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Keeping it real: UN climate talks struggle to stay relevant
By Marlowe HOOD
Bonn (AFP) Nov 18, 2017

What is the Paris Agreement?
Paris (AFP) Nov 17, 2017 - On December 12, 2015, 195 countries gathered in the French capital to conclude the first truly universal climate treaty, the Paris Agreement, aimed at preventing worst-case-scenario global warming.

The Palestinian Authority has since joined the UN's climate convention and the Paris Agreement, bringing the total to 196.

In June 2016, President Donald Trump announced the United States would pull out of the Paris pact, which his predecessor, Barack Obama, had ratified the year before.

The United States is now the only country to opt out, though it cannot formally withdraw until November 2020.

- The goal -

Nations agreed to hold global warming to "well below" two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels, and "pursuing efforts" to keep it to 1.5 C.

The lower goal was a demand of poor countries and island states at high risk of climate change effects such as sea-level rise.

But experts say keeping temperature rise under the two-degree ceiling is a tall order, requiring an immediate and deep reduction in emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Based on voluntary national pledges to reduce emissions, the planet is on track for warming of about three degrees, scientists warn -- a recipe for more frequent and intense floods, droughts and superstorms.

- Getting there -

Signatories will aim for emissions to peak "as soon as possible", with "rapid reductions" thereafter.

By the second half of this century, states the pact, emissions from human activities such as energy production and farming, and the amount that can be absorbed by carbon-absorbing "sinks" such as forests or storage technology, must be in balance.

The UN's climate science panel says greenhouse gas emissions have to drop 40-70 percent between 2010 and 2050, and to zero by 2100, for any chance of hitting the 2 C target.

- Tracking progress -

In 2018, and every five years thereafter, countries will take stock of the overall impact of their efforts to rein in global warming.

It "urges" and "requests" all countries to update emissions-cutting pledges by 2020 and every five years after that.

Some nations, including the United States, set emissions-curbing targets for 2025, others for 2030.

- Financing -

Rich countries are expected to provide funding to help developing countries make the costly shift to cleaner energy sources and shore up their defences against the impacts of climate change.

Donor nations must report every two years on their financing levels -- current and intended.

In a non-binding "decision" that accompanies the treaty, the $100 billion (85 billion euros) per year that rich countries have pledged to muster from 2020 is referred to as a "floor" -- meaning it can only go up.

The amount must be updated by 2025.

On current trends, climate grants and loans from governments -- both bilateral and through development banks -- suggest total public financing would reach about $67 billion in 2020, according to the OECD.

But Trump has said the United States -- which had pledged $3 billion towards the Green Climate Fund, of which it delivered $1 billion under Barack Obama -- would not fulfil its financing commitments.

There was a telling moment at the 23rd edition of UN climate talks that underscored both the life-and-death stakes in the fight against global warming, and how hard it is for this belaboured forum to rise to the challenge.

Twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala from Fiji, a nation disappearing under rising seas, was delivering a testimonial to ministers and heads of state with crisp English and irresistible charm.

Suddenly, describing the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winston last year, his words became measured, his voice hushed.

"My home, my school -- my source of food, water, money -- was totally destroyed," he said.

"My life was in chaos. I asked myself: Why is this happening? What am I going to do?"

The answer to Timoci's first question has become frightening clear: climate change.

With only a single degree Celsius of global warming so far, the planet has already seen a crescendo of deadly droughts, heatwaves, and superstorms engorged by rising seas.

"Climate change is here. It is dangerous. And it is about to get much worse," said Johan Rockstroem, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a climate change research centre.

The 196-nation Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, enjoins the world to cap the rise in temperature at "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal barely within reach that still may not save Fiji and dozens of small island states.

Bangladesh and other countries with highly-populated delta regions are also at high risk.

But Timoci's second question remains open: What is he, and by extension the world, going to do?

- 'Should' or 'Shall' -

At first, the answer -- laid out in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change -- seemed straight-forward: humans must stop loading the atmosphere with the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

The successful repair of the ozone hole suggested a way forward: an international treaty.

But it took a quarter of a century to get one, in 2015, and even then it is woefully inadequate: voluntary national pledges to curb carbon pollution would still allow the global thermometer to go up 3 C, a recipe for human misery on a vast scale.

Since Paris, the UN climate talks -- known to participants as "COPs", or Conferences of the Parties -- have focused on working out an operational handbook for the treaty, which goes into effect in 2020.

But as the years tick by, the byzantine bureaucracy -- where hundreds of diplomats can argue for days over whether a text will say "should" or "shall" -- has struggled to keep pace with both the problem, and what some negotiators call "the real world".

"What is at stake here is the relevance of the COP process," said Nicaragua's chief negotiator Paul Oquist, lamenting a point of blockage and the generally slow pace.

"We cannot risk becoming more and more irrelevant with each meeting."

The UN climate process risks falling out of step in two key ways, experts suggest.

One is in relation to the unforgiving conclusions of science, which show that the window of opportunity for avoiding climate cataclysm is rapidly narrowing to a slit.

This year's climate talks kicked off with negotiators learning that CO2 emissions -- after remaining stable for three years, raising hopes that they had peaked -- will rise by two percent in 2017, a development one scientist called "a giant step backwards for humankind".

Negotiations were also reeling from US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out from the Paris Agreement. America sent envoys to the meetings but White House officials and energy company executives hosted a pro-fossil fuel event on the conference margins.

Meanwhile, scientists warned of invisible temperature thresholds -- "tipping points" -- beyond which ice sheets would irretrievably shed enough water to raise global oceans by metres.

"The only question is how fast," James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies until 2013, told AFP.

- 'Little adrenaline' -

The UN's 12-day negotiations came to an end Saturday with an agreement to hold a stocktake in 2018 of national efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions.

But the talks are falling behind the response of cities, sub-national regions and especially businesses, which have leaped headlong into the transition from a dirty to a clean global economy.

"For the first time in the history of the COPs, the heart of the action was not in the negotiating arena but in the 'green' zone" showcasing innovations in sustainable development, said David Levai, head of the climate program at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris.

Some 7,500 cities and local governments have set carbon cutting targets, and hundreds of global companies are retooling for a low-carbon world.

A veteran EU climate diplomat, meanwhile, bemoaned the lack of dynamism in the negotiating arena. "I've never seen a COP with so little adrenaline," he told AFP.

Mads Randboll Wolff, a Danish expert in bioeconomics -- a field that didn't even exist a decade ago -- recalled the bitter disappointment of the failed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

"The entire world was looking up to the podium, waiting for world leaders to strike the deal that would save us," he said.

"One of the lessons from Copenhagen is that the negotiations are not enough," he added. "We need them. But we also need civil society -- people, citizens -- to take action."



Climate envoy slams rejection of Paris deal; WH says US will cut on own terms
Bonn (AFP) Nov 16, 2017
The Obama-era official who helped deliver the 2015 Paris Agreement, lashed out Thursday at the Donald Trump administration's "wrongheaded" decision to abandon the first-ever pact committing all countries to limiting climate change. Todd Stern, who was Barack Obama's special envoy for climate change, said he was "annoyed, frustrated" by the new president's rejection of a deal that took the wo ... read more

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