COP23: Small island States show how its done

With COP23 in Bonn not too far away, it’s a good time to mull over the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The international collaboration and coordination that led to the Paris accord in December 2015 was unprecedented—and a clear sign that almost every government in the world–except of course for the very notable exception of the United States– is convinced that climate change is a real threat.

I’m not sure what’s on the agenda at COP23, but one thing that has to be a priority is to examine the global impact of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and to develop a coherent strategy to strengthen countries’ policies to reduce emissions even further.  This is because it is already clear that the present programme of NDCs, even counting all the conditional emission reductions (the reductions that countries can make if they get additional funding), are not going to be enough to keep warming to under 2C.  The 1.5C objective is only theoretically possible—it requires immediate widespread and deep cuts in emissions, and there is no sign that this is taking place. There are several reports that confirm this analysis—the best one being the 2016 Emissions Gap Report from the United Nations Environment Programme.  You can find it here.

Looking at what is actually happening, as opposed to reading all the ambitious targets that countries have set for themselves, the 2016 EG report finds that greenhouse gas emissions show no signs of leveling out. Total GHG emissions have continued to show a steady increase reaching approximately 52.7 GtCOe in 2014—the last year for which estimates  are available.  Carbon dioxide emissions (which make up about ¾ of GHG emissions) have started to flatline—as renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements make their mark.  But methane and nitrous oxide—both important GHG emissions, show no sign of slackening off.

It’s frankly time to stop hoping for the best, and time to start preparing for the worst.

Does that mean, we should give up on reducing emissions?  Absolutely not. It’s no exaggeration to say that climate change is an existential threat. If warming can be held to 3C–an increasingly likely scenario–planet Earth will be blasted by heat waves, devastated by violent weather, and riven by country-wide droughts. Across Africa and Asia, violent conflicts over land and water resources will constantly erupt.  Climate refugees will number in the millions. This will be the new normal.  Drought and  then floods will drive climate refugees into the cities.  Heat waves will drive them out again. Everywhere you look in Africa and Asia, the future is grim.

It is a global imperative to drive down carbon emissions to as close to zero as soon as possible. This takes vision, leadership, and commitment.

Just don’t believe that you can hold warming to 2C, and don’t believe that the Earth is going to be user-friendly ever again.

The move to erect walls, strengthen borders, and heighten border security are the first signs of this instinctive social response. Brexit and the Catalonia independence movement should be seen in the context of  societies that sense the impending  threat. There is a strong feeling that things are not getting better. The threat is amorphous, unclear. Societies react by retreating inwards, circling the wagons.  You don’t have to see the danger to sense that it is out there.

For the 51 Small Island Developing States, the SIDS, the future brings a mulitude of dangerous existential threats. Extreme weather: hurricanes and cyclones, will becomes more intense and dangerous. Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica and Puerto Rico, and many other Caribbean islands that didn’t get much press. They were just left to clear up as best they could.  Last year hurricane Matthew tore into Haiti.  This is what the future looks like for nearly all the SIDS—whether in the Caribbean, or the Pacific Ocean, where many island countries are barely above sea level. Dozens of islands will eventually becomes uninhabitable—swamped by salt water storm surges that render the soil infertile, and salinize groundwater resources.

Being for the most part poor with little industrial production, the SIDS produce miniscule amounts of greenhouse gases.  Yet their governments have been persuaded that, just like major GHG emitters, they should do their bit for reducing global emissions. Be part of the global team. Perhaps blinded by the bright lights of Paris, and swept away by the euphoria of a exceptional global movement, the SIDS signed up to be part of the emission reductions team.

This was a mistake.

The foremost objective for the 51 small island developing States is adaptation.  Immediate, urgent, and  total adaptation. Forget mitigation.  It’s irrelevant for small islands.

So that’s the first item on the agenda for the SIDS.  The first item on the agenda for the Climate Vulnerable Forum.

The priority is electrical power generation.  All the small islands should pursue a vigorous programme aimed at transitioning to renewable energy.  This is an essential and cost-effective adaptation strategy.  It also automatically reduces emissions of CO2 since most islands are still generating power from imported petroleum fuels.  But reducing CO2 emissions is not the objective—it’s a welcome additional advantage.  What 100 % renewable energy gets you is distributed, resilient, power generation—the kind that can handle a Cat5 storm, the kind that keeps communications up and running when all the trees are down.  The kind that keeps people alive.


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