On the eve of the New York signing ceremony: the latest on climate change and what the EU should do next
April 19, 2016
Guest blog post by Nomi Byström, Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Computer Science, Aalto University.
Last December 195 nations as well as the European Union acting as a single party agreed to an international convention on climate change during the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21).
Another important step is about to take place as world leaders and dignitaries will shortly be gathering in New York when the convention opens for signature on 22 April. Over 130 of the states have confirmed that they will be attending the signing of the convention that will be deposited at the United Nations. The European Union, since it took an active role in the advancement of the historic deal, may with good reason look forward with pride to next week’s ceremony. However, any sense of accomplishment can only be brief, and while rolling up sleeves for the work to begin in earnest.
The agreement achieved in Paris, though far from perfect, is a first-ever universal and legally binding global climate deal. Thus it is also a milestone improvement from the 1992 Rio deal and 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The aim of the 2015 agreement, according to its Article 2, is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”. The treaty will enter into force thirty days after at least 55 states that account for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have become party to the convention.
The New York ceremony comes not a moment too soon, on the contrary. It takes place against a backdrop of more and more research studying, and regrettably very often also finding a link between climate change and, inter alia, the following: zika virus; the spread of vector-borne diseases (for example by ticks); malnutrition; pollution; mass extinction of species; and spread of toxic algae. The list is not comprehensive.
But while these examples are grave enough, the game changer has not yet been mentioned. It is the sleeping lion that climate change has woken up. And it is by far the greatest power on Earth, though unlike for example the US or China, it will not be attending the New York ceremony. When it comes to climate the change, the key actor is the one global ocean that unites seas. It covers over 70% of the Earth and its seas are responding to unprecedented temperature rises accordingly.
After COP21 we now know that in 2015 Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest since the start of modern record keeping. This year’s February was the most abnormally warm month that has ever been recorded. Breaking a nearly 140-year period of record it is also the biggest temperature anomaly of any month. While it was described by scientists as signalling “a kind of climate emergency”, March has ‘succeeded’ in breaking records yet again.
Particularly worrisome is the melting of the polar regions. In the Arctic night-time temperatures are predicted to soar as much as by 6 degrees Celsius. This month polar researchers thought that their models were broken when they first saw the results: they found an almost 12 per cent of Greenland’s ice melting. In some places temperature readings on the ice exceeded 10C. Moreover and most significantly, if carbon emissions are not reduced, the melting of Antarctica and the collapsing of its ice sheets can make the sea levels rise much faster than earlier anticipated by the UN’s climate science even double up to two metres by 2100.
These figures are a stark reminder of the profound consequences of climate change. Already before the latest data, according to the report published by Climate Central in November 2015, Mapping Choices: Carbon, Climate, and Rising Seas — Our Global Legacy, in a business-as-usual scenario, carbon emissions causing 4 °C of warming (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) can lead to sea level rise that submerges land currently home to between 470 to 760 million people around the world. Carbon cuts resulting in the target of 2 °C warming (3.6 °F) would still threaten lands where 130 million people live. Be it in the Netherlands, India, China, the United States, Vietnam, Mexico, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Egypt, South Korea, only to mention a few, rising sea levels threaten to force huge masses of people into refugees.
What can and should the European Union do, apart from signing and ratifying the convention and urging the biggest greenhouse gas emitters do likewise? Especially if key power brokers only undertake the former but fail the latter, the agreement would end up in a limbo.
However, even the best ratified international treaty remains a dead letter without sustained, and due to the gravity of climate change, mandatory action. Furthermore, time is of the essence. The EU should not wait until 2030 and 2050 to implement its current climate and energy framework and low-carbon economy roadmap, respectively. Instead it should improve them with a swifter timetable and more effective goals. These should comprise a controlled, step-by-step increasingly low-carbon policy that builds towards a net zero emission target with appropriate regulation. Part and parcel should also be far greater support for green technology in general and for decarbonization measures in particular.
Thanks to existing and continuously developing technological solutions, for example in the utilization of renewable energy and in the fields of Industrial Internet (or Industry 4.0) as well as the Internet of Energy and smart cities and sustainable transport, a very real start is possible. The EU should both walk the walk, for the proof is in the pudding, and urge others to join in a sustained effort. There is now an opportune moment to sign, ratify and, above all, act.