Failure to slow climate change threatens 'every country', UN talks told

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 13 December 2018 17:27 GMT

Debris is seen on the street as heavy rain and flash floods hit Sant Llorenc de Cardassar on the island of Mallorca, Spain, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Enrique Calvo

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U.N. negotiations in Poland are missing a sense of urgency reinforced by science, top officials say

By Laurie Goering

KATOWICE, Poland, Dec 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Decades of efforts to curb climate-changing emissions are failing, leaving not just small islands but "every country" at this year's U.N. climate talks facing the threat of disaster, former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed warned on Thursday.

"Carbon emissions keep rising and rising and rising, and all we seem to be doing is talking and talking and talking. We are not winning the battle," said Nasheed, who is leading his Indian Ocean island state's negotiating team at the talks in Poland.

The slow pace of the negotiations - and lagging efforts to change government and business policies - run contrary to stark warnings in an October science report that the world has about 12 years left to clean up its energy system or face potentially catastrophic consequences.

Failure to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) or less, compared to pre-industrial times, would likely lead to worsening water and food shortages, rising poverty, more destructive disasters and accelerating natural losses, scientists warned.

"The 1.5 report took away all places to hide, all the kicking the can down the road," said Rachel Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and special representative of the U.N. secretary-general on sustainable energy.

Governments and businesses must "swallow" the report, "not chew on it", she said. "That's the urgency we're missing here," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But speeding up efforts to switch to clean energy and prepare vulnerable communities for harsher climate impacts is proving frustratingly intractable, for many reasons.

A protester wearing a yellow vest stands next to burning trash bins in a street during clashes with police at a national day of protest by the "yellow vests" movement in Paris, France, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A recent plan by French President Emmanuel Macron to hike taxes on diesel, for instance, was a trigger for widespread protests over declining living standards.

That has spooked government officials who in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement to curb climate change, experts say.

"We have gone from the Paris of 2015 to the Paris of 2018," said Ottmar Edenhofer, a climate economist and co-director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

"People here (at the talks) say that what we learned from Paris 2018 is that to impose a carbon price on electricity, heat or gasoline is an incredibly bad idea, that for a politician it's political suicide," he said.

But that view is "a complete misrepresentation", he added, calling France's tax poorly thought out and badly handled.

It is a combination of low fuel prices worldwide, huge subsidies for fossil fuels and rising interest rates that is making the higher upfront cost of solar and wind power harder to afford and slowing down climate action, Edenhofer said.

Countries that want to curb global warming should make sure changes do not hit wallets, and work to reduce widening social inequality, to build trust in government, he said.

DIRTY AIR

Growing concerns about air pollution around the world are driving demand for action in some regions, particularly Asian countries such as South Korea and China.

In Korea, it has become "the number one issue in elections", said Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the Global Green Growth Institute, based in Seoul.

That has led a government that previously was not really interested in renewable energy to say it intends to phase out coal - though relatively slowly, Rijsberman said.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man holds his baby while viewing central Seoul shrouded in heavy haze at an observation platform at "N Seoul Tower" located atop Mt. Namsan in central Seoul February 27, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Globally, too many national and multilateral banks are still offering to fund new coal plants, even as scientists say coal use must end rapidly, SEforALL's Kyte said.

"If you ratified the Paris Agreement, no instrument of your government lending should be supporting coal anywhere, period," she insisted.

To grow more cleanly, power-hungry developing countries need to find it as easy to add renewable power capacity as coal or other fossil fuel plants, she added.

But so far a lack of big investors in clean power, a shortage of affordable finance to cover its higher initial costs, and insufficient expertise in new technologies mean coal remains an easier option, Kyte said.

Pushing businesses and banks to change faster is likely to require making now-voluntary disclosure of climate-related financial risks mandatory "as soon as possible", she said.

Nasheed of the Maldives agreed it was time to up the pressure.

"We are still begging the big polluters to stop polluting on ethical grounds - but they are not listening to us," he said.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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