An editorial in the journal Nature is a timely reminder that starting next week there is an important series of meetings taking place in Europe to discuss the progress being made towards the 2015 Paris Agreement targets.
According to the UN, the ‘Talanoa Dialogue’ aims to “share stories, build empathy and to make wise decisions for the collective good.” This tradition is part of Fijian culture, and it has to be admired as a mature and reasoned approach to solving conflicts among communities, and through dialogue, reflection and understanding, arriving at a decision that all parties come to accept and respect.
One has to question, though, if this calm reasonable approach is really the most effective way of moving the global community closer to finding a solution to the increasingly dangerous hazards posed by the changing climate.
What we know now—almost 18 months after the Paris Agreement came into effect in November 2016, is that the commitments made by the parties to the Agreement aimed at reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases were wholly insufficient. Atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases that induce global warming continue to rise. Global temperatures show no sign of levelling off, and extreme weather is still a constant threat.
Out of sight, out of mind
During the northern hemisphere winter, we tend to forget about heatwaves, wildfires, and hurricanes. But down under, in the southern hemisphere summer, they have just endured another blisteringly hot season.
In January, across large areas of Australia, the heat was at life-threatening levels. Temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne topped 40°C. Asphalt melted on the Hume Highway linking Melbourne and Sydney. A 2016 State of the Climate report by the Australian meteorological bureau stated that the duration, intensity and frequency of extreme heat events has increased.
In other words, extreme weather doesn’t go away—it just moves down south during the northern hemisphere winter.
The story so far
The problem with the Talanoa Dialogue concept is that it all sounds much too laid back. Perhaps it’s just a poor choice of words, but sitting down and sharing stories seems like a very underwhelming response to a global problem that is an existential threat to many small island nations.
The Republic of Fiji includes over 300 islands of which about a third are inhabited. The islands are volcanic so not as exposed to rising sea levels and storm surge as many coral islands in the Pacific. But all the Pacific small islands are dangerously vulnerable to extreme weather. In 2016, cyclone Winston swept across Fiji killing over 40 people. It was a monster storm. Packing winds of almost 300 km/hr, it was the most powerful storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere. The damage to Fiji’s economy was estimated at about 10% of the country’s GDP.
So the time for story-telling has passed.
The truth is that what needs to be done to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas is perfectly well known to climate scientists and engineers that have looked at the numbers. There is nothing mysterious or illusory about what needs to be done. It’s just that powerful vested interests, particularly in America, continue to spend very considerable amounts of money to persuade the public that climate change is not a serious problem and that action to reduce emissions of carbon is misplaced and unnecessary.
At the COP22 meeting in Marrakesh in 2016, representatives from 47 of the world’s most disadvantaged nations pledged to generate all their future energy needs from renewable energy. Members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) issued their statement on the last day of the Marrakesh meeting. Dubbed the Marrakesh Vision, the nations pledged that they will “strive to meet 100% domestic renewable energy production as rapidly as possible, while working to end energy poverty and protect water and food security.”
Substantial government subsidies to fossil fuel companies continue to support an industry that is in decline. Following the lead of the Group of Twenty (G20) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), by the end of 2016 more than 50 countries had committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. But this is not enough. A much more forceful mechanism to end these subsidies needs to be implemented and enforced.
So that is two major initiatives: phase out coal and transition to renewable energy; and end the subsidies for fossil fuels.
There should be two more items on the Talanoa agenda.
First, greater effort needs to be directed towards the electrification of the transport sector. The paradigm shift has started–but it needs to accelerate. Building out the charging infrastructure and switching all public transport to electric vehicles is an absolute priority. Renewable energy and electric vehicles is the perfect synergy.
Second, there are substantial gains to be made in efficiency—particularly in the built environment. Building codes need to be revised so that all new houses are electric. All heating and cooling should be provided by the most efficient technology we have—heat pumps.
In Canada, heating homes with natural gas needs to end, and district heating should be more widely promoted—the Drake Landing Solar Community in Alberta, is an excellent example of what can be accomplished with imagination, good engineering, and solar energy.
In the majority of countries—certainly the larger ones that produce most of the greenhouse gases, the power and transportation sectors together account for about 50% of emissions. Efficiency improvements will add another 10%. So reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 50% by 2030 is entirely feasible.
But it will take vision, leadership, and hard work.
This is the story that needs to be told.