When the COP or Convention of Parties meet up for their annual summits on climate change it is for many students a career determining summit, in that it sets the scale of the challenges along with crushing dreams of an early retirement. Work never seems to end, does it?
Prof. Dr. Niklas Höhne is a good person to talk to on such matters; he’s been working on climate policy for the last 20 years, during which he contributed to IPCC reports, co-founded NewClimate institute and created the Climate Action tracker, which routinely informs us that we are not on track to stop catastrophic global warming. He was also there at COP 27 at Sharm El-Sheikh last week. I asked him a few questions about what the future means after it.
What needed to happen at COP 27?
Ans: At COP 26 it was agreed that emission reduction targets were not ambitious enough and countries said they would return to COP 27 with newer, more ambitious targets. This did not happen. Of the 191 countries, only 28 presented new targets, 7 of which were old targets in new documents.
These emissions reductions targets are voluntary targets countries come up with to show how they plan to reduce emissions in their places to make sure the planet’s temperature doesn’t rise beyond 2 C on average. (Yes, the last summer and the last few summers before that were probably more than 2C hotter than you expected but the planet on average (on long time scales) is 1.1C hotter than 1900).
If you read that properly you are probably wondering, “wait, voluntary? Countries have to “volunteer” to stop the planet from dying? is that the best we can do? this is horrifying”. To which the wise people who came up with the Paris agreement 2015 gave some thought, then probably watched some teen movies on Netflix and decided that peer pressure was what will save the planet.
Enter the Ratchet mechanism, where countries keep escalating their targets because other countries are doing more. If you think that is stupid, let me remind you the US did win the cold war by having a “send most rockets to space” contest.
Tangents aside this brings my next question to Dr. Niklas:
How effective has the ratchet mechanism been so far?
Ans: The ratchet mechanism has worked in the past. In 2021 for instance the US came forward with new targets which shamed a lot of other countries into action. It also sparked a wave of net zero targets, for example after China unveiled its net-zero targets Japan and Korea followed suit quickly. So, in 2021 the ratchet mechanism was effective. In 2022 it was not.
2022 of course is a year that thought 2020 was too mild and decided to show how it’s really done with true international tragedies like the collapse of my bitcoin portfolio, and also Russia’s invasion, I guess.
Did the Russia-Ukraine war dampen climate progress?
Ans: That was probably a major factor, climate is not the top issue on the minds of countries now and a lot of diplomatic work was not carried out.
Then how resilient are these climate targets really to geo-political squabbles?
Ans: The entire international negotiation process only works when several conditions are met and falls apart even when one is not met. It is fragile to external shocks and fragile to a lack of leadership. The UK when it hosted Glasgow did a lot to shore up consensus and bolster negotiations. The Egyptian government however did not match that level of leadership.
The next COP is going to be hosted by the UAE, is that a promising sign?
Ans: That is worrying and brings the question whether a country with vested interests should lead a climate negotiations summit. There is still hope that leadership can come from elsewhere. The EU for example can take up the mantle.
Leadership steers us towards goals and the one numerical goal that every climate activist knows is 1.5 C. That magic number is what draws the dividing line where the small low-lying island nations face submersion to rising sea levels.
To address the elephant in the room: Is 1.5C on life support? Is insurance going to cover that?
Ans: To reach 1.5 C at this pace is impossible. What is needed is a step change where do the unimaginable and operate our societies in emergency mode. Like during the covid crisis or the energy crisis.
How do we do emergency action together when some countries are more impacted than others?
Ans: We are all in the same boat and we all must face the consequences of it. If the impacts on one country force the residents to move then it becomes everybody’s problem with fights for food, fights over land, conflicts. This inter-relationship of impacts is not well understood particularly by many in developed countries prompting thoughts like “well we cannot do mitigation we will just adapt to climate change.” Sorry, you cannot just adapt to climate change, it’s impossible.
You gave COVID as an example of emergency action but there were backlashes, like in China. Emergency policy for climate would have to operate much longer, how will people not revolt?
Ans: It depends entirely on how the policy is carried out. One example is the free train tickets in Germany in response to the energy crisis. This was well received, showing that when policies like this are carried out where there is a clear benefit for the people then there is no problem for not sustaining it.
Perhaps 1.5C can be saved through emergency but can democracy survive emergency? Can capitalism be made stomach to the appetite curb without throwing up all our jobs? How much of our lives are we really prepared to sacrifice for future generations?
Perhaps it’s just easier to not look at the truth, perhaps it’s easier to just block out the sun. Dr. Niklas tells me geoengineering is an expensive distraction. Which is incidentally exactly what I crave after this depressing discussion, maybe the football world cup can bring me back to sprit.
At least FIFA can’t be all that problematic right?
Article written by Wega.