Same procedure as every year? While the Russian aggression in Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines and COVID simmers steadily beneath the surface, the annual UN Climate Change Conference is taking place here in the German city of Bonn. Governments are meeting for the first time since the conclusion of COP26 in Glasgow last November.
These are working meetings, designed to lay the groundwork for COP27, due to take place in Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt in November.
The snail’s pace of climate action
This year’s COP will focus primarily on implementation, and nations are expected to show how they will, through legislation, policies and programmes, begin to put the Paris Agreement into practice, at home, said the UN climate change body.
Begin? Did I read that right? 30 years after the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change?
“The world is going to have one question in Sharm El-Sheikh: what progress have you made since Glasgow?”, said UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa, who is coming to end of her six-year term in office.
Now there’s a tough one.
Weather extremes bring climate change home
Here in Bonn, it was a chilly start to the “sunny” month of June. Back in April we had a heat wave, with thunderstorms – and icy hailstones. Now, after a nippy couple of weeks, temperatures are heading for 35°C. People always talk about the weather. But after several outbursts of torrential rain reminding people of the disastrous floods here this time last year, now they are actually talking about the changing climate.
“The ground is still way too dry and has been for the last few years”, the local farmer complains. The extreme cloudbursts don’t soak in. The seasons are shifting. Conditions are changing.
I phoned an old friend to congratulate her on her 95th birthday. “This is not just normal weather ups and downs”, she told me. The whole climate is different from it used to be. “I don’t think it was us personally”, she said, remembering the privations of World War II and the post-war years. “But humanity as a whole, all the industry, all the traffic, wanting ever more. That has done it,” she said.
Communities in the high north are feeling the impact of warming even more keenly, with the Arctic warming around three times as fast as the rest of the planet.
As early as late May, high northern regions were already experiencing unusually high temperatures.
The image, captured by one of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites on 29 May 2022, shows a significant discharge of sediment into the Arctic Ocean due to massive melting of snow and glaciers around Longyearbyen in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. According to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, on 28 May, at Akseløya, an island 60 km southeast of Longyearbyen, the temperature rose to 10.5°C, the highest value for the month of May in 46 years of observations. Additionally, according to the University of Liège’s climatology laboratory (see this article), on that same day, surface melting at the Svalbard archipelago reached a record high value for the end of May.
Sea ice changes, – global impact
The sea ice in the Arctic is declining at an average rate of around 13 percent per decade. And a study published by the University at Albany at the end of April based on observational data and model simulations shows that is having a long-lasting impact in the Arctic and beyond.
Diminishing sea ice and global climate impact
“As the melting of Arctic sea ice continues, its impacts are likely to be felt even more in coming decades, not only in the Arctic but over the North Atlantic and other regions across the globe,” said atmospheric scientist at the University of Albany Aiguo Dai, who led the research team.
“This is because sea surface temperature anomalies in the North Atlantic can affect atmospheric circulation patterns over Europe, North America, West Africa and South America, leading to temperature and precipitation changes in these regions.”
In 2019, Aiguo Dai, led a study examining the causes of Arctic Amplification (AA), the term used to describe the Arctic’s warming rates at two to three times the rest of the planet. The climate simulations used for that study showed that additional AA will not diminish until nearly all the Arctic’s sea ice has melted away in the 23rd century. Not happy reading.
If there was ever any doubt in your mind:
“The take-home message here is that the Arctic region is very important for Earth’s climate and the rapid melting of its sea ice has and will continue to have significant climatic impacts worldwide,” says Dai.
Russia: wildfires and war
In north-western Russia, the high temperatures have aggravated the wildfire situation:
The heat and fires are increasingly impacting the permafrost, which, in turn, as it thaws, further exacerbates climate change.
The unseasonal heat in Russia is just one element of the “myriad of extreme weather” we have experienced this year so far around the globe:
Half a century of environment and climate (in-)action?
So there is no lack of evidence to motivate rapid action on climate change, as the delegates meet in Bonn, 30 years after the founding of the UNFCCC and half a century after the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, widely regarded as the world’s first major environment summit.
