or frequency of an event or class of events has been altered by climate change. Given this, the report suggests that the questions that the scientific community can attempt to address include ‘Are events of this severity becoming more or less likely because of climate change’ and ‘To what extent was the storm intensified or weakened, or its precipitation increased or decreased, because of climate change?’
The science therefore is ‘in’ that focussed studies can shed light on the extent to which an extreme weather event has a climate change signal and perhaps we should start thinking of recent events in India as an example of climate change ‘known knowns’.
There are other classes of climate change and impacts however, that are still best described as ‘unknown knowns’. Another USA National Academies study identified a host of abrupt climate change impacts that present substantial risks to humans and nature. Some are already under way such as the disappearance of late-summer Arctic Sea ice and increases in extinction threat for marine and terrestrial species. Other abrupt changes were noted of ‘unknown probability’ such as destabilization of the west Antarctic ice sheet and ‘abrupt changes unlikely to occur this century but possible in the more distance future’ including disruption to the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation and potential abrupt changes due to high-latitude methane.
Climate change ‘known knowns’, such as an increase in the intensity of extreme floods, should no longer surprise us. Rather, we need to be planning for and implementing adaptation responses now. It would also be wise to start anticipating climate change ‘unknown knowns’ at least in terms of being vigilant in our scientific monitoring. For example, a paper published by Geophysical Research Letters on 4 August examined the risk of physical, chemical, biological, and radiological waste from a U.S. military base in Greenland abandoned in 1967 being remobilized as the result of ice sheet ablation due to global warming.
But what of climate change ‘unknown unknowns? Are there more zombie viruses lurking in the frozen north? What science fiction-like surprises await us in our increasingly chaotic, climate changed world?
Practical steps and policy innovations to address climate change in Queensland
In Paris on 12 December 2015, Australia, along with 194 other countries, decided to adopt the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In adopting the Agreement, the world’s governments have committed to:
* mitigate or reduce greenhouse gas emissions as needed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to between 1.5–2° C above pre-industrial levels,
* establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity,
* strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, and
* make available the finance needed for mitigation and adaptation.
The time has come for governments at all levels to rapidly advance policies and programs that will help sectors mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the now unavoidable impacts of a rapidly changing climate.
While a 2° C increase does not sound like much, the average planetary surface temperature is only about 14°C degrees so a 2° C rise is an increase of some 15%. By comparison, a healthy body temperature is 37° C. If your body temperature increases 15% you will experience a life threatening fever of 42.6° C; a body temperature greater than 41.5° C is called hyperpyrexia and is considered a medical emergency.
Setting a global warming target of well below 2 °C is therefore highly significant as this will help further reduce the risk of planetary hyperpyrexia, avoiding many significant impacts arising from passing tipping points in Earth’s climate system.
What will need to happen?
Meeting the Paris Agreement target will require reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuel for energy, and from deforestation and degradation, to around zero sometime in the second half of this century.
We are already experiencing record temperatures and the impacts of an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, as predicted by science.
With ongoing impacts projected for the coming decades, the cost of inaction to managed assets alone should be sufficient to compel a step change in public and private sector responses.
Because greenhouse gas emissions arise in all sectors of the economy and enter the global commons of the atmosphere, greenhouse mitigation requires a closely coupled network of national and international regulatory regimes of high integrity in order to prevent leakage and double accounting.
Carbon in the form of greenhouse gas emissions is effectively the property of national governments; notwithstanding the existence of voluntary carbon markets.
A synthesis report of mitigation commitments submitted by nations for the Paris Agreement estimated that global cumulative atmospheric CO2 emissions can be expected to reach 748.2 billion tonnes in 2030. This is 87% of the post 2015 global carbon budget for 2° C, leaving only 235 billion tonnes of CO2 or about a further 23 years of business-as-usual emissions.
Missing the mark?
The world community is not on course to limit global warming to well below 2o C and current mitigation commitments leave too much of the heavy lifting to future generations. Given the world community’s aggregate Paris Agreement pledges to date fall short of what is needed, national targets must increase.
The Australian Government has a national carbon mitigation policy called the Direct Action Plan which it argues is sufficient to meet Paris Agreement targets; though this claim is contested. Nonetheless, even Australia’s arguably modest mitigation commitment, a 26–28% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by2030, will still require a concerted effort.
While the Australian Government’s response is important in providing the overarching incentives and enabling environment, it is at the state and local government levels where the on-the-ground action occurs for adaptation as well as mitigation.
The Queensland Government, therefore, is to be congratulated for its endeavour to develop a state-wide climate change adaptation strategy (Q-CAS).
To be effective, the Q-CAS should encompass a governance framework that includes appropriate institutional arrangements, engagement and communication strategies, along with monitoring and evaluation. A strategy is needed that:
- Provides a vision for adaptation in Queensland and obtain a broad as possible endorsement of this vision from business, the public and community groups, politicians, along with experts and practitioners,
- Articulates a succinct, accurate and accessible narrative of the future climate risks facing Queensland and why adaptation is critical in key sectors, and
- Promotes best practice principles for adaptation and resilience planning.
