We’ve turned the corner – just in time. All being well, these words will sum up the outcome of climate year 2015 and the Paris conference. The aim is to reach a political agreement with ambitious targets – progress, finally, after the failed Copenhagen conference six years ago. That was typical of the UN climate process and its efforts to secure commitments on paper: it’s complex and laborious and progresses in fits and starts. That seems to be the tradition.
Not that it matters – for failure was always a calculated risk in this diplomatic poker game, which began at the Rio Summit in 1992. There was too much at stake for the players who were committed to economic success, and there also appeared to be too much scope for diplomatic chicanery. The climate crisis? Surely that was an issue for future generations? That was the maxim which guided policy-making at the time. And then there are the scientific uncertainties: why has the global average temperature stabilised over the last 15 years when atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have been rising ever more rapidly since the start of industrialisation?
New Sustainable Development Goals of the UN
In short, for many years there was little sign that, in their relentless quest for economic prowess, the world’s countries were taking global warming seriously as a genuine threat and not just as an abstract statistic. Instead, climate politics seemed to evoke the words of evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson: it is the tragedy of our time, he said, that humankind has ‘Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology’.
But now – in the last four months of 2015, as the United Nations also finalises the new Sustainable Development Goals – this is supposed to change. The closer we get to the Paris conference, the more policy-makers shift into therapy mode. But as with any chronic disease, there is no quick fix to heal the suffering of our planet. What is needed is a well-crafted treatment plan – one which provides faster relief as the suffering increases. Perhaps it’s no bad thing that the patient’s temperature has suddenly soared again, with 2015 on track to be a new record year for global warming. The supposed global warming hiatus may well end this year, at least unofficially, along with the stalemate in the climate process. The reason is not hard to find.
El Niño (the name means ‘Christ Child’ in Spanish) – a weather phenomenon recurring every few years and characterised by a rush of unusually warm water in the central and eastern Pacific – is creating more warm air masses, sending global average temperatures soaring. This is causing more extreme weather across the globe, with flooding in the western regions of South America and droughts already starting across much of Australia. Although not entirely unconnected to climate change, El Niño is undoubtedly an anomaly – one of many cyclical natural phenomena that have been occurring over millennia.
Global warming has paused – or has it?
So is greenhouse gas-induced global warming still in hiatus? There is little evidence of that at present. Recent studies have revealed that the unexpected pause is temporary – or even illusory, for researchers have discovered discrepancies between older ship-based measurements of sea temperatures and more recent buoy-based measurements. It seems that much of the surplus energy that drives atmospheric warming via the greenhouse effect is sequestered in the deep sea. In other words, the heat is simply stored there for the time being. Scientists predict that, sooner or later, the ocean’s biological pump will transport this heat back to the surface, where it will warm up the atmosphere.
But these new findings make no difference to climate researchers’ projections. Global average temperature has increased by about 0.85°C since the late 19th century, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipates a further temperature rise of between 1.5°C and 4°C by 2100. The primary driver is the unabated emission of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), from the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas. This year, the global concentration of the trace gas CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for an extended period for the first time since records began – an increase of more than 40 per cent since the start of industrialisation, and, it is thought, higher than at any time in the previous 800,000 years.
Nowadays, only a small and marginalised group of climate sceptics question whether this process will impact on the planet’s energy balance. Of around 14,000 scientific articles published between 1991 and the end of 2012 and listed in the Web of Science online database, just 581 cast doubt on the concept of human-induced climate change, and only a tiny fraction – 0.17 per cent – reject it completely. Global warming is ‘beyond doubt’ and there is no longer anything abstract about it: its impacts are being felt in ever more regions of the world. US atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe recently counted 26,500 independent indicators of a warming planet all around us, showing that climate change is already happening. For example, coral growth rates in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have decreased by 40 per cent since the mid-1970s due to ocean acidification driven by rising levels of atmospheric CO2, which affects the chemistry of seawater and causes it to become more acidic. This in turn impairs calcification and threatens reef-builders. It’s the same scenario off the coast of Thailand and in the Red Sea.
