“The urgency to take decisive climate action escalates yearly. No person and no country can escape its impact, whether you live on a small island or near a mountain,” Thoriq Ibrahim, Maldives Minister of Environment and Energy, told me last week at the COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany, which wrapped up Friday. “We have the solutions. We need to focus now on the personal, national and continental level.”
On a scale of politicians’ commitment to effectively dealing with climate change, Ibrahim stands on the opposite end of Donald Trump. Maldives are current chair of AOSIS, the alliance of 39 small islands nations vulnerable to climate change. For them, limiting climate change below 1.5C (2.7F) average temperature rise means survival.
To quantify a Trump-driven future, if America’s plan were rolled out globally it would create rises of 5C (9F) degrees and over.
Staving off ecological armageddon
The success of COP23, where agreements were reached Friday, can be measured largely against AOSIS’s pre-conference goals. “We need to work towards 1.5 degrees. The facilitative dialogue needs to start next year so that by 2020, the Paris agreement is up and running,” said Ibrahim.
“It is also very important we have progress on loss and damage. If we save the small island nations from the effects of climate change, you save the world.”
Coming out of Bonn, there are five key targets that will keep island nations afloat.
Target 1: Agree to a facilitative dialogue process. Put simply, turn the 2015 Paris agreement promises into reality. Fiji coined this as the Tanaloa Dialogue – inserting the South Pacific concept of open and transparent negotiations.
Progress: The Tanaloa Dialogue framework was completed so it can start on schedule in 2018, with countries needing to present their own progress on Paris goals.
Target 2: Include the forthcoming IPCC Report on 1.5C degrees in the next negotiations.
Progress: COP24 will accommodate the report, but exactly how remains unclear.
Target 3: Ensure finance promised by most polluting nations is delivered to most vulnerable and least emitting nations.
Progress: Rich, high carbon-emitting countries have been criticized for stalling compensation for vulnerable nations’ climate loss and damages, or funding for resilience and renewables. A new disaster insurance scheme is better than nothing, but has been criticized for making climate victims pay through premiums.
Target 4: Include clean oceans in climate negotiations.
Progress: The Ocean Pathway initiatitve was launched at COP23.
Target 5: Encourage states to ratify previous climate agreements.
Progress: The U.S. is now the only nation expected to pull out of Paris. Poland has agreed to ratify the 2012 Doha Amendment, which means all of Europe will now sign unanimously.
Overall, host Fiji drove meaningful progress at COP23. Vulnerable nations, for one, are far higher up the agenda. And importantly oceans, which make up 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, will be included in future negotiations.
But the annual conference has succeeded within an international negotiation context that moves too slowly. COP23 will not ensure the survival of small nations or stop catastrophic climate change. Fault lies with large industrial nations that caused the problem and are most reluctant to transform beyond carbon.
The U.S. under Donald Trump’s presidency is most to blame, even going so far as to promote coal at the climate gathering. Fortunately, recent reports show that faster climate progress in India and China means they could cut emissions sooner than expected, providing a counter-balance to regressive U.S. policies.
But Trump’s excesses shouldn’t mask other major nations’ failings, either. Put simply, early industrialized countries aren’t doing enough. Modeled on global climate policies of those nations, world temperatures will rise 3.4C (6.1) degrees.
Many countries are helping push us toward this crisis. These include Germany, which is strong on renewables but still tied to dirty coal, and the U.K., which has engaged renewables during its coal phaseout but is still heavily pushing fracking as a source of energy.
The reason early industrialised countries and climate negotiations are stalling is corporate capture. For example, at the conference panel after which I interviewed Minister Ibrahim, he shared a stage with a businessman promoting carbon capture and storage.
Carbon capture is an untried, untested and likely dangerous idea to solve climate change. One suggestion is adding chemicals to the atmosphere to change weather patterns. Another is growing plants to bury, or lock, carbon underground.
But changing the weather would impact the monsoons on which millions rely. And growing enough plants to bury carbon would require the same space used by agriculture. These are lose-lose scenarios that would worsen global crises. Perhaps the most dangerous element is the oxygen they waste in negotiations, diverting attention from real solutions.
A recent report suggested that 1.5 degrees is still within humanity’s grasp. But action is needed now. One other avenue for political action within COP was broadened by Fiji and its new Grand Coalition, whereby cities, regions, states and nations are playing an increasing role at negotiations – even if their national leaders continues to drive carbon intense policies.
At COP23, this meant America’s Pledge under the slogan “We are still in” gained a great deal of attention. This involves politicians like Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a state that generated two-thirds of its energy from renewables in April.
But like Germany and the U.K., California and others associated with America’s Pledge may be better than Trump, but still aren’t going far enough. At COP23 there were large protests against Brown, asking him, “In for what?” Despite his state’s important clean energy action, Brown has not banned fracking, a climate and ecological disaster.
Nevertheless, as many agreed at COP23, the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bath water. Renewables growth in California will only make the toxic fracking industry more unpalatable. More broadly, enabling cities, regions and states to engage in climate talks offers a means to catalyze further green transformation.
One promising example is Scotland, despite much of the U.K.’s political power in energy policy being held in London. Scotland was the first country to sign up to the Under-2 coalition. It recently banned fracking, diverging from Westminster. And wind and solar are at times generating enough electricity for every Scottish home. Scotland is also leading the world in tidal, wave and offshore floating wind farms.
Addressing the U.N. Climate Conference for the first time, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke about how Scotland is showing the way, and will soon set targets to reach zero emissions. To create a climate-safe world, Sturgeon added: “That doesn’t simply require impressive targets for the next two decades – it requires urgent action in the next two years.”