Promoting effective adaptation responses is crucial
Governments generally have a responsibility to manage and reduce climate-related risks to help ensure the safety and prosperity of its citizens with respect to both the built and natural environment. There are a range of levers the Queensland Government can draw upon to promote more effective climate change adaption responses in the State:
- Policies should be reviewed, including planning systems, regulatory frameworks and legislation, in terms of whether they are hindering adaptation or might be causing maladaptation,
- It is vital that the general public are aware of risks and response options
- Many sectors and organisation are already responding to the challenge of adapting to a rapidly changing climate and the government can assist by facilitating collaboration among the adaptation community within Queensland and beyond the State’s borders.
- The government could provide a state-wide framework of guidance documents and resources on how to conduct impact and vulnerability assessments and to identify adaptation options. This type of guidance would be particularly useful for getting consistency and an economy of scale in the actions of local governments and how they implement key legislation in a changing climate
- Given the managed assets at risks are both private and public, it will be important to ensue private investment also considers adaptation and maladaptation in their decision-making
- Innovative risk spreading instruments may be required and the government here could play a facilitating role. This is particularly relevant for sectors like agriculture that are directly reliant on weather patterns for profit, let alone long-term survival
- The Queensland government could support adaptation pilot projects that can be realistically scaled-up, either through direct funding, in-kind or enabling legislation, and through
- Promoting the monitoring and assessment of the effectiveness of adaptions actions and reviewing the availability of the data and information needed for adaptation, addressing any barriers to their access and use.
Regarding mitigation, irrespective of the level of national ambition, throughout the world subnational governments, businesses and communities are taking the lead in reducing emissions and advancing the transition to a zero carbon economy.
In the lexicon of international policy, this is called ‘climate action by non-party stakeholders’ and the Paris Agreement acknowledged the significance of their contributions.
What more could Queensland do?
In line with recommendations from a recent OECD report, a range of further actions could be taken by the Queensland Government to accelerate mitigation action including polices that:
- Recognise the role of the private sector in implementing and financing mitigation actions
- Incentivise low-carbon investments and enhance private sector capacity to manage the risks to such investments
- Enhance sharing and dissemination of information and knowledge to help catalyse further actions
- Encourage the use of common, comprehensive accounting and reporting approaches to increase confidence in the reliability and transparency of mitigation action assessments, and
- Explore the desirability and feasibility of carbon markets, above and beyond that of the Direct Action Plan, to further incentivise actions by the private sector.
One of the more significant mitigation policy reforms the Queensland Government may need to consider in the coming years concerns fossil fuel subsidies. Globally, the IMF estimates these subsidies at US$5.3 trillion in 2015, or 6.5% of global GDP; with Australia’s rate of fossil fuel subsidy being $1,712 per person per year. Commentators have argued that fossil fuel subsidies distort energy markets and encourage wasteful consumption. Removing such subsidies can help internalise the real environmental costs of fossil fuel and may serve to increase the competitiveness of renewable energy sources.
However, Australia and Queensland’s economy remain heavily dependent on fossil fuel energy which generates 85% of Australia’s electricity. Exports of black coal alone in 2013–14 were around 375 million tonnes, 68% of our total energy exports, and export earnings from thermal coal, oil and gas total around $58 billion annually. This economic dependency on fossil fuel is a major barrier to energy policy reform and development of a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges of climate change.
How good is the Paris Agreement?
Finally, we have a new international climate change agreement to guide action post-2020. The Paris conference delivered on its promise thanks to skilful diplomacy by the French, a general sense of good will among nations, dedicated national delegates working through the night more often than not seeking consensus language on difficult issues, along with numerous high-level backroom machinations.
The question now of course is just how good an agreement is it and by what criteria should it be judged? The philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr warned against allowing sentimentality, naive thinking or plain stupidity to cloud our judgment on prospects for enlightened public policy to be sustained in the face of powerful vested interests especially those underpinned by hard line ideologies. We should therefore keep Niebuhr’s advice in mind as we consider the Paris Agreement especially given the well-known influence of the fossil fuel industry on climate change matters and the reluctance of most governments to seriously address the issue.
The international climate change negotiations, now in their 22nd year, revolve around a complex and growing agenda. Negotiations in Paris hinged on finding “landing sites” where governments could converge on agreed text around key issues concerning (1) the level of ambition regarding the global mitigation goal, (2) differentiation between nations with respect to responsibilities and capacities, (3) providing the finance needed to support climate action in developing countries, and (4) the adequacy of the national mitigation pledges contained in the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) along with mechanisms for their monitoring and compliance. As these issues are interdependent, the negotiations were complex and evaluation of the outcomes is not straightforward. Here I limit myself to commenting mainly on the level of ambition and INDC issues.
