As global temperatures continue to rise, climate action is lagging and the window of opportunity is closing. On Sunday, 2 December the United Nations will kick off critical negotiations on how to address the problem collectively and urgently, during a two-week climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, known as ‘COP24’.
Thousands of world leaders, experts, activists, creative thinkers, and private sector and local community representatives will gather to work on a collective action plan to realize critical commitments made by all the countries of the world in Paris, three years ago.
In 1992, the UN organized a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.
In this treaty, nations agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories. Every year since the treaty entered into force in 1994, a “conference of the parties” — a COP — is held to discuss how to move forward and, since there have been 23 COPs so far, this year’s conference in Katowice, Poland will be the 24th, or ‘COP 24’.
Because the UNFCCC had non-binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and no enforcement mechanism, various ‘extensions’ to this treaty were negotiated during these COPs, including: the famous Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which defined emission limits for developed nations to be achieved by 2012; and the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries of the world agreed to step up efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures and boost climate action financing.
Two agencies support the scientific work of the UN on climate change: the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Together, they set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, which is made of hundreds of experts, dedicated to assessing data and providing reliable scientific evidence for the climate action negotiations, including the upcoming ones in Katowice.
Meetings and achievements
The various meetings held under UN auspices including past 23 COP meetings have been vital to find a global consensus on an issue that requires a global solution. Although progress has been much slower than needed, the process — which has been as challenging as it is ambitious — has worked to bring all countries with very different circumstances, together. Progress has been made every step of the way. Some of the concrete actions taken so far prove one thing: climate action has a real positive impact and can truly help us prevent the worst.
Here are some notable achievements so far:
– At least 57 countries have managed to bring their greenhouse gas emissions down to the levels required to curb global warming.
– There are at least 51 “carbon pricing” initiatives in the works; charging those who emit carbon dioxide per tonne emitted.
– In 2015, 18 high-income countries committed to donating US$100 billion a year for climate action in developing countries. So far, over $70 billion have been mobilized.
Paris Agreement on Climate Change
The Paris Agreement signed on to by the global community in 2015 was a triumph of multilateralism and nested in the strong sense of optimism and empowerment prevailing then. The Paris document, which provided the world with the only viable option for addressing climate change, was ratified by 184 parties and entered into force in November 2016.
The commitments contained in it are significant:
– Limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.
– Ramp up financing for climate action, including the annual $100 billion goal from donor nations for lower-income countries.
– Develop national climate plans by 2020, including their self-determined goals and targets.
– Protect beneficial ecosystems that absorb greenhouse gases, including forests.
– Strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change.
– Finalize a work programme to implement the agreement in 2018.
The United States, which joined the Agreement in 2016, announced its intention in July 2017, to withdraw from it. However, the nation remains a party to the Agreement at least until November 2020, which is the earliest that it can legally request to withdraw from it.
Poland and COP24
Just 25 years ago the landscape of the COP24 host city of Katowice was dotted by factories and chimneys. Today, it is one of the greenest cities in Poland, with over 40 percent of forested area, and a center for culture, innovations and new technologies. “We trust that sustainable transformation of both the city and the region can be an inspiration for global change,” said the Secretary of State in Poland’s Ministry of Environment and incoming president of COP-24, Michal Kurtyka.
The top priority of Poland’s COP Presidency at COP24 and the major goal of the conference will be the finalization to the Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP) to compel governments and states to cut greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace of global warming.
The aim is for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement in the form of ‘Katowice Rulebook’ — a comprehensive package of balanced rules bringing the agreement fully into force, a kind of a ‘user manual’. Successful finalization and adoption of the guidelines is critical to maintaining the credibility of the process and global action against climate change.
This year’s COP meeting is particularly crucial because 2018 is the deadline that the signatories of the Paris Agreement agreed upon in order to adopt a work program for the implementation of the Paris commitments. This requires the singular most important ingredient: trust between all countries.
It is important to underline that without success of COP24, the Paris Agreement will not meet the hopes and expectations raised back in 2015. Only the decisions to be taken in Katowice can catalyze any further actions on the part of the states-parties.
Among the many elements that need to be ironed out is the financing of climate action worldwide. Because the clock is ticking on climate change, the world cannot afford to waste more time: we must collectively agree on a bold, decisive, ambitious and accountable way forward.
The discussions at COP24 will be based on scientific evidence gathered over the years and assessed by experts, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on global warming, the emissions gap report by United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the bulletin on greenhouse gas concentrations by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
“Katowice is about, and I make no exaggeration when I say this, about safeguarding Paris. Without success in Katowice there is no success of Paris. Because, simply put, the Paris framework will not be operational without success in Katowice. The upcoming COP24 therefore constitutes a unique chance. In the spirit of its motto ‘Changing together’ we should jointly take decisions that will be of utmost importance for the future of our planet. I trust, that with solid political will of the participating states, Katowice, alongside Kyoto and Paris, will find its place in the climate history of the mankind,” said Mr. Kurtyka.