In an op ed for the Guardian entitled “For 50 years, governments have failed to act on climate change. No more excuses”, three ex UNFCCC chiefs: Christiana Figueres, Yvo de Boer and Michael Zammit Cutajar write:
“In our time leading its secretariat, we have witnessed commitments and pledges that have not been fully honoured. While developed countries accepted the convention’s principle of equity and thus their responsibility to lead climate action, their performance has been disappointing, not least in reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases and in mobilising financial support for developing countries that need it.”
When Yvo de Boer resigned as UNFCCC chief in 2010 in the wake of the disastrous Copenhagen climate conference, I called my commentary for the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, dw.com: No job for an optimist. Now, 30 years after the UNFCC was founded, 50 years after that key Stockholm summit, he and his two colleagues insist:
“Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
The climate leaders question the record and commitment of governments so far in their efforts to keep to the 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement:
“Science shows action this decade to reduce all greenhouse gases is critical. But the sum total of policies in place now will take us to a world hotter by 2.7C and perhaps a catastrophic 3.6C above pre-industrial levels,” they warn.
Too many climate records broken
The latest report by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published earlier this year shows four key climate indicators broke records in 2021. Ocean heat hit a record high, after rising particularly strongly in the the past two decades, and is reaching ever deeper depths. Scientists are confident the open ocean is now the most acidic it has ever been for 26,000 years. Global average sea levels reached a new record high in 2021, after increasing at more than double the previous rate, mainly on account of accelerating ice melt. And greenhouse gas concentrations already reached a new global high in 2020, despite pandemic lockdowns, and continued to rise into 2021 and 2022.
“This is yet another clear sign that human activities are causing planetary scale changes on land, in the ocean, and in the atmosphere, with harmful and long-lasting ramifications for the sustainable development and ecosystems”, the WMO writes.
“Our climate is changing before our eyes”, says WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas:
“The heat trapped by human-induced greenhouse gases will warm the planet for many generations to come. Sea level rise, ocean heat and acidification will continue for hundreds of years unless means to remove carbon from the atmosphere are invented. Some glaciers have reached the point of no return”.
Warming impacts unavoidable
A new study headed by the University of Washington reported in Nature Climate Change on June 6th 2022 evaluates just how much warming is already ensured by past emissions. Previous similar studies observed emissions of carbon dioxide has found “little to no warming in the pipeline” as soon as emissions cease. But the new study also includes shorter-lived greenhouse gases, like nitrogen oxide and methane, as well as particulate pollution like soot and sulphur.
Under a moderate future emissions scenario, by 2029 the planet has a two-thirds chance of temporarily exceeding warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, even if all emissions cease on that date, the study finds. If humans remain on a moderate emissions pathway, by 2057, there is a two-thirds chance that the planet will at least temporarily surpass warming of 2 °C, the experts conclude.
“This paper looks at the temporary warming that can’t be avoided, and that’s important if you think about components of the climate system that respond quickly to global temperature changes, including Arctic sea ice, extreme events such as heat waves or floods, and many ecosystems. Our study found that in all cases, we are committed by past emissions to reaching peak temperatures about five to 10 years before we experience them,”, said Kyle Armour, Study Co-Author and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and of Oceanography at the University of Washington
The study finds that the carbon budget remaining to keep warming below 2 °C is therefore considerably less than earlier estimates.
Russian war – bad for the climate
Russia’s war on Ukraine has both diverted attention away from the climate crisis and exacerbated the emissions situation. As well as the additional emissions created by the process of the war itself, the impacts, the rebuilding, the resulting energy crisis have led to a revival of demand for fossil fuels at a time when the world urgently needs to switch to renewables.
We are witnessing a global “gold rush” for new fossil gas production, pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities,” concludes Climate Action Tracker, a collaboration of two organisations, Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, which provides independent analysis to policymakers:
“This risks locking us into another high-carbon decade and keeping the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit out of reach (…) If all these plans materialise, they will either end up as massive stranded assets or they’ll lock the world into irreversible warming”.
The group says governments are making the same mistake they made in their economic recovery packages from COVID-19, failing to make decarbonisation a focus.
Almost all governments surveyed are compensating consumers and industry for high energy prices by measures which encourage the intensive use of fossil fuels, the trackers find. While the currently high fuel prices are seeing fossil fuel companies making record profits, only a few governments have begun taxing fossil fuel companies on these additional profits.