Article 2 sets the long term mitigation goal as “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. The international Community had already agreed to limit global warming to below 2 °C but recognizing the need to reach for 1.5 °C is a major advance as this would potentially avoid many significant impacts including inundation of the coastal zone and tipping points in Earth’s climate system.
Combining estimates from the IPCC 5th Assessment Report and the Global Carbon Project, the total global carbon budget for 2 °C (i.e., the amount of carbon dioxide than can be safely emitted from 2016 onwards) is only about 863 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). A synthesis analysis undertaken by the U.N. climate change secretariat of mitigation commitments submitted by nations in INDCs estimates that global cumulative atmospheric CO2 emissions are expected to reach 748.2 billion tonnes in 2030. This is 87% of the post 2015 global carbon budget for 2 °C, leaving only 235 billion tonnes of CO2 or about a further 23 years of business-as-usual. The global carbon budget for 1.5 °C has yet to be rigorously estimated by the IPCC.
The inadequacy of the INDCs in light of the 1.5-2 °C goal is recognized in the “Decisions” part of the conference outcomes document and the Paris Agreement establishes the INDC as an ongoing instrument for ramping up mitigation action on an ongoing basis as prescribed in Article 4.3 “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…”. Furthermore, Article 13 establishes a Transparency Framework to monitor and review on a 5-year cycle the adequacy of INDCs in light of a global stocktake of the aggregate mitigation efforts and compliance in terms of their implementation, among other things.
While the INDC and Transparency Framework provisions in the Agreement are commendable, providing a practical pathway for working towards the agreed global mitigation goal, and are applicable to all countries, major concerns remain. The compliance committee that is established under Article 15 to monitor and review the INDCs and their aggregate impact is something of a toothless tiger being “… expert-based and facilitative in nature and function in a manner that is transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive…”. It would seem that “name and shame” will be the primary tool available for this committee to deploy should individual countries fail to meet their mitigation commitments and increase their ambition or if national commitments in aggregate continue to fall short of the emissions reductions needed to limit warming to the 1.5-2 °C goal.
If the year was 2006, the Paris Agreement would be rightly heralded as an extraordinary achievement and deserve without reservation a 5-star rating. However, as we enter our 22nd year of climate change negotiations under the U.N. Framework Convention, all the heavy lifting remains to be done by the next generation and too much is left to good will and the hope of technological innovation yet to come.
However, we should celebrate the fact that 195 countries have reached consensus and voluntarily given their consent to be bound by this Paris Agreement. When we look at the situation in Syria, it is far better to be addressing international problems through dialogue and cooperation than by dropping bombs. The Paris Agreement does establish processes and mechanisms that will enable significant mitigation and adaptation actions. It unambiguously signals that humanity and our economies have embarked on a fossil-free, low carbon future. For the first time, it is formally recognized in climate change law that conserving ecosystem carbon stocks including forests is central to achieving mitigation goals and that both biodiversity and human right must be protected when taking climate action.
Being an optimist, I am giving the Paris Agreement a 3-star rating. I do hope events show, in this case, Niebuhr to be wrong and that I have not allowed sentimental and naïve thinking, or worse, to cloud my judgement.
An objective way to decide on a fair Australian emissions pledge
Earlier this year, Australia was handed a list of 36 questions about its climate policy from the United States, China, Brazil, New Zealand, the European Union and Switzerland as part of the ongoing United Nations climate negotiations.
Many of them, such as Brazil’s enquiry as to whether Australia will “increase its level of ambition”, appear to be challenging Australia to show more commitment.
To its credit, the Abbott government has been holding a public consultation on the question of what its post-2020 emissions target should be. It has also been also asking for our views on the impact of that target on Australia, and on whether more policies should be considered in addition to the current Direct Action plan.
Australia, like other nations, is preparing policies for the Paris climate talks in December this year. Each nation will bring to Paris its post-2020 climate pledge, or “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution”. Many nations have already released theirs.
What should Australia’s pledge be?
In my submission to the public consultation, I recommended that Australia’s post-2020 target should be calculated on the basis of its fair share of the global carbon budget – the science-based estimate of the maximum amount of emissions we can release without overshooting the world community’s agreed 2-degree climate goal.
Governments, including Australia, made this 2-degree commitment at the 2010 Cancun climate summit, pledging to make the deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions required to limit global warming to less than 2-degree C hotter than the pre-industrial average planetary temperature.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that the global carbon budget to give us a 50% chance of limiting global warming to less than 2-degree C is just over 3 trillion tonnes (3,009 gigatonnes, to be precise) of carbon dioxide. Some 1,890 Gt of CO2 has been “used up” so far, leaving us a remaining 1,119 Gt of CO2 that the world can emit before we blow the overall budget.
However, the current trajectory of global greenhouse gas emissions will take us far beyond this target. The planet is on course for an average temperature rise of between 3.2C and 5.4C above pre-industrial times by 2100.
