High-level confrontation, arm-twisting in dark corners, dramatic 11th-hour European flights, reluctant trade-offs and final compromises. Eventually, 180 nations did reach a pre-Christmas deal at the UN’s make-or-break 24th conference of the parties (COP24) climate summit. But key questions went unanswered. Jon Herbert reports.
Reaching a deal took the intervention of the UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, who turned around and flew back to warn negotiators at the COP24 in Katowice, Poland, that “… to waste this opportunity would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change …” He added, “It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.”
Despite further last-minute rows and an extra day of headbanging, the “world” has now signed-up unanimously to a Rulebook(s) designed to hold countries to account for the carbon-cutting measures they agreed to with much more enthusiasm at COP21 in Paris in December 2015.
With the rules coming into force from 2020 onwards, COP24 Chairman and Polish Energy and Environment Minister, Michał Kurtyka, added, “It has been a long road. We did our best to leave no-one behind.” Yet, as Mr Guterres pointed out, key political issues remain unresolved, one being the worry of oversimplifying complex issues versus not overwhelming poorer nations with red tape.
Hard or soft deal?
The deal nearly didn’t make it. In its preparatory stages before ministers and political heads arrived, four leading nations with entrenched fossil-fuel interests — the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — refused to “welcome” and would only “note” a crucial November Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that they had previously agreed to commission. This presents detailed evidence that 1.5°C, and not 2°C, is now the maximum temperature rise the earth can tolerate without catastrophic climate change.
Tellingly, China, which along with the USA is one of the planet’s two largest carbon emitters, but also very aware of the environmental risks it faces from global warming, didn’t join them.
However, even with a final consensus much work remains to be done with significant potential for slippage and compromised promises before the signees prove that a hard-won deal is better than no deal at all.
The new international accord has already been criticised. First, it is not legally binding. Second, little progress was made in persuading less ambition nations to set themselves tougher carbon-cutting goals under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) system agreed at COP21. Third, words and actions are different things — NDCs must be monitoring closely to ensure they are delivered in the years ahead.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the priority of securing large-scale finance to help smaller and less-developed nations access the technology needed to turn the greenhouse gas (GHG) corner was not tackled effectively. Without finance, it was said that the “possibility of limiting warming to 2°C (never mind 1.5°C) will irretrievably slip away”.
Good UK news
The UK has put a positive foot forward. Energy and Clean Growth Minister, Claire Perry, announced that the UK aims to set up at least one “net-zero” carbon cluster by 2030 within the Government’s Industrial Strategy. It will include cutting-edge technology, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) en-route to low-carbon products, systems and services exports that could be worth £170 billion by 2030 and support two million “green collar” jobs.
The UK has also asked to host COP26 in 2020 which will be a US Presidential election year; the Trump Administration is still actively rolling back Obama-era environmental legislation.
What is the bad news?
The world is almost one degree warmer than before industrialisation. Average temperatures for the first 10 months of 2018 were 0.98°C higher than between 1850–1900. The 20 warmest years on record were in the past 22 years; 2015–2018 made up the top four. Temperatures by 2100 could rise by 3°C to 5°C. The Paris promises would still see a rise of more than 3°C by the end of this century.
The IPCC report says that 1°C could lead to catastrophic sea levels rises, increase ocean temperatures and acidity, and jeopardise rice, maize and wheat crops. It adds that a 1.5°C rise is still achievable, but will involve as yet unknown technologies capable of sucking/absorbing CO2 back out of the atmosphere.
In 2018, record high temperatures and unusually prolonged hot weather were experienced in many parts of the world. These include Europe, Asia, North America and northern Africa where strong high-pressure systems created a “heat dome”. One concern is that climate change could “block” hot and cold weather fronts, leading to more extreme weather events.
China and the USA together account for more than 60% of global emissions. However, President Donald Trump is taking the USA out of Paris, saying that he wants a new “fair” deal that doesn’t disadvantage US businesses and workers.
Hot city life
Meanwhile, faster growing cities are most at risk in Africa and Asia, including megacities such as Lagos in Nigeria and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Circa 84 of the world’s 100 fastest growing cities face “extreme” risks from rising temperatures and extreme weather linked to climate change.
At the same time, the extent of Arctic sea ice has dropped in recent years, according to Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, which adds that the Arctic Ocean may be ice free in summer by the 2050s. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found that the extent of Arctic sea ice in 2018 was much lower than normal.
This ties in with the IPCC finding that as individuals we all need to buy less meat, milk, cheese and butter; eat more locally sourced seasonal food; throw less food away; drive electric cars; walk or cycle short distances; take trains and buses instead of planes; use videoconferencing instead of business travel and washing lines rather than tumble driers; insulate homes and demand low-carbon in all consumer products.
World-first carbon “net-zero” hub
The UK’s world-first carbon “net-zero” hub of heavy industry will be a step change. At present, industry accounts for around 25% of all UK GHG emissions; more than two-thirds come from energy intensive industries often located next to each other in clusters such as at Grangemouth, South Wales, Merseyside, Teesside, Humberside and Southampton.
The idea is that with the help of up to £170 million from Government, heavy industries like steel, ceramics, cement, chemicals, paper and glass will be able to share expertise and innovative low-carbon solutions to improve poor air quality. The goal is to show that climate action and economic growth do go hand-in-hand and are the key to building momentum in global carbon action. The UK wants to cut its emissions by more than 40% commensurate with 66% economy growth.
But the Government believes that a cleaner economy must be both public and private sector-led. New funding will be allotted through a competitive process for clusters to research, develop and demonstrate at scale innovative solutions that lead the way to a decarbonised industrial future. It will, therefore, involve investment partnerships between industry and Government.
Say no to coal
Coal produces almost 40% of global electricity today. In 2017, the UK committed to phasing out unabated coal power by 2025 and is on track for less than 5% of its electricity coming from coal. The Government also co-launched the UK-Canada led Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA) as a voluntary coalition of governments, businesses and other organisations to end the use of dirty coal power.
The UK has formally requested to host the critical COP26 Climate Summit in 2020 which should see the Paris agreement come into full force. Ms Perry says she hopes to “see if we can get these NDSs and Rulebooks together” just two days after the American people vote their next choice of President into the White House for four years.
World leaders at a contentious December UN COP24 climate summit in Poland did eventually agree a “Rulebook” for implementing and monitoring the various carbon emission cuts they have individually volunteered to make since the milestone COP21 summit in Paris three years ago. However, a number of political and technical issues were left hanging in the wind.
But the UK did commit itself to setting up at least one “net-zero” hub of heavy industry, probably at Grangemouth, South Wales, Merseyside, Teesside, Humberside or Southampton. The aim is for heavy industries like steel, ceramics, cement, chemicals, paper and glass to be able to share expertise and innovative low-carbon solutions.
First published by Croner-i on 15 January 2019