Here in Germany, the price of fuel has not dropped substantially, in spite of a cut in fuel taxes. Fossil fuel companies are raking in the profits instead of passing on the saving to the consumers.
“Our analysis shows that government responses largely address the short-term energy supply needs and compromise their long-term climate mitigation strategies”, writes CAT. Not a good development.
Little progress since Glasgow despite dire evidence
Despite the clear warning of the extreme dangers of exceeding 1.5°C warming from the IPCC, progress to make climate targets for 2030 more ambitious has stalled since COP26 in Glasgow, says CAT. This goes against the agreement of the “Glasgow Pact” to update national 2030 climate targets in 2022.
“Without increased government action, the world will still emit twice the greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 than is allowed under the 1.5°C limit of the Paris Agreement. The world is heading to a warming of 2.4°C with 2030 targets and even higher, 2.7°C, with current policies. With this looming emissions gap in 2030, it is important that all governments revisit and strengthen their climate targets. It is not enough for them to make marginal or no improvements”, the experts conclude.
Changing the habits of (many) lifetimes
Limiting global warming and slowing climate change require changes to our behaviour. That applies across the board, both to our economies and industries and to each and every consumer.
CAT suggests encouraging slower driving by introducing (Germany!) or lowering speed limits, home office policies, restricting car access to cities, or turning down the heating or air conditioning in buildings. They also say governments need to provide incentives, not just recommendations.
More affordable public transport would be one possibility. Here in Germany, a cheap ticket across the summer has already dramatically increased the number of people using trains, trams and buses.
Don’t waste it, save it
Energy efficiency and energy saving should be at the top of our agendas. The solutions are there to improve energy efficiency in all sectors. We don’t need to wait. We need action because “the greenest energy is the energy we don’t use.”
Germany’s vice-chancellor and Minister for Economic Afairs and Climate Action Robert Habeck has launched a campaign to encourage energy savings with a view to reducing reliance on Russian fossil fuels.
I can’t help feeling we should have been looking at efficiency and energy-saving from the start.
German energy conservation expert Stefan M. Büttner, says that companies can save energy and production costs more easily than they think.
“At least one third of industrial energy consumption can be saved by innovative technologies currently available on the market,” says Büttner, who is director of global strategy at Stuttgart University’s Institute for Energy Efficiency in Production (EEP), and chair of a UN task force on industrial energy efficiency.
“Trigger self-initiative and self-commitment” – Seems like that should be a no-brainer.
Government policies can change people’s habits
Germany’s renowned think-tank PIK, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has just published a study on how climate policy can actually change the way people think about their actions. The scientists find that it is possible to influence people’s preferences, rather than to assume that they will keep to old habits and automatically reject measures which would involve change.
“People’s preferences are more malleable than textbook economics often assumes”, they write. The researchers’ advise policy makers to take that into account when tailoring policies like carbon taxes or building low-carbon infrastructure. Linus Mattauch, lead author of the paper and researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the University of Oxford, explains:
“Economists typically assume you are basically born with a fixed set of values and preferences that remain that way throughout your life. It makes calculations easier – but it is a simplification from reality. And, crucially, if you assume preferences will always remain the same, real change like the transition to a decarbonised economy is harder.”
They cite changes in attitudes to smoking following education campaigns on the negative health impacts, combined with price rises and bans. The general rejection of driving under the influence of alcohol is given as another example.
Nicholas Stern, who published the famous 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, co-authored the study. He says carbon pricing is indispensable for delivering on climate targets, and suggests it would ultimately make people come round to developing low carbon preferences.
A good public transport system and bike-friendly infrastructure will also encourage people to switch from driving. Policies to induce changes in preferences for plant-based diets could also be used to benefit the climate, he says.
We have to do more, faster
All in all, as we move into the second half of 2022, we have a long way to go to avert disastrous climate impacts – and a rapidly shrinking time window to do the necessary. The UN’s top climate change official Patricia Espinosa warned at the start of the ongoing Bonn talks that climate change is progressing exponentially.
“With the world currently on track to more than double the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement by the end of the century, ambition must urgently be raised to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and immediate action and progress in Bonn are needed”, she told the delegates assembled in Bonn.
I hope everybody is listening, not only in Bonn. As she concludes: “We can do better, we must.”