COP25 and the Arctic: stakes high, expectations low as tipping points tumble

Another year, another COP… What’s a year in the history of a planet? And as we head for 2020 – the start of a new decade – what’s ten years in the evolution of the earth? The UNFCCC tells us COP25 serves to “build ambition ahead of 2020, the year in which countries have committed to submit new and updated national climate action plans”. A key objective, the climate guardians say, is to “complete several matters with respect to the full operationalization of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.”

“Complete several matters?” “Build ambition?” Against the background of science documenting melting ice, thawing permafrost, acidifying oceans bereft of oxygen, ever-extremer weather events….it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sense that the climate change we set in motion has gathered its own momentum and threatens to get out of control.

Arctic iceberg
Arctic iceberg on the way out (I.Quaile)

Redefining the planet

Before we humans started interfering, a decade was probably virtually irrelevant, a microscopic droplet in the ocean of time. But given the amount of change we’ve instigated since the start of the industrial revolution and the accelerating speed of the “cascade of tipping points” scientists tell us we’ve set in motion, a mere 10 years could see our earth change beyond recognition: the Arctic ice-free in summer, coastlines re-defined, landscapes and livelihoods altered by rising seas, floods, droughts and fires.

Panel discussion at Arctic Futures 2019 in Brussels (Pic. Arctic Futures)

“Addressing the Challenges of a new decade in the Arctic” was the theme of this year’s annual Arctic Futures event, organised by the International Polar Foundation in Brussels, which I attended two weeks ago. We humans need expressions of time, duration, days, weeks, decades to organise our lives. But climate change is overtaking the traditional pace and time scales of our thinking and acting. Changes that once would have taken thousands or even millions of years are now happening virtually on a day by day basis. Within a decade, the Arctic is likely to have been transformed. And our time window to act has shrunk dramatically.

The “ties” have it

Professor Jean-Pascale van Ypersele from UCLouvain in Belgium is a former IPCC Vice-Chair, and co-author of the UN Global Sustainable Development Report 2019. At the Brussels symposium, he summed up the state of the science to the assembled “Arctic stakeholders, the EU community and the public,” illustrating it with his “warming stipes” tie, based on the now famous Ed Hawkins graph. If you had a version just for the Arctic, he noted, the hot colours would be even more prevalent.

With the Arctic warming more than twice as fast as the global average, he referred to a “very high level of urgency”. At COP25 in Madrid, Brazil and some other key players have been fighting hard to avoid the use of that very term.

We are very far from achieving the 1.5 degree goal, van Ypersele said. So where do we stand now? “Only slightly better than the business as usual scenario“” he said – “and that, we know, looks disastrous”.

Cryosphere tipping

In a study published in November, a group of leading scientists found that more than half of the “climate tipping points” identified a decade ago are now active. Five of them involve the cryosphere, including the Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet and permafrost at both ends of the globe. The huge ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are undergoing unprecedented changes much earlier than expected.

On my desk, I have a book entitled Arctic Tipping Points by Carlos M. Duarte and Paul Wassmann. It was published in 2011. At an Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsö, Norway, before publication, he explained the global significance of tipping points and what is happening in the Arctic to me.

Nearly ten years on, in the latest study, scientists refer to a “cascade” of changes sparked by global warming and say this could threaten the existence of human civilisations. They call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent a worst-case scenario of a “hothouse”, less habitable planet. Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-author of the study said “We must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming.”

“This is what we now start seeing, already at 1° C global warming”.

Greenland’s mighty ice sheet is melting faster than ever predicted, one of the critical climate “tipping points” (Pic: I. Quaile)

Planetary emergency

“Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, to unleash world action that accelerates the path towards a world that can continue evolving on a stable planet”, says Röckstrom..

“Planetary crisis” was the term used by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen, when I interviewed her earlier this year for Deutsche Welle. She agreed with me that there is a danger that the speed of climate change and environmental degradation is overtaking scientific research and the speed with which politicians are taking action. Referring to COP25, she commented : “That means 25 years, a quarter of a century where we have been discussing what we knew – not nearly as well as we do now – 25 years ago. We knew this was a threat.”

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen talking to me at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, earlier this year. (Pic: UNEP)

She went on: “The earliest scenarios – those we discussed in Copenhagen in 2009 when we agreed on the two degrees – we now know that those scenarios are no longer as viable as what the 1.5°C report tells us, for example.”

She is referring to the special IPCC report published in October last year. This year saw the publication of two more landmark special reports by the IPCC: Climate Change and Land, and The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. None of them make happy reading.