The 1.5 degree C explained
According to scientific research assessed by the IPCC, keeping global warming to no more than 1.5°C global average over pre-industrial levels, will help stave off devastating permanent damage to the planet and its people, including: the irreversible loss of habitat for animals in the Arctic and Antarctic; much more frequent instances of deadly extreme heat; water scarcity that could affect over 300 million people; the disappearance of coral reefs which are essential for entire communities and marine life; sea level rise which is threatening the future and economy of entire small island nations, etc.
All in all, the UN estimates that 420 million fewer people could be affected by climate change if we manage to stick to a 1.5°C increase, instead of 2°C.
We are still far from turning the corner toward a carbon-neutral future, and the need to move forward is greater than ever. The data tells us it is still possible to limit climate change to 1.5°C, but the window of opportunity is closing, and it will require unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.
Take a seat, add your voice to COP24
To bring the voice of the people to the upcoming COP 24 in Katowice, Poland, that takes place from 2 to 14 December, the United Nations has launched the ‘People’s Seat’ initiative, calling millions of change advocates worldwide to submit messages for an address that will be delivered to leaders attending the conference, by renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
The ‘People’s Seat’ initiative, launched by the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), calls for inputs for the address to be delivered during the opening plenary session of the COP24, by Mr. Attenborough, on 3 December.
Everyone and anyone who wants to add their message to voice the urgent need for action, can do so by using the hashtag #TakeYourSeat on Twitter.
Michal Kurtyka, Secretary of State of Poland and incoming COP24 President, hailed the initiative, stressing that the conference wants to encourage “openness, listening and the full participation of civil society in global efforts to tackle climate change.”
The call for global advocacy comes weeks after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report showing how urgent and possible it still is to limit global warming to 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels. The report warned that if no action is taken, the world is headed towards a warming of over 3°C.
The aim of the COP 24 is to agree on a collective implementation plan for the 2015 Paris Agreement, and raise ambitions to achieve its goals.
The People’s Address will also trigger the launch of another initiative to engage global citizens: the ‘ActNow’ Bot via the United Nations’ Facebook Messenger account, recommending everyday actions — like taking public transport and eating less meat — and tracking the number of actions taken to highlight the impact that collective action can make on such a critical issue.
By sharing your climate action efforts on social media, you can help encourage more people to act as well. So make sure to #TakeYourSeat and speak up.
Reports pointing to continued global warming
IPCC Report: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report in early October saying that limiting global warming will require “far-reaching and unprecedented changes” to human behavior.
The report was released in Incheon, Republic of Korea, where for weeks hundreds of scientists and government representatives had pored over thousands of inputs to paint a picture of what could happen to the planet and its population with global warming of 1.5°C.
“We are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of one of the IPCC Working Groups.
The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or more.
For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C.
Moreover, coral reefs, already threatened, would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all would be lost with 2°C, according to the report.
“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher, increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.
The new report will feed into a process called the ‘Talanoa Dialogue,’ in which parties to the Paris accord will take stock of what has been accomplished over the past three years. The dialogue will be a part of the COP 24 meeting in Katowice, Poland.
Tweeting shortly after the report was launched, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that it is not impossible to limit global warming to 1.5°C, according to the report. “But it will require unprecedented and collective climate action in all areas. There is no time to waste.”
In a statement released later in the day, Mr. Guterres said that getting there, would require “urgent and far more ambitious action to cut emissions by half by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050.”
“This will take unprecedented changes in all aspects of society — especially in key sectors such as land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities,” he said, adding that “we need to end deforestation and plant billions of trees; drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels and phase out coal by 2050; ramp up installation of wind and solar power; invest in climate-friendly sustainable agriculture; and consider new technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
“The coming period is critical. We must meet the Paris commitments to bend the emissions curve by 2020
Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said on Monday in Geneva that there was “extreme urgency” needed on the part of Paris Agreement signatories, and “so far the progress hasn’t been good enough” to keep temperature rises below even 2°.
“There will be 420 million people less suffering because of climate change if we would be able to limit the warming to 1.5°C level and we have certain areas in the world which are extremely sensitive,” Mr. Taalas said. “Small island states, (the) Mediterranean region and also sub-Saharan Africa is already suffering and will suffer more in the future.”
It is still possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the WMO official continued, “but we should change many things how we run our everyday business today”.
Also in Geneva, a UN rights expert warned that failing to do more to address climate change risked “locking in decades” of grave violations.
“Climate change is having – and will have – devastating effects on a wide range of human rights, including rights to life, health, food, housing, and water, as well as the right to a healthy environment,” said David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.
“The world is already witnessing the impacts of climate change — from hurricanes in America, heat waves in Europe, droughts in Africa to floods in Asia.”
UNEP Report: A new report released in late November by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rose again during 2017 after a three-year hiatus, highlighting the imperative for countries to deliver on the historic Paris Agreement to keep global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
The report published just days before the key COP 24, taking place in Katowice, Poland, urges nations to triple their efforts to curb harmful emissions.
