Climate change: 2014 turns up the heat on future generations

Climate change. (Jan Schwarz)

Climate change. (Jan Schwarz)

World temperatures are going to increase by more than two degrees Celsius, despite globally-binding agreements to tackle climate change. This is thanks to politicians ensuring that those agreements are so weak that they allow countries to voluntarily lower their emissions at a level that they see fit. That magnitude of temperature increase will create rolling climate catastrophes.

2014 was supposed to be the breakthrough year. The year where the stage would be set for a critical agreement to be signed at COP21 in Paris in 2015. 

At COP17 (the 17th meeting of the Congress of the Parties) in Durban in 2011, world governments agreed that an agreement would be signed off in 2015. The exact structure of this was left blank. But it was a commitment to create a mechanism to lower carbon emissions, and deal with the impacts of climate change. The next meetings would thrash out the details. 

This year’s COP20 meeting in Lima in early December was supposed to be the one where a draft was created, which would then be signed next year. This happened, with 36-hour talks extending the last day until the “Lima Call for Climate Action” was signed off by the 190 countries in attendance.

Countries disagreed on every single point. Chinese negotiators refused to allow anyone to do accounting on its action to reduce emissions. This would be an invasion of the country’s sovereignty, they said. The initial agreement, which said countries “shall” account on their work was changed to “may”. Compromises such as this, across the board, had the effect of watering down the Lima agreement.  

The months leading up to Lima were filled with hope of a strong agreement. China and the United States  signed an agreement signalling that they would both lower their carbon emissions. The two had previously refused to publicly do anything to tackle climate change, and opted out of the only previous binding agreement on climate change — the Kyoto Protocol.

The European Union also said its members states would be lowering their emissions by a third by mid-century. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, held an extraordinary gathering to discuss what shape a Paris agreement should take next year. He said, “Three decades from now the world is going to be a very different place. How it looks depends on actions we take today.” Over 400 000 people marched through the streets of New York during this, demanding action.

And, most importantly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the final part of its mammoth fifth assessment report before Lima. The United Nations body said there was a 95% “certainty” that human beings were driving climate change. It also said that this change would see the world warming by up to four degrees on average by the end of this century. This was under its most conservative scenarios.  

Lowering carbon emissions
The panel therefore urged nations to urgently lower their emissions of greenhouse gases. The International Energy Agency also released a report this year saying that 80% of all fossil fuels needed to stay in the ground. All these bodies worked on the need to keep average global temperature increases below 2C. Anything above that will lead to so many changes in the climate that critical systems — such as water provision and food production — begin to completely fail.    

To achieve this, carbon emissions in the atmosphere need to stay below 450 parts per million. Before the Industrial Revolution these were at 250 parts per million. This year they raced paced 400 parts per million. At current rates of global emissions, it will take just 30-years to emit enough greenhouse gases to pass this limit.  

Science had set out the problems and the paths that need to be followed. All politicians had to to was see the danger and start acting. But instead they have worked to create an agreement that does not work from the top down, setting a rule and forcing countries to comply. 

Instead, it is up to countries to set their ambitions for what they will do to tackle climate change. They are meant to announce these “intended nationally determined contributions” before the middle of 2015.  

The great weakness of this is that there is no policing, and no consequences for countries missing their already (probably) weak targets. The wording is such that the only onus on countries is that they have a “common but differentiated responsibility” to lower their emissions. Politicians are ensuing that the current agreement does not place any legally-set requirements on their countries.  

The US pledge of reducing its carbon emissions by a quarter by 2025 is already being torn apart by the Republican party, which controls the Senate and Congress. 

South Africa’s 2009 goal of reducing emissions by 42% by 2025 has been undermined by the construction of two of the world’s biggest coal-fired power stations. The only real savings in emissions have been due to sluggish economic growth. 

Without urgent action, the intergovernmental panel warned that average temperatures in Africa will pass 6C this century. For South Africa this will mean rolling droughts in most of the country, with flooding in the east. Staple crops will fail. In the last century temperatures have gone up by under a degree, and this has already changed rainfall patterns and made substance farming difficult. 

And there will be little money to help with this. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the first serious global meeting on climate issues, there has been a battle between the traditional west and the rest of the world. Developing countries want the burden of dealing with climate change to fall on the developed countries. The argument goes that they are where they are thanks to emissions, so should be held accountable. 

The developed world refuses to pay, citing economies such as China which are now bigger than theirs. In UN negotiations this has become known as a “firewall”. But the result is that when climate change affects lives in South Africa, it will be up to the government to help. For the small island states, such as Kiribati where land is being bought in Fiji to escape rising sea levels, it is already too late.   

This is why the African negotiating position has aimed for an agreement that keeps temperature increases below 1.5C. But that is not going to happen. The non-binding and voluntary agreement path that Lima set in motion will lead to a 2015 Paris agreement that does little to halt temperature increases. All it will allow is for politicians to wave an agreement in the air and say they are doing something. The dire scientific warnings will be ignored.

Sipho Kings

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