The carbon budget carve-up
A key issue for the Paris agreement is how the budget should be allocated. It is hard to imagine the international community agreeing to the usable global carbon budget being arbitrarily distributed among the world’s nations. Pragmatically, to gain widespread support, it will have to be done in ways that are transparent, fair and grounded in international legal principles.
Of the countries that have submitted INDCs to date, pledges take the form of a percentage reduction by a certain point in time. For example, the European Union has committed to a binding target of at least a 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. The United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below its 2005 level by 2025.
Unfortunately, no standard approach has been taken, so the baseline and target years vary and do not cover the full time period over which emissions will have to be reduced. What will the EU do after 2030, and the United States after 2025? We need commitments for the full contraction period over which emission reductions must occur.
We need to know the implications of these pledges for developing countries. How much is left for them in the global carbon budget after the appropriations by the EU and United States implied by their INDC pledges? We also need to know if the pledges are sufficient, in aggregate, to meet the 2-degree target.
To answer these questions we need an approach that requires everyone to refer back to the usable global carbon budget. Otherwise, among other things, any single nation’s commitment, Australia’s included, will risk being judged as effectively arbitrary and scientifically indefensible.
Contract and converge
One approach, called “contraction and convergence”, is based on the proposition that each human being has equal rights to the ecosystem services provided by the global commons – in this case, the carbon-absorbing capacity of the Earth system (consistent with Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
A simple per capita distribution of the usable global carbon budget would meet with opposition because of the huge existing differences in per capita emissions between countries. The contraction and convergence approach deals with this by requiring countries to agree on a specified time period (for instance by 2040) over which they converge on an equal level of per capital emissions.
At the same time, overall global emissions will contract by an agreed year (perhaps 2080) with the aim of collectively staying within the usable global carbon budget.
According to one estimate, if Australia’s emissions target was determined on this basis, meeting the 2-degree Cancun commitment would require emissions reductions of around 90%, relative to 2000 levels, by 2050. According to my indicative calculations, assuming a contraction period from 2010-2110 and convergence of per capita emissions from 2020 to 2050, Australia’s share of the usable global carbon budget would be about 8.96 Gt of CO2 – or roughly 16 years' worth of its current emissions.
By comparison, the Australian government’s current target (a 5% reduction relative to 2000 levels by 2020) calls for a total reduction in emissions of just 0.236 Gt of CO2 – less than one year’s worth of Australia’s current emissions.
Deeper cuts needed
However you slice it, Australia needs to make deep and permanent cuts in its greenhouse emissions to meet its fair share of the 2-degree Cancun commitment. Given Australia’s economic dependence on fossil fuels, for both electricity generation and export earnings, meeting this commitment clearly presents a significant economic challenge.
Australia is at a critical juncture. It can choose to ignore the 2-degree commitment and simply adopt an arbitrary mitigation target that suits its short-term economic national interests. Or it can choose a mitigation target that is justifiable and consistent with its fair share of the global carbon budget.
An arbitrary, self-serving target would necessitate special pleading with the international community at the Paris climate talks, and would be certain to prompt plenty more critical questions from other countries.
One step closer: the Lima climate change agreement
Yesterday in Lima, the world community successfully negotiated an agreement to conclude the 20th conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Admittedly, these negotiations were modest in their ambition, being intended to simply pave the way for the 2015 climate change conference in Paris where the objective will be to negotiate, for the first time, a binding and universal agreement on climate action from all nations. The 2015 agreement will bring together the current mix of binding and non-binding arrangements under the UN climate convention into a single comprehensive regime. It is the Paris agreement that will determine what collective climate change actions the world community commits to post-2020.
Actually, the world’s nations at Lima could not decide precisely on what kind of historic agreement to sign at the Paris conference in 2015, leaving it open as to whether it will be a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention”. The Lima agreement, at 1,584 words, is short and given that it is basically an agreement to make an agreement, it may not sound like a great advance in the struggle against global warming – the fine print, however, warrants closer inspection.
At Lima, the 191 nations who are signatories to the UNFCCC agreed to submit before May 2015 “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). This means that every nation will provide a detailed plan of its actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. These INDCs will form the basis of the agreement to be negotiated at the Paris 2015 conference. Previously, only economically developed countries were required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now, all nations have agreed to make a contribution to the mitigation challenge.
The science is clear on what is needed to have a good chance of limiting global warming to less than 2oC above pre-industrial temperatures (the agreed maximum warming that will limit harmful impacts). We (that is, humanity) can emit only around another 300 billion tonnes of carbon with emissions needing to drop 80% by 2050 and to zero (or thereabouts) by 2100. The Lima agreement directs the UNFCCC Secretariat to prepare by 1 November 2015 a synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the INDCs. The key question we will know the answer to then is whether the INDCs will, in total, be sufficient to limit carbon emissions to no more than 300 billion tonnes by the end of this century. If not, then global warming will exceed the 2oC safeguard and we will be heading to a 3-5 degree world.
