• UN Climate Change Conference 2017 in progress (and during interesting times…)

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    • Post Author

      Philip Sharman

      IFRF Director

As this edition of MNM hits your inbox, the UN Climate Change Conference 2017 (officially, the 23rd Conference of the Parties – ‘COP23’ – under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)) enters its second and final week in Bonn, Germany, with the intention of advancing the aims and ambitions of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and action on its implementation guidelines.

This COP, hosted by Fiji (although being held in Bonn due to cost and capacity reasons), is happening at a highly auspicious moment in time…

Firstly, last year saw the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere increase at record speed to hit a new ‘high’ of 403.3 parts per million (up from 400.00ppm in 2015) – the highest level in 800,000 years according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin published on 30th October. This worrying new record and the speed of increase – achieved due to a combination of human activities and a strong El Niño event – means that concentrations of CO2 are now 145% of pre-industrialised (i.e. before 1750) levels.  As if this wasn’t enough, the level of methane (CH4) – the second most important long-lived greenhouse gas – also reached a new high of about 1,853 parts per billion in 2016 (257% of the pre-industrialised level).  To compound this yet further, atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxide (N2O), another potent greenhouse gas that also plays an important role in the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer, reached 328.9ppb in 2016 (122% of the pre-industrialised level).  This latest bulletin from WMO states that the rapidly increasing atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases has the potential to initiate unexpected changes in climate systems, leading to “severe ecological and economic disruption”.  “Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, we will be heading for dangerous temperature increases by the end of this century, well above the targets set by the Paris climate change agreement,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteris Taalas.  “Future generations will inherit a much more inhospitable planet.  The last time that Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” he added. 

It is now well-understood (and generally accepted) that it is the cumulative inventory of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that is the crucial factor (not a particular annual emissions volume or the rate of emissions), and that there is a ‘lag effect’ between any particular annual level of emissions and the resulting change in climate and associated weather events.  The fact that these 2016 records coincide with the fact that the last three years have been the warmest on record globally, gives us a sense of quod erat demonstrandum.  For those that were drawing some small degree of comfort from the ‘plateauing’ of CO2 emission production (perhaps as a harbinger of the first signs of a global decrease beginning to emerge), news from COP23 today are indicating that emissions in 2017 are on the increase again, driven by a combination of economic growth in China – the world’s largest emitter – being sourced more heavily by coal due to droughts reducing hydropower production, and lower than expected reductions in CO2 emissions in the USA – the second largest emitter – and Europe.

Secondly, on 1st June this year, President Trump and his White House administration announced their intention to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement at the earliest possible moment (although, in reality, this can’t be before November 2020).  However, despite the Presidents rhetoric, many individual States (e.g. California), cities (e.g. New York), corporations (e.g. Google), etc. – together representing more than half of the US economy and population (according to ‘America’s Pledge on Climate Change’) – have greenhouse gas reduction targets.  This situation, coupled with increased activity on carbon disclosure, investment in R&D, new low-carbon solutions, etc., may well negate any pronouncement from Donald Trump.

It is also interesting to note the publication earlier this month of the US Global Change Research Program’s report ‘Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume 1’, which provides a grim read on the likely effects of climate change on the contiguous US States and its seaboards.  Let’s hope that, along with the impetus of ‘America’s Pledge’, this comprehensive report increases pressure on Donald Trump to reverse his ill-considered decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. 

So, what does all this mean in terms of IFRF, our members and our industries?  Well, we certainly need to re-double our efforts into R&D and deployment of more efficient combustion processes, the switching from higher- to lower-carbon fuels (such as biomass, biogas, hydrogen, etc.) and we need to continue to work towards capturing and storing carbon from industrial and power generation processes.

We will be looking at some of these issues in forthcoming MNMs…