Welcome to the Anthropocene: the epoch in Earth’s history where humans became weather makers, future eaters, planet gamblers.
Globally, 2015 was the hottest year on record; 2011-15, the hottest five-year period, with ice melting at both poles at unprecedented rates. The planet’s warming, seas are rising; the weather’s growing more volatile, extreme. The scientific verdict: humans are to blame and our survival as a species requires concerted global action.
On 12 December at the 21st UN Climate Conference (COP21) in Paris, following decades of stalled negotiations, 196 nations reached consensus on the need to shift from a carbon-based energy system and a commitment by all to cut greenhouse gases.
While the agreement, only parts of which are legally binding, is being hailed as a momentous achievement for global diplomacy and heralds a crucial turning point for climate action, in terms of actual delivery, it only “marks the floor, not the ceiling” of what must be achieved.
Until the 19th century, 278 parts per million had been the steady volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. With the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil), that figure began to shift. By 1990 it had risen to 350ppm (what climate scientists classify as the safe upper limit), and in 2015, according to the World Meteorological Organization, we crossed the 400ppm red line.
The last time this happened (3 million years ago), sea levels rose 10-20 metres; consistent with the observed rates of ice loss in Antarctica and Greenland today. 450ppm is deemed cataclysmic, and we’ll reach that within 25 years if we carry on our present track of adding, annually, 10 billion cubic tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.
In such concentrations, CO2 and other gases like methane produce a ‘greenhouse’ effect: trapping heat and moisture. Earth’s roughly a degree (celsius) warmer than in pre-industrial times, but most of that rise occurred in the last 50 years alone. On the Keeling curve of acceleration we’re tracking to reach a 4-5C increase within a century – much too warm for habitation as we know it.
Even if all of the mitigation pledges put forward at the UN conference truly delivered, the planet will warm another 3C. World leaders agree, however, that we must keep well below a 2C rise if we want to avoid catastrophic consequences. Low-lying vulnerable developing nations who stand to be most affected argue that we can’t risk going above 1.5C. And climate science concurs.
If it seems marginal, the difference between a degree or two is pressing home. Since the (failed) Kyoto summit in 1997, weather and climate disasters worldwide have increased 42%, with deadly heat waves, unremitting droughts, monster storms and aberrant floods attributable to climate change, while low-lying Pacific countries, like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, already face the stark fact of disappearing homelands.
As the COP21 Paris talks got underway, Cumbria, in England, was deluged with its third 100-200-year ‘weather event’ since 2003, while Beijing was brought to a standstill by smog.
In what is essentially a gesture of recognition, 1.5C has been written into the Paris Agreement as an aspirational limit. As it stands, to keep below a 2C rise will take superhuman effort.
A critical review on the feasibility of a 100% renewables world (Scientific American, 2014), found “deep energy system decarbonisation”, which climate campaign groups say is ultimately what’s needed, “is likely to require an ambitious, focused agenda of rapid innovation and improvement in every critical technology area… as well as substantial ‘demand pull’ efforts and policies.” The reality is, it’s going to be costly and difficult, and we’ll need to move fast.
What the agreement does and doesn’t do
In part to bypass the obstructive US Senate, the agreement’s not a treaty. Nations have committed to cutting GHG emissions as quickly as possible with the aim of achieving carbon ‘neutrality’ and net-zero emissions between 2050 and 2100. But it’s a bottom-up design of voluntary self-responsibility; they are not bound by their targets under international law.
A ratchet mechanism commits countries to come back to the table every five years to review their emissions reduction targets and make new, more ambitious cuts. This “ratcheting up of ambition over time” could help close the gap between policy and science, it’s hoped, and the peer review process – shaming the laggards – may be potentially more effective than a top-down demand.
The agreement includes a climate fund worth US$100 billion a year after 2020 to help developing nations take the substantial leap forward. Developed countries must pay into this, but so far, despite the US, for instance, doubling its existing budget to support adaption and increasing its financial promise, that goal too is aspirational … and far from being met.
While compromise and a certain convoluted vagueness – “common but differentiated responsibility in light of national circumstances with respective capability” – was the trade-off for accommodating all, the finer detail of how the agreement is ultimately interpreted and applied is still to be hashed out.
