Even as global temperatures rise, climate ambition falls

by Thoriq Ibrahim | AOSIS
Friday, 2 February 2018 15:34 GMT

In this 2013 file photo, cracked earth marks a dried-up area near a wind turbine used to generate electricity at a wind farm in Guazhou, 950km (590 miles) northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu Province. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It already appears that some developed countries are on track to overshoot their Paris emissions targets

NASA reported last month that 2017 logged in as the second-hottest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880 - and the hottest year that wasn’t influenced by the warming effects of El Nino. 

In fact, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. The temperature increase, most scientists agree, is overwhelmingly the result of industrial greenhouse gas emissions and underscores how perilously close we are to exceeding the 1.5 degree Celsius average global temperature goal set in the Paris climate change agreement.

We’ve already witnessed approximately a 1 degree increase above pre-industrial levels and the resulting impacts have been far worse than experts had previously forecast.

The string of powerful hurricanes that struck the Caribbean last fall serve as a graphic reminder of why small island nations insisted on the 1.5 degree limit in Paris. Almost six months after the storms, parts of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Cuba and Puerto Rico are still struggling to rebuild.

And islands were not alone in their suffering. Deadly heatwaves in South Asia, unprecedented wildfires and mudslides in North America, and relentless droughts in Africa were just some of the other climate-related impacts seen around the world.

At the same time, coral reefs across the tropical belt are still recovering from back-to-back bleaching episodes after abnormally high ocean temperatures. 

Scientists say such events demonstrate the urgent need for countries to reduce emissions as soon as possible because if we hope to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees we must act immediately.

Yet, recent developments suggest we are at risk of going in the wrong direction.

It is no secret that the United States’ plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and roll back emissions regulations is a setback. Not only does the move mean more emissions from the world’s largest economy, but history tells us that it also could threaten overall international ambition to tackle the crisis.

From the earliest days of negotiating the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, all parties agreed, as a matter of basic fairness, that the developed countries responsible for the vast majority of emissions would take the lead in transitioning to renewables and help developing countries do the same with financial, technological, and capacity support.

The same principle - often referred to as “common but differentiated responsibility” - underpins the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. 

But Kyoto was never ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic warming and its promise to help developing countries leapfrog fossil fuel-based energy sources with support from developed countries never fully materialised.

What’s more, when the United States withdrew from Kyoto in 2001, its goals moved further out of reach and over the next decade a number of developed countries also joined the United States in abandoning the treaty.

Today, with obligations set to begin under the Paris Agreement in just two years, for developed and developing countries alike, long-standing emissions reduction and financial support commitments remain unfulfilled - raising the question of who is responsible to make up the difference now.

The issue occupied much of the talks at the latest climate change negotiations in Bonn. Developed countries seemed eager to move past it and developing countries insisted that commitments made prior to the Paris Agreement must be accounted for in some way. 

Parties ended the impasse by agreeing to submit reports about the pre-2020 actions they are taking in May, but there is little indication that this will result in concrete results and it already appears that some developed countries are on track to overshoot their Paris emissions targets.

In contrast, big developing countries like India and China are on track to meet or exceed their Paris goals and have committed to make massive investments in renewable power sources like wind and solar over the next few years. 

At the same time, the world’s small island nations, which account for only a small fraction of global emissions, are ramping up climate solutions at home with their Initiative for Renewable Island Energy (IRIE), a partnership with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) that encourages rapid renewable energy deployment.

In fact, big developing countries and small islands have proven to be very efficient at deploying renewables, and clean energy technology is more cost-effective than ever before.

But it is neither practicable nor fair to expect them to close the emissions gap left by developed countries.

Let’s hope we set new kinds of climate change records this year: for financial support of clean energy in developing countries, for the deployment of renewable energy around the world, and for building climate resilience against climate change impacts we can no longer avoid.

Thoriq Ibrahim is the energy and environment minister for the Maldives and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States.