The Lima agreement also affirmed “its determination to strengthen adaptation action” and that the Paris agreement (whatever its legal form) shall “address in a balanced manner, inter alia, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity-building, and transparency of action and support”. Importantly, the INDCs must represent “a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party”, that is, countries must commit to doing more than they are currently doing or committed to achieving. These too may seem like modest outcomes but they help set the stage for a significant Paris outcome.
It will be interesting to see Australia’s INDC. Australia current commitment is to reduce its emissions by between 5 and 15 or 25 percent below 2000 levels by 2020. The 5 percent target is unconditional while the commitment to increase its emission reduction target up to 25 percent is conditional on the extent of international action. Given this, and the Lima agreement, the international community will no doubt be expecting Australia’s INDC to state that we will increase ours emissions reduction target from 5 percent below 2000 levels to at least 15 percent. How our government responds, however, will be revealed over the coming six months.
Nowhere left to hide
Until now, perhaps there was some merit in the view that a reasonable person could find good reason to remain aloof from the climate change problem. There seemed to be considerable, or at least sufficient, differences of scientific opinion as to its cause and uncertainty as to whether rapid action now was warranted. Surely common sense would suggest waiting a further decade or two for the dust to settle on the science, the political heat to dissipate, and to consider the matter at a more leisurely pace? With the release of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Synthesis Report, it is clear those decades have come and gone.
The IPCC Synthesis report presents the main findings of the three working group contributions to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. The report’s key conclusions include:
- Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history
- Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia
- Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems
- Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, and
- Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales.
Decarbonization of the energy supply sector is the key to mitigation. To stabilise atmospheric concentrations at levels that will limit warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels ( 450-500 ppmv), the share of low‐carbon electricity supply must increase to more than 80% by 2050 and 90% by 2100, and fossil fuel power generation without carbon capture and storage (as yet unproven technology) must be phased out almost entirely by 2100. We have about 30 years of business-as-usual emissions left before the 2oC threshold is crossed.
Land sector emissions and withdrawals to and from the atmosphere are also of immense importance. About 30% of accumulated anthropogenic emissions in the atmosphere are from deforestation and degradation. While they are only about 10% of current annual emissions, this is largely because fossil fuel emissions continue to rise. Terrestrial ecosystems store about three times more carbon than found in the atmosphere. Complete deforestation this century could increase atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by an estimated 130–290 ppmv (currently ~400). Land sector emissions/withdrawals are particularly important to Australia in meeting its Kyoto Protocol mitigation target (5% reduction compared with 2000 levels by 2020). Australia's emissions in 2013 relative to 1990 increased +32.2% without land sector emissions/withdrawals being considered. This reduces to -2.3% when fossil fuel emissions are netted out with land sector emissions/withdrawals.
As I have noted before, the time has passed where the climate change problem can be used as a political football to give parties an advantage at election time. The problem demands long term systemic change which must be done carefully, over several decades, to minimize risks to the economy. It will also require constant adjustments to policies and how they are implemented as circumstances change and evidence emerges as to which approaches work and how they can be improved.
The time has come for parties to put aside self-interest and take a fresh approach. We have done this before during WWII when Prime Minister Menzies formed the Advisory War Council which included the Leader and members of the Opposition.
Australia needs a National Unity Platform for Climate Change Action with membership from all political parties, all levels of government, the business sector and civil society. A multi-sector, multi-level approach is essential with a focus on long term planning, shared goals and staged implementation.
Strategies for improving the adaptation practice in developing countries
Adaptation to climate change has become a key focus for policy, practice and research. With this renewed focus on the urgency of adaptation, there has been a significant increase in the number of available adaptation funding, projects and programs in particular in the developing countries. However, there has been little discussion and reflection regarding some of the emerging difficulties when it comes to implementing adaptation on the ground. In the recently published paper in Nature Climate Change, we identify three critical areas that deserve greater scrutiny when it comes to implementing climate change adaptation projects and programs in particular in developing countries: addressing priorities through consultation and participation; identifying appropriate entry points and scales; and strengthening delivery systems for sustainable adaptation.
Consultation and participation are inherent aspects of equity and justice when it comes to adaptation processes. At times top-down approaches driven through policy frameworks might not be able to adequately represent the aspirations and wishes of local communities or the younger generation. The identification of appropriate entry points and scales is likewise important for robust adaptation efforts. A greater consideration is needed to identify and consider who has the capacity and responsibility to lead particular adaptation efforts in countries, and which kinds of institutional re-designs and re-structuring are necessary to implement adaptation effectively. The strengthening of delivery systems is crucial in this regard. Increasing capacity within countries to deal with climate adaptation, potential over attribution to climate change within the loss and damage debate, and data sharing practices and agreements are some of emerging issues that warrant further consideration.