The UNEP report comes hot on the heels of the watershed IPCC report on global warming, released in October, which cautioned that emissions had to stop rising now, in order to keep temperature increases below 1.5°C, and reduce the risks for the well-being of the planet and its people.
“If the IPCC report represented a global fire alarm, this report is the arson investigation,” said UNEP’s Deputy Executive Director Joyce Msuya. “The science is clear; for all the ambitious climate action we’ve seen – governments need to move faster and with greater urgency. We’re feeding this fire while the means to extinguish it are within reach.”
Heat-trapping CO2 gas in the atmosphere is largely responsible for rising global temperatures, according to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence. UNEP’s 2018 Global Emissions Report, show global emissions have reached historic levels.
Total annual greenhouse gases emissions, including from land-use change, reached a record high of 53.5 Gigatons in 2017, an increase of 0.7 compared with 2016.
“In contrast, global GHG emissions in 2030 need to be approximately 25 percent and 55 percent lower than in 2017 to put the world on a least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to 2°C and 1.5°C respectively,” said the report.
What is worse, the report notes that there is no sign of reversal of this trend and that only 57 countries (representing 60 percent of global emissions) are on track to bridge their ‘emissions gap’ – meaning the gap between where we are likely to be and where we need to be.
Increased emissions and lagging action means the gap published in this year’s report is larger than ever.
UNEP stresses that while “surging momentum from the private sector” and “untapped potential from innovation and green-financing” offer “pathways” to bridge the emissions gap globally, the “technical feasibility” of limiting global warming to 1.5°C “is dwindling”.
The authors of the report note that nations would need to triple their efforts on climate action without further delay, in order to meet the 2°C-rise limit by mid-century. To meet the 1.5°C limit, they would have to quintuple their efforts. A continuation of current trends will likely result in global warming of around 3°C by the end of the century, with continued temperature rises after that, according to the report findings.
“When governments embrace fiscal policy measures to subsidize low-emission alternatives and tax fossil fuels, they can stimulate the right investments in the energy sector and significantly reduce carbon emissions,” said Jian Liu, UNEP’s Chief Scientist.
“Thankfully, the potential of using fiscal policy as an incentive is increasingly recognized,” said Dr. Liu, referring to the 51 initiatives already in place or planned across the world to charge for carbon emissions (called “carbon pricing”).
“If all fossil fuel subsidies were phased out, global carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 10 percent by 2030,” he added, explaining that “setting the right carbon price is also essential. At US$70 per ton of CO2, emission reductions of up to 40 percent are possible in some countries.”
WMO report: Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high, according to a report issued on 22 November by the United Nations weather agency, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) which reveals that there is no sign of reversal of this trend, responsible for climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather.
“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that global concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide have been increasing steadily over the past years. In addition, the report notes a resurgence of a potent greenhouse gas and ozone-depleting substance called CFC-11, which is regulated under an international agreement to protect the ozone layer.
The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reports specifically on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, which are what remains in the atmosphere, following a complex process of emissions and absorptions.
Since 1990, there has been a 41 percent increase in the warming effect by the various greenhouse gases on the climate — known as ‘radioactive forcing’. CO2 specifically accounts for about 82 percent of the increase in radioactive forcing over the past decade, according to figures quoted in the WMO report.
The WMO report comes on top of the evidence presented in the IPCC special report on global warming issued in October, which sounded the alarm on the need to reach zero net emissions of CO2 by mid-century, in order to keep temperature increases to below 1.5°C.
The report showed how keeping temperature increases below 2°C could reduce the risks for the well-being of the planet and its people.
“CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere,” warned WMO Deputy Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova. “Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” she insisted.
This new report adds yet another building block of scientific evidence to inform decision-making at the upcoming COP 24, which has the key objective of adopting an implementation plan for the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The global averages presented in the WMO Bulletin are based on a rigorous tracking of the changing levels of greenhouse gases as a result of industrialization, use of fossil fuels, unsustainable agricultural practices, increases in land use and deforestation.
The UN calls for urgent actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the national and sub-national levels.
What they said:
A special report on limiting global warming released in early October by a UN scientific panel, should be heard around the world as an “ear-splitting wake-up call” said UN chief António Guterres. He said the long-awaited findings show that “climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time.”
The UN Secretary-General said that the Katowice conference was a “can’t-fail moment.”
“The international community must emerge with critically important implementation guidelines for operationalizing the Paris Agreement,” he said, adding that all countries now needed to “heed the counsel of the world’s top scientists: raise ambition, rapidly strengthen their national climate action plans, and urgently accelerate implementation of the Paris Agreement.”
Against the backdrop of the sobering report, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has sent a letter to all States, telling them they have legal obligations under international human rights law to prevent climate change and try to mitigate its effects.
“Human rights are under threat from a force which challenges the foundations of all life, as we know it, on this planet we share,” she said, pointing out that the decisions taken COP24 will govern climate action under the Paris agreement “for the indefinite future,” and said that “the rights of the millions of people [are] threatened by climate change.”
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2 to 3°C warmer and sea level was 10 to 20 meters higher than now,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.