15,000 extreme weather events occurred between 1994 and 2013, mostly in developing countries – and the figure is rising. Source: Germanwatch
Climate zones are shifting, causing palpable and permanent changes to habitats. This has a dramatic impact on bird populations in particular. Due to higher temperatures, some species are no longer migrating to warmer climes and are now starting to dominate certain habitats. This alters the local species composition and accelerates population decline. Flyways are also changing, increasing birds’ exposure to parasites. What’s more, pathogens such as certain strains of the flu virus are spreading to more northerly regions with the migration of waterfowl and have already caused outbreaks of disease – known collectively as ‘avian flu’ – in a number of countries.
Many flora and fauna face a threat of extinction
An even greater concern for scientists is the collapse of entire habitats and the associated ecological risks. Many flora and fauna currently face a rapidly growing threat of extinction. According to a recent meta-analysis, even if global warming is held down to 2°C, at least 5 per cent of species will still face extinction, and with a temperature rise of more than 4°C, 16 per cent of today’s species, both flora and fauna, will be at risk. Indeed, the figure may be very much higher. Warming is already threatening the food sources of Adélie penguins in the Antarctic, for example. They mainly eat krill – tiny organisms that live under the ice. As the ice melts, the penguins are forced to travel long distances to find food, but young birds in particular often lack the reserves of energy that this requires. This is causing a sharp population decline in a number of colonies.
Warming affects not only wild species, but also many commercial crops. According to a recent study, climate change poses a threat to the production of Arabica coffee, which accounts for approximately 75 per cent of the world market, in the main coffee-growing regions in Brazil, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Colombia and Central America. Warming of 2°C or more and changing hydrologic cycles are detrimental to plant growth and make crops more vulnerable to pests. The coffee output of Brazil alone could well decrease by 25 per cent within the next 15 years. As coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil, this will threaten the livelihoods and survival of many of the world’s 25 million coffee farmers. Wheat production will also be adversely affected by higher temperatures. Many cereals do not thrive in heat, and this applies particularly to wheat, an important element of the ‘green revolution’. Studies show that global wheat production will suffer losses of 6 per cent for each degree centigrade of global warming. Even without drought and lack of nutrients, it seems that warmer temperatures will cause massive falls in output, potentially wiping out the higher yields that humankind has worked so hard over many decades to achieve.
‘Climate change (…) represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.’
But human communities also face immediate threats, including more frequent extreme weather events, droughts and floods. Climate change also exposes human communities to new indirect threats, for example by expanding the range of the subtropical Asian tiger mosquito and now the Bush mosquito to Europe. Many medical experts consider that the spread of these mosquitoes, which transmit dengue fever, West Nile virus and the viral disease Chikungunya, creates a serious risk of infection in Europe. In 2007, researchers found larvae laid by these mosquitoes at a motorway service station in Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Since then, mosquitoes at all developmental stages have been found further afield, not only along motorways. So far, no confirmed cases of mosquito-borne diseases have originated in Germany, but the risk is increasing.
Close link between climate change and health risks
The Tiger mosquito is by no means exceptional: hundreds of studies conducted in recent years on the spread of diseases – from malaria to crop infestations – have confirmed the close link between climate change and health risks. Studies in South-East Asia, Peru and Colombia have shown that malaria cases increase dramatically during and after El Niño years. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts a further spread of heat-loving parasites and vectors of diseases such as Leishmaniasis in South America and along the Mediterranean coast. This particular disease affects both humans and animals and can be fatal.
But nowhere is climate change more obvious than around the polar ice caps and in mountain glacier regions. In the Arctic, average temperatures are currently rising twice as fast as in more temperate climes, and the average sea ice thickness per year in the central region of the Arctic basin has decreased by 65 per cent since 1975. In February 2015, the Arctic sea ice maximum extended for just 14 million square kilometres – an all-time low for the winter months. The Northwest and Northeast Passages are now almost ice-free for much of the year. Similar record-breaking levels of melting have been observed on the Antarctic Peninsula for many years.
Sea levels expected to rise significantly
One of the consequences of the melting of glaciers is sea level rise. The IPCC now expects sea levels to rise between a quarter metre and almost one metre by 2100. It is certain that the current rate of sea level rise – 2.6 mm per year – will increase. There are also signs that weather conditions are worsening in many parts of the world.