There are a number of strategies how to tackle some of these issues. For example, the concept of ‘adaptation emission intensity’ could provide a measure to examine sustainability aspects when approving and evaluating adaptation projects. This means measuring and accounting for carbon that is released into the atmosphere as a result of adaptation projects. Countries overwhelmed with research and project activity on adaptation could develop national research frameworks to spell out their research needs and priorities and to suggest appropriate entry points and channels to initiate research activities within countries. Developing clearing houses for past, current and planned research, program and project activities, such as those maintained by aid agencies, have the potential to enable more focused learning and targeting of assistance. Including youth representatives in steering committee boards and project advisory panels could offer one potential strategy to make sure the needs and priorities of current projects and programs enhance intergenerational justice and equity aspects.
Despite these efforts, there is clearly no one single silver bullet to fix all the issues that are often embedded in the context where adaptation implementation takes place. Strong political will and commitment are obviously needed to drive the adaptation agenda forward while we must remain sensitive as to whose needs the programs and projects are addressing and to what extent outcomes actually provide tangible changes on the ground. To this end, more reflection is needed both among the research and policy communities as to how we evaluate and judge ‘adaptation success’ and to what extent we are ready to transform our existing practices and assumptions of how adaptation should or could work.
Call for unified response to record Co2 levels
Record emission levels – With atmospheric carbon dioxide reaching record levels, it’s time to end the climate change wars and promote a National Unity Platform for Climate Change Action. NASA has reported that on May 9, the daily mean concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in 1958. The NASA report also noted that before the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, global average CO2 was about 280 ppm. During the last 800,000 years, CO2 fluctuated between about 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during interglacial warm periods. Today’s rate of increase is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended.
Given that fossil fuel emissions will continue to cause climatic disruptions for millennia, we have no choice but to collectively address the twin problems of mitigation emissions to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and adapting to the unavoidable impacts of a rapidly changing climate. However, the climate change problem is of such complexity – reaching into every aspect of our society and economy – that it simple cannot be addressed through conventional means. No longer a political background
The time has passed where the climate change problem can be used a political football to give parties an advantage at election time. The problem demands requires long term systemic changes over decades, which must be done carefully to minimize risks to the economy, and will require constant adjustments to policies and how they are implemented as circumstances change and evidence emerges as to which approaches work and how they can be improved. The time has come for parties to put aside self-interest and take a fresh approach. We have done this before during WWII when Prime Minister Menzies formed the Advisory War Council which included the Leader and members of the Opposition. While the political parties are currently treating the climate change problem as a war, there is a limit to the usefulness of the war analogy as in this case there is no enemy (or if there is, it is only ourselves we are fighting). Call for unity Australia needs a National Unity Platform for Climate Change Action with membership from all political parties, all levels of government, the business sector and civil society. A multi-sector, multi-level approach is essential. State and local governments are critical for both mitigation and adaptation. The demand for innovation will be met from the private enterprise. Local communities are where all policy responses eventually land and are implemented. The traditional role of government will remain, providing appropriate regulatory regimes to safeguard the integrity of policies, actions and associated investments, and ensuring they deliver long-term public good. There will need to be a focus on long term planning, shared goals and staged implementation. The September Federal election would be an appropriate juncture for an all-party parliamentary declaration of intent to establish, irrespective of who wins government, a National Unity Platform for Climate Change Action.
 Archer, D. et al. Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 37, 117–34 (2009).
 See http://john.curtin.edu.au/behindthescenes/cabinet/
Angry summer, complacent punters?
This Thursday evening (14 March, 2013) at Griffith University’s EcoCentre , Nathan Campus, Professor Will Steffen is giving the next presentation in our public seminar series. His recently released Climate Commission Report “The Angry Summer” received widespread media coverage, including internationally where the Guardian quoted the report’s conclusion that “Australia’s angry summer shows that climate change is already adversely affecting Australians. The significant impacts of extreme weather on people, property, communities and the environment highlight the serious consequences of failing to adequately address climate change.” Professor Steffen’s report also argued that “It is highly likely that extreme hot weather will become even more frequent and severe in Australia and around the globe over the coming decades. The decisions we make this decade will largely determine the severity of climate change and its influence on extreme events for our grandchildren”.
It is getting harder to deny that the climate is changing. But, most Australian’s have accepted this fact, as recent research by Griffith’s Professor Joe Reser showed3. Despite what you might think from listening to some politicians, media outlets and commentators, only about 7% of Australians can be considered “climate change sceptics”. It is intriguing then to consider why this general acceptance of what the science is telling us is not translating into clear and strong political will. Despite the angry summer (which continues in Melbourne as I write), the punters seem strangely complacent. One reason might be that while Australians accept human forced climate change is happening, they have yet to be convinced that it is something that must be addressed now.
