A Report From the (Hopefully Last) Climate Convention
Tim Flannery on the 21st "Conference of the Parties" in Paris
The Paris climate meeting is technically known as COP 21 – the 21st annual session of the ‘Conference of the Parties’ at an international climate convention. At it, nations are discussing actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will be implemented between 2020 and 2030. Some people attend the meetings to work, while others try to come every year for reasons of their own. Inevitably, the annual gatherings have taken on a distinct character, both within and outside of the negotiating room.
Outside, the mood is festival-like, with various organizations hosting events and award ceremonies while lobbying for what they feel is important. These groups can have a big influence on what is happening around the negotiating table. For example, certain groups have been working for years urging countries to limit warming to an additional 1.5˚C rather than the currently agreed upon 2˚C. Their efforts are supported by some small countries, such as the 5 coral atoll nations (including Kiribati and the Maldives), which risk ceasing to exist if temperatures increase 2˚C and rising oceans consequentially sink them below the waves. This year at Paris, these groups finally had success when France, Germany, Australia, and others supported capping temperature rise at 1.5˚C.
If an agreement is reached in Paris, it will mark the end of the COP process and the beginning, hopefully, of one in which nations gather every five years. This new process would involve reviewing action to date and pledging further action to keep the world on track and avoid dangerous climate change. Some people have been participating in COPs for years, and the meetings are their moment in the sun. For them, the end of the COP process will mean the end of an interesting and enjoyable annual gathering. Hopefully, some other forum will allow them to participate in climate action.
Without doubt, the most important piece of news released during the Paris COP has been the findings of a research paper published in the respected journal Nature Climate Change which announced that global emissions of greenhouse gases are likely to decline in 2015, despite sturdy economic growth. This is the first time since the industrial revolution that this has occurred. Hopefully, it marks a turning point in the climate problem. Remarkably, this has occurred 5 years in advance of any action required under the Paris agreement currently being negotiated.
Because a years-long process is required to resolve important issues at COPs, various issues have become embedded in successive negotiations, and it is hard to add new items. Yet circumstances change. For the past decade we’ve been following the worst case scenario of greenhouse emissions. Last year, humanity emitted 40 gigatonnes of CO – a staggering amount. To draw down 4 gigatonnes – one tenth of that – by planting trees, one would need to forest an area about the size of the contiguous 48 states of the US.
The vast volumes of CO2 we’ve emitted to the atmosphere in the last 10 years will have consequences. They have already pushed temperatures 1˚C higher than they were 200 years ago. And because it takes a few decades for the full warming potential of greenhouse gases to be recognized, the gas already in the air will push temperatures up an additional 1.5˚C by around 2050. Indeed, because it takes decades to change energy systems, it is virtually impossible to avoid 2˚C of warming.
If humanity had concluded an agreement a decade ago, it might have been possible to honor a pledge to cap warming at 1.5˚C. We lost that opportunity as the negotiations went on, yet we still talk about it as if it is a possibility. Meanwhile, new opportunities to do something meaningful are not even being discussed at Copenhagen.
One of the most pressing issues, in my view, is the need for a treaty banning climate geoengineering, which includes measures such as injecting sulphur into the stratosphere to cool the earth. China, a country that faces severe climate threats, already has four research teams working on geoengineering. However, this does nothing to reduce the source of the problem – the greenhouse gases – and does not deal with the effects of ocean acidification. Although stratospheric sulphur is a well-researched option, relatively cheap, and instantly effective, it is a band-aid solution. It is highly dangerous, both because the sulphur may affect climatic phenomena as important as the south Asian monsoon, and because unilateral action may lead to conflict. In my opinion, we need a global ban on such ‘solutions,’ and that ban could be agreed as part of the climate negotiating process.
It is arguably even more important to encourage research into methods for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Known as third way technologies, such methods offer a real solution to the climate crisis which, along with aggressive emissions reductions, could keep earth’s temperature from rising beyond 2˚C. In my latest book, Atmosphere of Hope, I analyze a wide range of third way technologies, including biochar, seaweed farming, manufacturing carbon-negative concretes, utilizing silicate rocks, making plastics and carbon fibers from atmospheric CO2, and storing large quantities of CO2 in marine sediments and ice caps. My best, conservative estimate is that by 2050, these technologies have the potential to be drawing down 40% of current annual global emissions. But this will not happen without very large scale investment. Sadly, third way technologies are not even being discussed in the formal negotiations at Paris. If we are to effectively combat the climate problem, we need to find a far more nimble and more encompassing process than the COPs. Let us hope that Paris is the last COP meeting, and that subsequent meetings deal with the urgent problems and fabulous opportunities that are currently being ignored.