The World Meteorological Organization announced last Monday that 2016 will very likely be the hottest year on record.
We certainly felt that in Hong Kong. Summer 2016 had more hot weather days than any previous year, and there were periods this year when the burning red arrow ‘very hot’ icon on the Hong Kong Observatory website became the norm rather than the exception.
Appropriately, as the news of record temperatures emerges, thousands of government climate negotiators are meeting this week in Marrakesh, Morocco, just north of the Sahara desert, for the UN climate negotiations known as COP22.
COP22 is billed as the action meeting, attempting to turn the intentions of the Paris Agreement into practical plans as fast as possible. The head of the UN climate talks declared the meeting was to create a “new era of international climate action.” One minister went as far as saying that this will be the first time an international meeting “sets out to build a new civilization.”
While the Paris climate talks focused on a single culminating deal, in Marrakesh they diverge into multiple strands of parallel talks on different aspects of making the Paris Agreement real. These include setting out a rulebook for all countries to use in making their national climate plans, how we can finance the green transition, how we will develop and coordinate valuable scientific research, how we will build capacity and skills to enable progress everywhere, and what we will do to help countries already suffering loss and damage. Finally, there are meetings on how we will measure, verify and report all the other stuff in order to make sure no one is cheating.
Given the complexity of the process, there is a danger that the talks may instead go down in memory as the “petty procedural” talks, at which every step to realise the Paris Agreement got bogged down in a swamp of minor issues and vested interests.
Some of the core Paris Agreement working groups are not getting as far as setting their own terms of reference, instead announcing that these or other essential groundwork discussions “will continue at the next meeting.” There are reports of slow progress in discussions on how to plan an effective “facilitative dialogue” to ensure the 2018 COP achieves the intentions of the Paris Agreement – a clear case of “talks about talks.”
There are bright spots. Capacity building work to help countries make decent climate plans is progressing. There was agreement on the terms of reference for the committee to push this work forward and so work can begin next year. Don’t sigh – in UN procedural terms, this represents the pace of Usain Bolt.
Other good news includes the launch of the “2050 Pathway Platform” that allows countries and non-state groups (which can include cities like Hong Kong) to share their climate plans and swap more detailed ideas about effective policies and practices.
Hanging over the climate talks is the Trump cloud, a dark shadow bearing down on us with a rumbling sound. Everyone is speculating over the severity of the storm it will bring, and to what degree it could wash away vital climate progress. Believers say that the Paris Agreement is built to withstand periods of bad weather. Optimists say that Trump will realise the pragmatic path to making America great again will be investment in greener infrastructure. Political analysts say that a US withdrawal will enable China to take greater leadership of global climate change processes. Pessimists are muttering in the corridors about Armageddon.
Central to the achievement of the Paris Agreement are Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) setting out each country’s plans to reduce greenhouse gasses. These were put forward by most countries before the Paris talks last year. Everyone accepts that these initial pledges are not enough; adding up to a level of warming dangerously above two degrees. Yet a year later, none of the representatives at COP22 are offering improvement, except for dear Argentina, which began a review process to upgrade its commitment right after Paris.
In UN language, what we need is “enhanced ambition” for reducing emissions, for adapting to the effects of climate change, and for providing funding to help the less-developed countries do both of these things.
A key part of increasing ambition on climate action is the switch to renewable energy. The subject crops up in the majority of the official and side meetings where governments, regions and cities announce their targets for renewables. Scientists and economists are here explaining why the switch to renewables is not only vital, but can bring the benefit of growth and jobs.
One group of cities has announced that they will achieve 80% renewable energy by the year 2020. When those of us from Hong Kong are asked what our city target is on renewables, we can only sigh with embarrassment and confess that our shiny modern city with its massive financial sector has a renewables target of one percent.
We need to ratchet up ambition on emissions and efficiencies, and we do need to redesign the way the world designs, finances, builds, manufactures, travels and trades. Many experienced commentators, such as Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the landmark Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, say that we have a limited window of opportunity in the next few years, while interest rates remain low, to take bold action on investment in new infrastructure to tackle climate change.
The scientists and the economists are hammering the point that if we don’t do more now, we will pay a huge cost of catching up later in terms of not only economic costs, but also social and humanitarian costs.
If we respond to climate change in a piecemeal way instead of systemically, we will, in the words of one delegate, ‘end up with a lot of very green buildings under water.’ That is an image all of us in Hong Kong should keep in mind as we help to forge Hong Kong’s contribution to building a new civilization.
John Sayer is a Director of Carbon Care Asia and a Hong Kong NGO representative at the COP 22 talks in Marrakesh.