Perhaps we need to hear more from sectors for whom climate change brings increasing risks to the cost of capital, investments and infrastructure? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the lack of certainty in Australia’s climate change mitigation policy affects the cost of capital for energy and other major new capital intensive projects. Certainly the insurance industry is starting to take notice. In 2012, insurance regulators in California, New York and Washington required insurers that write in excess of $300 million in direct written premiums, and are licensed to operate in any of the three states, to disclose their climate-related risks4.
Global and national security voices also need to be heard. At the UN Security Council 6587th Meeting (2011), Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General stated that “Make no mistake… climate change not only exacerbates threats to peace and security, it is a threat to international peace and security”. His comments were supported by Susan Rice (then US Ambassador to the UN) that “Climate change has very real implications for international peace and security” and those of Peter Wittig (Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN) – “Most national security establishments considered global warming as among the biggest security challenges of the century”5.
Certainly a positively engaged media helps stimulate more constructive public debate. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times has been taking a much stronger climate change line. Its Editorial of 10 March “When to Say No” opens with this blunt assertion: “The State Department’s latest environmental assessment of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline makes no recommendation about whether President Obama should approve it. Here is ours. He should say no, and for one overriding reason: A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that — even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations — can only add to the problem”6.
What of Australian insurers, bankers, defence experts and media outlets – perhaps it’s time the Australian public heard more from them on climate change risks?
1 Will Steffen (2013) The Angry Summer. Climate Commission
3 Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L., Glendon, A.I., Ellul, M.C. & Callaghan, R. (2012) Public risk perceptions, understandings and responses to climate change in Australia and Great Britain. Gold Coast, Qld: National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, http://www.nccarf.edu.au/publications/public-risk-perceptions-final
4 Sharlene Leurig and Dr. Andrew Dlugolecki (2013) Insurance Climate Risk Disclosure Survey:2012 Findings &Recommendations. CERES
6 Editorial, New York Times, 10 March 2013, When to Say No
In the wake of Doha
The 2012 U.N. climate change treaty negotiations in Doha have concluded with little to show on the mitigation front. We are no closer to solving the root cause of the problem: reducing fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide to a small fraction of the ~30 billion tonnes we currently emit each year. Unless we collectively achieve this mitigation goal, the planet will continue to heat, ice melt, sea levels rise, extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, and we face increasing harm to humans and nature, along with growing risks to all aspects of our economy.
In the wake of Doha, many political commentators, including major newspaper editorials, are now calling for the U.N. talks to be abandoned and for the big polluting countries to work out some kind of deal among themselves, arguing along the lines that the time has come for climate change action rather than talk. Alas, if only our world were so simple. The reality is that international relations remain dominated by short- term national self-interest, narrowly defined. Ethics – doing the right thing and avoiding harm to others including future generations – is typically understood as relevant in international affairs only up to the point it becomes inconvenient.
If human-forced climate change is to stop then we have to cease using fossil fuel. If we wish to limit global warming to around 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels then the collective human endeavour can only emit a total of about 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 60 years. If we are prepared to live with more than 2 degrees C warming then a larger amount of carbon dioxide can be emitted over a longer time period. Whatever the climate change goal, in the absence of a U.N. negotiated legally binding mitigation agreement we will be relying on voluntary commitments between the world big carbon emitters to solve the problem. Without agreement on the emission reduction target and timetable, and how the permissible emissions are to be allocated among the world’s nations, we will have to hope that the fortuitous aggregate outcome of voluntary actions by some countries magically delivers the solution.
Abandonment of the U.N. negotiations would also leave the issue of financing climate change loss and damage in developing countries to the largesse of wealthy nations such that adaptation becomes a matter of charity. Furthermore, it is politically naïve to think that the majority of the world’s population will sit by idly and leave the future of their planet to the “big boys” to play with. It would be a retrogressive step of enormous proportions to abandon the rule of law to an anarchistic-like approach and mere voluntarism. In any case, even reducing say 80% of fossil fuel emissions will not solve the problem as the remaining 20% will still over-run natural sinks leading to ongoing increasing in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations which would interfere with the global climate system for thousands of years. Mitigation is a global problem whose solution demands the cooperation of all players, big and small.
Nevertheless, U.N. climate change negotiations are in desperate need of a re-refocussing on the three primary mitigation questions which, by analogy, come down to (1) what is the size of the “global carbon pie” (the total permissible CO2 emissions) , (2) how long do we have to eat it (the year at which we achieve zero emissions), and (3) how do we divvy up the pie (allocating the permissible emissions among 7-9 billion people in 193 sovereign states)? One approach to answering these questions is called “Contraction and Convergence” (C&C) based on the total carbon budget and schedule, national allocations based on the per capita principle, with the added “justice lever” of a negotiated point in time at which national per capita emissions converge (see http://www.gci.org.uk/). If agreement could be reached on these three questions, then the foundation would be in place to continue negotiations on the vast array of secondary (albeit important) issues concerning actions to reduce emissions, adapting to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, financing and technology.
