Pope, World Bank and Google demand tougher climate policies

Comment: Governments, religious leaders and business talk up the Paris Agreement on climate change, but record temperatures hint at huge ambition deficit

UN headquarters in New York (Pic: UN Photo/Manuel Elias)


Brace yourselves for an avalanche of climate change warnings, pledges and projections.

Every asset at the disposal of the UN and wider international community is being deployed to underline the need for urgent action to slash carbon emissions.

As a feat of coordination it’s impressive. On Thursday the World Bank, IMF and OECD coalesced around a challenge to price 50% of carbon emissions by 2050.

That initiative was backed by the leaders of six countries: Germany, France, Canada, Chile, Ethiopia and Mexico.

Hollywood star Alec Baldwin was wheeled out to ask countries to “stop chopping down tropical forests” for agriculture, fuel and industry.

Multinational giants are being lined up to offer support to what is being labelled a $13.5 trillion clean energy market through 2030.

Executives from Indian conglomerate Mahindra, Swedish furniture maker IKEA and the world’s search engine Google joined a media call on Wednesday, stressing their support for the UN pact.

“The business risks from unchecked climate change are not manageable,” said Steve Howard, IKEA’s chief sustainability officer.

In a statement the head of the WMO – the UN’s top weather and climate agency – warned the planet was “changing before our eyes”.

Even the Pope has got stuck in, with a Papal tweet in nine languages urging “solidarity”. Impressive from a 79-year-old famous for avoiding technology.

This is just the start. Veteran campaigners, UN climate officials and green business leaders sniff victory. They want the Paris deal in the bag as soon as possible.

Even if a Republican arrives in the White House, the deal has been designed to hold fast.

Should a Trump or Cruz enter the Oval Office in January 2017 and announce a US exit, it would take four years to release Washington from its obligations according to the little-viewed Article 28.

Still, as the Danish head of the General Assembly told Reuters, for the agreement to work it’s “crucial that there is non-denier on climate (change) as the American president.”

Report: Global temperatures hit record 11 month hot streak

Yet as diplomats rub their mitts as a job well done, scientists warn the planet’s ecosystems are struggling to cope with rising temperatures.

“This is the most devastating, gut wrenching fuck up,” said the University of Queensland’s professor Justin Marshall this week in an interview with the Guardian.

He was talking about the widespread coral bleaching affecting 93% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, linked to an El Nino phenomenon and longer term ocean warming due to carbon emissions.

And the spate of unusual weather and climate events continues to grow. March 2016 was the 11th month in a row where temperatures were unusually high.

A brief yet significant rise in Greenland saw 12% of the ice sheet start melting. “We had to check our models were working properly,” said a scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute.

In Africa an ongoing drought is wreaking havoc from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe. Linked to El Nino but supercharged – say scientists – by climate change, it is leaving hundreds of thousands hungry.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence it’s the worst drought in 50 years,” said former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, now head of aid agency Save the Children.

Early entry: Approving the Paris climate deal in 2016 makes sense

By common consensus, Friday’s signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement to tackle global warming will not change much overnight.

2016 will still go down as the hottest year since records began; concentrations of the most prolific greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide – will continue to accelerate away from 400 parts per million.

Through Friday, representatives from the 150 or so countries scheduled to sign the deal will shuttle into UN headquarters, make a speech, ink the documents and receive a pat on the back.

This alone doesn’t mean that a deal to limit warming to well below 2C and ensure virtually no unabated burning of oil, gas and coal after 2050 will drop into gear.

That requires 55 countries covering 55% of global emissions, but given the US, India and China plan to formally approve the agreement this year enforcement will be close.

Once operational, countries will embark on a global review of climate policies in 2018, followed by a new round of emission reduction pledges in 2023. Speedy it is not.

End of fossil fuels?

But what signing does mean, say legal experts Climate Home has consulted, is a commitment by countries to work within the spirit of the global deal.

For Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan, the corollary of that is fairly obvious. “New exploration for fossil fuels is not consistent with the goals of this Agreement,” she said.

May Boeve, executive director of the 350 campaign group, agreed: “The formal signing of the Paris Agreement could be the next nail in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry.”

If that seems extraordinary, consider this: India energy minister Piyush Goyal said this week that in his country, solar energy is now cheaper than coal.

But India is still building coal power plants , and polluters need to start paying for their contribution to global emissions, argues Ottmar Edenhofer, a chief economist Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

“Worldwide, a huge number of coal-fired power plants are being built. Here, only the economic principle can be of help: those who harm the climate… have to pay for it,” he said.

Report: Canada, Germany lead calls to price 50% of carbon emissions by 2030

Policy wise, growing pressure on governments to deliver a better system to cost carbon may be one of the few tangibles to emerge from New York.

Long talked of but much neglected, a global carbon price is often touted as the ultimate climate policy, but only if it’s high enough to deter new investments in coal, oil or gas.

As OECD chief Angel Gurria alluded to on Thursday, the polluter-pays principle isn’t new: it dates back to the 1970s, and was heavily plugged in the 2006 Stern Report on Climate Change.

But it has gained traction among nearly 100 countries as a means of meeting their commitments to a new global pact, said Dirk Forrister, head of the International Emissions Trading Association.

He cites a new IETA report outlining how 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions could be covered by carbon pricing in the next decade, requiring a rapid expansion of existing and new schemes.

It’s ambitious, needing support from the US federal government, supposing the EU can rise from its torpor and sort out its own trading system, and relying on China’s new national market to work.

But the plan has support from leading financial figures. World Bank chief Jim Kim said there is a “growing sense of inevitability” on carbon pricing, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde said it’s “essential”.

Other leaders will be asked for their views and support on Friday. Their response could be a first test of the new politics of climate change.

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