The story so far: After the ratification of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change of 2015, the focus is on voluntary national actions to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and keep the rise in average global temperature to well below 2°C and as close to 1.5°C as possible by the end of the century. All nations that signed on to the pact under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, at the COP27, to review progress, raise ambition on emissions cuts and draw up funding plans to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. But the scientific community is losing hope that temperature rise can be stopped in time, before uncontrollable tipping points are reached, leading to catastrophic climate change that will harm human health, biodiversity, and agriculture. This has provoked global protest movements. Youth in particular are restive at their uncertain future.
Why is the 1.5°C goal seeming unattainable?
Scientific reports from the UN that contribute to the understanding of climate change released ahead of the COP27 meeting in Egypt point to the extremely narrow window available to close the emissions gap and prevent rise in average temperature beyond 1.5°C.
The UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2022 says, even if all the conditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — voluntary pledges submitted under the Paris pact — followed by targets to reduce emissions to net-zero are implemented, global warming is projected to rise to 1.8°C with a 66% probability. The report also points out that global annual emissions during 2021 at 52.8 Gigatonnes (GtCO2e), represents a slight increase compared to 2019, the pre-COVID year, and that the outlook for 2030 is not bright. Collectively, G20 members account for 75% of emissions, although it is the richer countries that are responsible for accumulated emissions since the industrial revolution.
At the Egypt conference, scientist Johan Rockstrom said the key tipping points are the potential Greenland ice sheet collapse, West Antarctic ice sheet collapse, thawing of the boreal permafrost, and tropical coral reef die offs, all of which are expected to happen at 1.5°C. These and other estimates of temperature impacts were reported in a recent paper in the journal Science by Armstrong McKay and others. Tipping points represent moments that cascade into irreversible changes, with a domino effect on other elements such as monsoons and heat waves. To put things in perspective, Prof. Rockstrom said current temperature rise stands at 1.2°C to 1.3°C over the pre-industrial average, the highest in about 12,000 years since the last Ice Age. With the present soft approaches to limiting atmospheric CO2, it will be almost impossible to achieve the 1.5°C target.
What do scientific reports say on the fallout?
The COP27 is described as the conference of implementation, given that UN climate talks are often criticised as a ‘talk more, do little’ exercise. Yet, official reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which inform the UN system have reminders for the participating leaders, whose national pledges fall well short of the reductions needed. The latest Sixth Assessment Report (SAR) of the IPCC, with high confidence in its conclusions for the near term (until 2040), says that biodiversity loss, Arctic ice loss, threat to coastal settlements and infrastructure will all be experienced, while conflicts, migration of affected people and urban challenges to energy and water access could also arise. Beyond 2040 and until the end of the century, the IPCC report paints a grim picture. At 2°C, up to 20% decline in snowmelt water for irrigation, diminished water for farming and human settlements due to glacier mass loss, and a two-fold increase in flood damage could happen, while up to 18% of species on land could go extinct.
Of particular concern in the tropical regions is the projected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as cyclones, particularly in the medium to long term until 2100. The SAR says, “displacement will increase with intensification of heavy precipitation and associated flooding, tropical cyclones, drought and, increasingly, sea level rise.”
What is the focus of negotiations at COP27?
Countries most affected by the effects of a changing climate have been seeking loss and damage payments from the richer industrialised nations, who have contributed the bulk of CO2 in the atmosphere. Firming up this compensation mechanism is a major area of focus at Sharm el-Sheikh.
The emissions background is explained as follows: CO2 level at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii stood at 416.22 parts per million (ppm) on November 11. The level was 315 ppm in 1958 and the pre-industrial revolution level was 280 ppm, U.S. records show. The emerging economies and small climate-affected countries argue that they were not responsible for this stock of CO2, and many want a massive loss and damage fund created, separate from the $100 bn per year agreed to under the Paris Agreement. At the last conference in Glasgow, this agenda was kicked down the road. Some communities in countries ranging from Peru to Pakistan and even India have started filing climate cases, seeking restraints or damages.
More fundamentally, activists are seeking a sharp move away from fossil fuels to peak emissions by 2025. A special report titled “10 New Insights on Climate Science” released at COP27 by Prof. Rockstrom points to continuing high emissions from fossil fuels because “success is still measured predominantly by GDP and affluence, rather than through improvements in resource use efficiency and advancing human well-being within the biosphere’s constraints.” World leaders and the financial system investing in polluting companies worldwide are, therefore, under pressure to divest from fossil fuels and support greener renewable options at COP27.