At some point, the RealPolitik of international relations must meet the RealEcologik of what the Earth system can absorb. Re-focussing U.N. negotiations on the three primary mitigation questions could provide the breakthrough the world community is seeking, enabling negotiations to conform at a basic level with what planetary boundaries prescribe while delivering, to quote Aubrey Meyer the founder of C&C, “climate justice without vengeance”.
When does weather become climate?
By definition, climate is the characteristic weather conditions that occur over a given time period; typically ~30 years. It follows that ‘climate change’ can only be demonstrated retrospectively, i.e., by looking back to see if the weather statistics for the preceding period reveal anomalies. In recent years, the world community has witnessed extreme weather events and in particularly high temperatures. Here in Australia we have over recent years felt the impacts of extreme fire, drought and flood events. The question arises whether such weather events are the harbinger of climate change or part of natural variability? Australia of course is no stranger to fire and floods and scientists, being by training (and perhaps by inclination) cautious creatures, have correctly refrained from emphasising any single weather event as evidence of climate change. Their public message has tended to be something along the lines of ‘…these are the kinds of impacts we can expect to happen more often as the result of climate change’ without attributing them to climate change per se. The difficulty is that these events do occur naturally and it is their intensity and frequency which is predicted to increase as the result of climate change.
Recent research published by James Hansen (who directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) and colleagues provides intriguing statistical evidence that recent extreme temperature events are indeed climatic anomalies and most likely the result of climate change. Their research received coverage in the popular media (http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/here-comes-the-sun-chilling-verdict-on-a-climate-going-to-extremes-20120806-23q5o.html#ixzz22oiWafJr) and a reprint of the paper published online in the scientific journal PNAS can be downloaded at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/07/30/1205276109.full.pdf+html
Hansen and colleagues’ analyses are particularly compelling because they are based not on climate model projections but on real world meteorological observations. Their conclusions – that there has been an increase by a factor of 10 in the area covered by extreme hot weather anomalies (defined as +3 standard deviations [s.d.] compared to the 1951-1980 base period) and additional warming in the next 50 years is predicted to make +3 s.d. anomalies the norm and +5 s.d. events common – warrant our considered attention. Examples of +3 s.d. extremely hot events are those that occurred in Texas in 2011 and Moscow in 2010. No wonder that Todd Stern, the USA government’s Special Envoy for Climate Change in a recent speech at Dartmouth College (http://www.state.gov/e/oes/rls/remarks/2012/196004.htm) argued that “…while there is certainly much more to understand about climate phenomena, a level-headed assessment of what we know already should impel us to act with vigor and determination”.
The world community’s success or failure at mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that avoids dangerous climate change – will determine the extent of the adaptation challenge and whether the adaptive capacity of existing socio-ecological systems is exceeded, demanding more drastic responses. Given that global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, perhaps we do need to start considering the kinds of adaptation responses that will be needed if indeed Hansen’s calculations come to pass and the world is faced with a climatic regime where “+3 s.d. extreme heat anomalies are the norm and +5 s.d. common”?
Welcome to the Griffith Climate Change Response Program’s (GCCRP) new Director’s Blog. In the coming months I will be commenting in this blog on emerging climate change issues from a science and policy perspective, including climate change adaptation in Oceania, the carbon tax, exciting developments in “downscaling” climate change projections, and the role of land carbon in mitigation policy.
Australian’s have always talked about the weather and climatic variability has been central to the Australian experience both recent and traditional. Dorothy Mackellar’s heartfelt My Country still resonates: “Core of my heart, my country!/Her pitiless blue sky,/When sick at heart, around us,/We see the cattle die -/But then the grey clouds gather,/And we can bless again/The drumming of an army,/The steady, soaking rain” (4th stanza). Indigenous
Australians have had for millennia a nuanced understanding of weather and climate, as illustrated by the six seasons recognized in Kakadu by the Bininj/Mungguy people. While Australia’s weather is particularly variable and wracked by extreme events, all human societies have been subject to the sometimes benign and other times malevolent hand of climatic influences. Global climate change has been a force in human history and has played a role in the rise and fall of civilizations.
But now with the advent of the Anthropocene – the era in which humanity is a dominant force on the global environment – a unique chapter in the history of Earth’s climate is unfolding. Human forced, rapid global climate change is a new phenomenon, presenting novel challenges and exacerbating existing stresses. However, with change comes opportunity and the need for creativity. How we – this generation – respond or fail to respond to these challenges and opportunities will determine the legacy we leave for future generations. It will say much about the kind of society we have become, the priority we give to those things we value and seek to make more secure and widely shared, and our capacity for innovation.
Climate change is a scientific discovery and a scientifically framed problem. However, its solutions lie as much in the realms of economics, technology, culture and ethics. Like never before, informed public dialogue is needed to guide our politicians in their deliberations. Universities have a special role to play in helping society meet the climate change challenge in ways that are appropriate, necessary and fair.