Countries are being asked to review their pledges in 2018, so new commitments are ready to go in 2020 when the agreement comes into effect (ratification will need at least 55 countries, covering 55% of global GHG emissions).
Critics see too many loopholes in the agreement allowing nations to avoid serious action, and say there’s little in it for climate justice: for recognising irreversible effects, such as land loss and migration; for supporting vulnerable indigenous communities or acknowledging the gender inequality of those most affected. There’s no notion included of historic responsibility: the rich nations who’ve built their wealth on burning fossil fuels, causing the predicament, versus the poor countries who bear the brunt through no fault of their own.
And there are huge gaps that will need addressing: the fact that shipping and airline emissions are exempt for now, yet rapidly growing, for example.
One of the agreement’s most scathing critics, George Monbiot, points out the disconnect between carbon consumption and production. “In Paris delegates have solemnly agreed to cut demand, but back home seek to maximise supply. Until governments undertake to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they will continue to undermine the agreement they have just made.”
Notwithstanding, the agreement’s widely welcomed as a ‘better than hoped for’ outcome that takes a significant first step in the right direction. As one of America’s most ardent advocates of action, 350.org’s Bill McKibben, says, “the agreement won’t save the planet, it may have saved the chance to save the planet.”
The real work begins at home
So, after 20 years of diplomatic tussling, we have a universal agreement that signals “the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era”, both Greenpeace and US President Obama proclaim, but on its own won’t solve the climate crisis.
Physicist and Nobel-prize winner Bill Hare from Climate Analytics (Berlin) says, “The challenge now is for civil society [and] governments to maintain political pressure on improving ambition” and putting in place “real policies” that translate into meaningful, effective action.
Although New Zealand’s climate change broker in Paris, Tim Groser, says we’ve made a “solid contribution to the global effort”, Hare contends “NZ has basically played a game of accounting tricks … It hasn’t really addressed the growth of its emissions”, whether from agriculture, industry, or transport, all of which continue to rise.
NZ has one of the weakest targets of developed nations (a pledged 11% reduction on 1990 emission levels by 2030, conditional primarily upon carbon trading), and one of the poorest reduction records, despite being one of the highest per-capita emitters in the world. According to the latest international Climate Change Performance Index, we’ve slid to the tail of the league table’s ‘poor’ category and sit among the bottom five countries globally for our overall climate policy.
Professor James Renwick, climate scientist at Victoria University, believes “For New Zealand, as a developing nation that should be leading the way, we need a national-level strategy in 2016, one that will see our actual emissions reduce, rather than us buying our way out with carbon credits.”
Following Paris, however, it seems pretty much business as usual. The Government says we’re on course to meet our targets and they won’t be seeking further changes. On RNZ Morning Report (14 Dec), Prime Minister John Key emphasised there will be no cutbacks made on the mining of oil, coal and gas in NZ, and that he’s confident a technical solution to agricultural emissions will eventually be found. More tracts have just been offered for oil and gas exploration (even as Shell Oil announced a ‘strategic review’ of its NZ presence).
Whether anything we do or don’t is insignificant on the grand scale of things, as John Key rationalises, and whether this position damages NZ’s reputation and trade relations, as the Green Party claims, is debatable. Climate analysts, however, predict countries that get on with the difficult, colossal task of deep-reaching mitigation and climate change adaption will be better placed in the future, if only because they have embraced the latest innovations. The longer we hold out the more we stand to lose.
A building momentum
Ralph Sims (Centre for Energy Research, Massey) says COP21 may be remembered most for what happened beyond the negotiating table in those first weeks of December: “for the momentum of businesses, cities, NGOs, financiers, bankers, indeed across all civil society, in their intent to move towards a rapid transformation to a low-carbon economy.”
Bank of England’s head, Mark Carney, for instance, announced the creation of a new task force on climate-related financial disclosure, headed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg: “to rectify the current market failure to provide adequate information to investors about climate risks” and to up the ante.
They recognise climate change as a potentially major destabilising force on the global economy, as do two of the world’s biggest institutional investors, German insurance giant Allianz and Dutch pension fund ABP, who declared they would be divesting fossil fuel portfolios, largely based on the high risks they perceive in the future.