With regard to heat waves, the situation is clear-cut: they have increased fourfold since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and if the planet warms by more than 4°C, this would lead to a 62-fold increase in heat extremes. So the key question, which was already preoccupying policy-makers at the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, is this: how realistic is a temperature rise of no more than 2°C? And even if this is achieved, will it be enough to meet the international community’s goal of avoiding ‘dangerous climate change’? Anticipating that it may in fact be unavoidable, various private, regional and local adaptation initiatives have been launched in a number of countries. But this costs money – large sums of money. According to the World Bank, adaptation to climate change is likely to cost EUR 70 to 100 billion per year by 2050 even if warming is held at 2°C.
New dams and dikes as defence against flooding of New York
New York, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, already faces the probability of a ‘hundred year flood’ once every 80 years; from mid-century, this is likely to increase to once every 19 years. In a process in which New Yorkers themselves were engaged, the city has therefore drawn up the ‘One New York’ plan, which lists numerous innovations, from the construction of new dams and dikes to the planting of 950,000 trees as the city’s green infrastructure and as another line of defence against flooding.
The city of Cusco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Peruvian Andes, is currently implementing an ambitious adaptation programme. Peru – which, in 2014, took the radical step of enshrining its National Plan for Disaster Risk Management in law – must protect its cities from the growing threat of landslides and floods, which are affecting the Cusco region ever more frequently. Almost every year, meltwater from the Andean glaciers and floodwater from swollen rivers during the rainy season destroy homes and paralyse the local economy. Severe melting of the Andean glaciers has already occurred, and with warming of 2°C, up to 90 per cent of the glacier mass will be lost very quickly. Cusco is therefore reengineering its urban landscape: the plan sets out dozens of measures, from resettlement of residents and the construction of a new drainage system to erosion protection on slopes and flood defences in the historic old city.
Kyoto Protocol due to expire in 2020
In light of these and other examples, the question is how climate change can be decelerated. The targets set in the Kyoto Protocol – currently the only legally binding mechanism to limit greenhouse gas emissions and due to expire in 2020 – have been exceeded: the 36 countries concerned have collectively reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by 24 per cent instead of the agreed four per cent. However, most of these reductions were achieved as a consequence of economic collapse in the former Eastern bloc countries. Viewed globally, a very different picture emerges: emissions have actually increased by one to two per cent annually.
A genuine strategic restructuring of energy systems is only gradually beginning. This year’s G7 summit at Schloss Elmau offered some hope: the leading industrialised countries, which are responsible for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, pledged to phase out fossil fuel use by the end of the century. There is talk of a ‘fundamental transformation’ – an energy revolution in favour of renewables. And according to the IPCC, this can be achieved at minimal cost – just 0.06 per cent of global GDP growth. But in reality, this transformation is still a long way off. The world’s 1,800 or so energy companies are investing colossal sums – more than USD 200 billion in 2014 – in solar and wind power, but they are also still investing in oil, gas and coal. As a result, global warming – driven by greenhouse gases – continues unabated.
2°C target within reach
That’s why so many hopes rest on the climate conference in Paris. The aim is a new global climate agreement, to enter into force in 2020. It will be based on national climate action plans and voluntary commitments by all signatory states to limit global annual carbon emissions to a maximum of 32 to 44 billion tonnes in future. The IPCC wants a 70 per cent reduction by 2050 compared with current levels, meaning that by the second half of this century, energy generation will have to be entirely fossil-free. If that happens, the climate policy balance sheet will actually be in credit, at least in theory, and the 2°C target will be within reach. In practice, the planet is still heating up. The legacy we are likely to leave for our great-grandchildren is an atmosphere around 4°C warmer than it is today – with catastrophic planetary impacts. That’s why the Paris conference needs to deliver a clear message: it’s time for change.
published in akzente 3/15
Project: Energy efficiency in the construction sector in the Mediterranean
Countries: Mediterranean countries
Commissioned by: European Commission
Lead executing agencies: Energy ministries and energy agencies in various MENA countries
Term: 2006 to 2016
Project: Sustainable forest management and protection from deforestation
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
Lead executing agency: Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry
Term: 2009 to 2020
Project: Towards climate-friendly transport technologies
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety
Lead executing agencies: Transport ministries in various countries
Term: 2013 to 2016
Project: Adaptation of water resources management
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
Lead executing agency: National Water Authority, Peru
Term: 2014 to 2019