Reality check

Now, UNEP has just issued its “Emissions Gap Report“. It presents the latest data on the expected gap in 2030 between countries’ emissions pledges and the 1.5°C and 2°C temperature targets of the Paris Agreement. The shocking conclusion is that the world is currently heading for a 3.2° C temperature rise – based on pledges so far.

The 1.5C goal is drifting out of reach. Fridays4Future protesters in Germany, 2019 (Pic. I.Quaile)

The report says global emissions will have to fall by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030. Otherwise, the world will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5°C goal. And once again, that “decade” period comes up:

“For ten years, The Emissions Gap Report has been sounding the alarm – and for ten years, the world has only increased its emissions”, said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “There has never been a more important time to listen to the science. Failure to heed these warnings and take drastic action to reverse emissions means we will continue to witness deadly and catastrophic heatwaves, storms and pollution”.

Inger Andersen put it in a nutshell:

“This shows that countries simply cannot wait until the end of 2020, when new climate commitments are due, to step up action. They – and every city, region, business and individual -needs to act now!”

It’s not too late

As Professor van Ypersele put it when I talked to him in Brussels, “Humanity has the choice”.

It’s up to the humans. (Pic. I.Quaile)

When it comes to the Arctic, who has the responsibility, who has the power to make those choices? The question applies equally to all the regions of the world – especially the poorest and least developed – where livelihoods, even life itself are under threat from climate change.

When it comes to protecting the Arctic region as we have known it – ice, snow, permafrost, a unique ecosystem – the global community, especially the industrialised world, has to change its lifestyle and economic model.

When it comes to benefiting from easier access to natural resources, trade routes opening up, everybody wants a piece of the cake, not least major emitters like China, the USA and Russia. I will leave that subject for a later post. But so far, when it comes to climate action, there is no sign there of a willingness to change fast.

Petteri Vuorimäki is Finland’s ambassador for Arctic and Antarctic Affairs . At the Brussels symposium, he argued strongly for swift action to halt emissions. Geopolitical issues, he said, must not be allowed to slow things down: “The stakes are too high – to save the Arctic and save the world”.

“No shit with the ice” (Pic. I.Quaile, Bonn 2019)

No visible progress in our lifetime

From Björn Lyrvall, Sweden’s ambassador for Arctic Affairs, came the sobering thought that no-one in the room at Arctic Futures would see any positive development in her or his lifetime in terms of a rapid halting of ice melt and related changes. It will take a long, long time for any positive impacts to be seen.

That is another of the dilemmas we face. If people make concessions, change their lifestyles, reduce flying, change their diet and so on – there will be no immediate gratification in terms of visibly reduced climate impacts. In a “me”-centred world, it is hard to bring about change when the benefits are likely to be really felt only by the next generation.

The Greta Factor

Which brings us to “FridaysForFuture”. Greta Thunberg and a host of like-minded youngsters stormed the stage at COP25. Over the past year, thousands around the globe, have been trying to increase the pressure for climate action. In the small ex-German capital, Bonn, where I live, also home to the UNFCCC, melting ice and rising seas featured on quite a few posters by the F4F generation at the last major climate strike event on Nov. 26th.

Great slogan? (Pic. I.Quaile)

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic” is an often repeated phrase. Of course, the opposite is also the case. What happens in the rest of the world is having grave impacts on the icy north.

It is not what happens locally in the region that is transforming the Arctic, with all the global implications that go along with that. The threat comes from the prevalence of countries’ economic interests over responsibility for the world and the environment.

Power politics can never be kept out of the discussion of “Arctic futures”. But on a global scale, climate change is a threat to us all, and needs to be put above any possible short-term trade advantages or increased access to natural resources it may offer to individual players.

“Don’t let it blow away…” (Pic. I.Quaile)

Everything is connected

Fishing regulation, protection against coastal erosion, infrastructure development – these are all essential adaptation measures which will benefit the people who live in the Arctic. But the Arctic also plays a key role in regulating our climate, the balance of the oceans, ultimately the food supply even in the most distant parts of the globe.

As UNEP chief Inger Andersen told me when I met her here in Bonn, (audio version to listen to):

“I guess what we need to understand is that for a long time our economic model was one of extracting, squeezing out as much wealth from the extractive and other opportunities that the natural world provided to us. And then we emitted, paved over and polluted our ways to growth.That had a cost. (…) Clearly that model is not sustainable, as we pollute our ways into bad health, into destroying our ecosystems.”

Wiithout a widescale shift in our lifestyles and economic models, “save the Arctic, save the world“ – will be no more than an empty slogan.”

(Pic: I.Quaile)

One thought on “COP25 and the Arctic: stakes high, expectations low as tipping points tumble

  1. Pingback: 2020 – Crunch time – or squelch time – for the Arctic? – The Ice Blog

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