As emissions rise, UN climate talks take on greater urgency

National park in Mexico

Lagunas de Zempoala National Park, Mexico. (© Jessica Scranton)

This has been an alarming year for climate change effects. Wildfires scorched California, hurricanes took heavy tolls and coral reefs are dying. In the face of these natural disasters, greenhouse gas emissions, the main driver of climate change, aren’t decreasing — in fact, they’re going up, according to a new report.

A commentary on the report, published this week by Christiana Figueres, the former head of the United Nations climate change body and distinguished fellow at Conservation International, comes as countries gather this week and next for the UN climate talks (COP 24) in Poland.

What the report says

Greenhouse gas emissions for 2018 are expected to exceed last year’s — the second year of increased emissions since a plateau from 2014 to 2016, according to the report. The expected increase in emissions — around 2.5 percent — means that the world is likely to miss the 1.5-degree Celsius benchmark that would prevent the worst effects of climate change.

“A report published in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected devastating impacts at 2 degrees Celsius. These include the loss of almost all the world’s coral reefs, and extreme, life-threatening heatwaves that could affect more than one-third of the world’s population. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will significantly lessen those impacts,” the commentary by Figueres and colleagues states. The report this references found that the most devastating effects of climate change, such as meters of sea-level rise, near-complete bleaching of the world’s coral reefs, and a “savannization” of the Amazon will be felt as soon as 2040 if unprecedented action is not taken.

If we are to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, we must begin curbing greenhouse gas emissions immediately and ramping up investment in addressing the impacts of climate change.

Why we should be hopeful

Despite global emissions rising in 2018, many of the world’s largest emitters are forging ahead in the fight against climate change. For example, China, India and the EU are set to not only reach their Paris Agreement goals, but exceed them, according to the commentary by Figueres and her colleagues. Because these countries make up more than 40 percent of global emissions, they would serve as climate action leaders for developing countries. Renewable energy is also cheaper than ever, and more than 50 percent of new electricity capacity being installed around the world is renewable, which means reliance on fossil fuels will continue to decline.

Further, we’ve seen a large-scale mobilization of thousands of communities, cities, states, companies and investors to commit to acting on climate change at the Global Climate Action Summit in California in September — and demand the same of their national government leaders. In the wake of the summit, this year’s COP offers the opportunity for governments to step up their action, responding to the non-state actors and scientists who have called for more ambitious government action.

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What’s actually at stake at COP 24

With the news and reports making the case for acting on climate change abundantly clear, nearly 200 countries convening in Poland for the United Nations climate negotiations are working on the political response to the science and the call to action from the summit attendees. At COP 24, countries are negotiating and finalizing the rules for implementation of the Paris Agreement – an important step to ensure that the Paris Agreement can deliver results the science demands. Specifically, countries will discuss how countries should account for and report on carbon reducing policies and how trade will work between countries that use carbon markets, among dozens of other critical climate issues.

We know that natural climate solutions are critical to achieving the Paris Agreement goals. Protecting, sustainably managing and restoring forests and natural ecosystems are an indispensable part of the solution to climate change, providing at least 30 percent of the mitigation needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. So the guidance being discussed in Poland must encourage countries to make natural climate solutions an integral component of their national commitments, action plans and investments.

In addition to the rulebook, by this time next year, countries will have to finalize their “contributions” toward emissions reductions for the Paris Agreement for the cycle starting in 2020. So, those discussions need to begin now.

With the stakes never being higher on climate change, the outcome of COP 24 will affect every one of us. None other than nature filmmaker David Attenborough is attending this COP, his first, in the first “people’s seat” at the COP to give individuals virtual access to participate in the discussions taking place at the negotiations. Following his rousing speech at the talk, for the first time ever, you – and all individuals – also have the opportunity to join the negotiations.

So, will you #takeyourseat?

Shyla Raghav is CI’s climate change lead.

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