At the same time, 350.org released figures on its divestment campaign: US$3.4 trillion has been globally pledged by businesses, individuals and institutions to divest from fossil fuels; up US$1 trillion since September.
In a joint presidential statement at COP21, India and France announced an International Solar Alliance to mobilize funds “for the massive [global] deployment of affordable solar energy”, while a posse of billionaires – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg et al – launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to fund the development and rolling out of new clean energies. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), global investment in renewables is set to total US$7 trillion by 2040, accounting for 60% of all power plant investment. This against a current global estimate of $1 trillion annually in government subsidies to oil
and gas industries.
As costs come down – already solar energy has fallen 80% since 2000, and wind energy is becoming increasingly comparable if not cheaper than coal and gas – developing countries in particular, with Africa taking a lead, are investing more in renewables as they seek to expand energy access to their populations and improve economic opportunities while responding to the urgency of their climate situation.
Irrespective of how well or poorly national governments honour the Paris Agreement, the shift away from fossil fuels is happening … because it’s good business.
Climate Change Facts
- In a “holy shit moment for climate change”, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was assessed in 2014 as in a state of irreversible decline, while in 2015 a team of oceanographers discovered the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, long thought to be more stable, is also melting. Sea-rise projections may have to be scaled up considerably.
- The Tasman glacier (NZ’s largest and longest) is shrinking so fast, it’s expected to disappear by the end of the century. Diminishing snowmelt and glaciers around the world will hugely impact drinking water and agriculture.
- NZ’s coastlines face rising sea levels that are up to 10% higher than the global average – between 0.6-1.5m over the next 100 years. Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, likens it to a “slowly unfolding red zone”, with 9,000+ homes lying less than 50cm above spring high-tide levels.
- Oceans, which soak up 90% of the extra heat in the atmosphere, are getting hotter and more acidic due to CO2 absorption (about a million tons every hour, every day). Oceans are about 40% more acidic than they were 200 years ago. Oceanographers warn: “the current rate and magnitude of ocean acidification are at least ten times faster than any event in the past 65 million years… Given that periods of rapid acidification over tens of thousands of years – slow by our current human-driven standard – resulted in mass extinction and ecological collapse, this alone should be reason to act.”
- 1.5C warming will lead to 97% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef bleaching; 2C spells coral death. Coral and shellfish are particularly affected by the increasing warmth and acidity of oceans.
- 1.5C rise will see 25% of Earth’s animals and plants disappear.
- NZ’s canary in the mine: our native red-billed gull, subject of one of the world’s longest studies, have been in steep decline (down from 19,000 to 9,000) since the ‘population crash’ of 1994, due mainly to the depletion of the krill they depend on to feed their young and changing oceanic conditions.
- Pine bark beetles have chewed through 4 million acres of spruce trees in Alaska since 1997. Milder winters, longer summers means the beetles complete 2-3 reproductive cycles instead of one. With climate change, boreal forests are weakened by drought and more prone to deadly infestations; there are massive forest die-offs already happening in the northern hemisphere. While in NZ, 200-300 native alpine species are on track for extinction due to drier warmer conditions.
- Recent Wairau and Waikakaho Valley fires in Marlborough are estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars. Wildfires in the drier regions of NZ are set to increase 400-700% over the coming century.
- Lakes are warming globally on average by 0.34C a decade – at a greater rate of increase than either the oceans or atmosphere – with dramatic effects on human health. Algae blooms expected to increase 20% by 2100.
Local Government Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration
To coincide with the Paris talks, Local Government New Zealand put forward a Leaders’ Climate Change Declaration, giving support for the development and implementation of an “ambitious transition plan” for a low-carbon, resilient New Zealand.
The Declaration calls on Central Government to make climate change a priority – specifically to lift its mitigation measures and undertake a “holistic economic assessment” of impacts – as well as outlining key commitments local councils will take and recommending a list of guiding principles.
This was signed by 29 mayors and chairs from around NZ, including Hastings and Napier mayors Lawrence Yule and Bill Dalton. [Neither CHB mayor Peter Butler nor Wairoa mayor Craig Little replied to the question of whether they intend to support it, while Fenton Wilson, chairman of HBRC, refused to respond to BayBuzz.]