Three years ago, the Paris agreement on tackling climate change was struck. Politically, it feels like an age ago, but on the environmental agenda, we’ve also come a long way.
It’s worth, as COP24 gets underway in Katowice, looking over that journey.
First, we need to remember that the agreement to aim for no more than 1.5ºC of warming above pre-industrial levels came as a big shock. Campaigners had been aiming for the fuzzy target of ‘well below 2ºC’, and most commentators were expecting a flat 2ºC. Experts had only prepared projections and plans on that basis.
The euphoria of that day in Paris, with Presidents Obama and Macron grinning broadly, and a good part of the room in tears of joy, came in part from that, as well as the relief of agreement after the disaster of Copenhagen.
The agreement was seen as a great success for the small island states and others intensely vulnerable to rising sea levels and the increased intensity of storms, a case of some of the most vulnerable and poorest nations in the world, to whom most had previously paid little attention (can you find Tuvalu on a map?), playing a diplomatic blinder.
Three years on, our understanding of that decision has changed. What was once seen as a gesture for the few, is now seen as essential for the many, something made acutely obvious by the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
That was made crystal clear yesterday in Katowice, in the British pavilion at the COP talks, which at least this year doesn’t appear to be advertising coal-bed methane. Consider it a small mercy, under the control of this government, which so clearly doesn’t have any concept of the urgency of climate action.
Unsurprising then that the pavilion is still plugging ‘bridging fuel’ gas at the same time as I heard a delegate from Costa Rica dismiss such pushes as a corporate shill. “If you want to build a skyscraper, you don’t do it by stacking houses on top of each other,” he said. “Instead you start with proper foundations. Otherwise once you’ve built the house it is hard to knock it down.”
But behind the sign at the British pavilion proudly proclaiming the Climate Change Act of 2008 as a great achievement, which it was, a decade ago, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research had been given a fringe slot to set out why that so small-sounding 0.5ºC makes a huge difference.
Slide after slide set out the difference for the natural world: some coral reefs survive, versus virtually none; about two million square kilometres of permafrost melting is prevented; Arctic ice stays 99 years in 100 versus nine years in ten; and double the amount of biome area change is prevented.
And the human savings: several hundred million people saved from extreme risk; relative stability versus up to a 10 per cent loss of rangeland livestock; and far lower adaptation costs.
The message is clear. But the action is still falling enormously short, as has been driven home in session after session. We need 45 per cent reductions in CO2 emissions from 2010 by 2040 if we have any aspirations for a 1.5ºC future. One former COP president said we need to up our ambition five-fold.
Carbon emissions, after several years of stasis, have again begun to rise. They have to peak by 2020 at the latest, yet as an International Energy Assessment showed, we’re still building new coal-fired power stations in many countries, locking in decades of emissions and giving us precious little room to manoeuvre.
There’s a phrase you hear again and again around the drafty halls of COP – ‘enhanced ambition’. And that’s clearly what we need.
But there’s also to be found, in many of its meeting rooms, lots of good news, acres of possibility. At a session in the often-packed meeting room of the World Wildlife Fund (optimism is clearly attractive), I heard how two Finnish cities, traditional rivals, Tampere and Turku, are in a ‘race to the top’ to reach climate goals. Turku is promising to be carbon-neutral by 2029 (when it will be celebrating its 800th birthday). Tampere’s target is – for now – a year behind.
And we heard that it is perfectly feasible for cities (the source of 70 per cent of the world’s emissions), to halve them every decade, getting us collectively well on track towards that crucial, unmissable, 1.5ºC target.
The IPCC said we had 12 years. If we use them well, we can keep global warming to 1.5ºC. And having recently visited Tampere, I can also attest how making progress towards that can give us all a far better quality of life, more security and comfort in the day-to-day, as well as a stable planet in the future.
Natalie Bennett was the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2012-2016. She is in Katowice with the Green Economics Institute