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New York braces for the looming threats of climate change
By Catherine TRIOMPHE
New York (AFP) Nov 11, 2016

German government in last-minute agreement on climate plan
Berlin (AFP) Nov 11, 2016 - The German government on Friday reached agreement on a long-delayed plan to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, clinching a deal ahead of next week's high-level global climate talks in Morocco.

The agreement ends months of bickering in Chancellor Angela Merkel's left-right coalition and spells out CO2 emission reduction targets for all the country's economic sectors, although those for industry were watered down in the final version.

"We have found a good and balanced solution," said Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who had notably held up the deal with his insistence on concessions for the brown coal, or lignite, industry.

Cabinet ministers are to formally approve the so-called Climate Action Plan 2050 on Monday, sparing Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks the embarrassment of turning up in Marrakesh for UN talks on limiting global warming without a clear pledge from Europe's top economy.

The German targets are meant to help the country live up to its commitments under the Paris Agreement struck last year, the world's first universal climate pact which aims to cap warming to under two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

The German deal lays out concrete steps for how the nation plans to turn away from fossil fuels and cut emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

The industrial sector will have to lower its CO2 emissions by around half to between 140 and 143 million tonnes by 2030 -- some 10 million tonnes more than was proposed in earlier versions of the text, DPA news agency reported.

Gabriel said the plan now also foresees the creation of a fund to assist regions hit by job losses as a result of the shift from coal-fired power generation.

Some campaigners criticised the plan as light on detail and too business-friendly.

"A missed opportunity," was the verdict of Eva Bulling-Schroeter, environment spokeswoman for Germany's far-left Die Linke opposition party.

"This plan clearly shows how deeply embedded the industry and energy lobbyists are in the economy ministry," said WWF Germany's climate and policy director Regine Guenther.

Diplomats from 196 nations are meeting in Marrakesh this week and next for talks on how to implement the Paris treaty.

The gathering has been overshadowed by fears US president-elect Donald Trump will follow through on a campaign pledge to "cancel" the pact.

On calm days, waters innocently wash against the aging seawalls at Manhattan's southernmost park, but in decades to come they could inundate the island's lower districts.

If the latest apocalyptic climate change projections come true -- with sea levels rising upwards of 28 inches (70 cm) by 2050 -- Wall Street and Ellis Island could be swallowed up.

The wrath of Superstorm Sandy -- which killed more than 40 people -- paralyzed New York in October 2012. The storm left the city shocked and sodden, ushering in new urgency among many over the looming threats of climate change in America's largest city.

"The conversation changed," said Daniel Zarrilli, who oversees the mayor's office of recovery and resiliency. "It's not something that's happening 100 years from now to someone far away.

"It is happening here and now."

A professional engineer, Zarrilli supervises the city's efforts to fortify its infrastructure and strengthen more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) of coastline against the threat of rising waters. The number of days hitting more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) is predicted to triple.

"New York City is staying where it is," Zarrilli said, seeking to project assurance about an uncertain future. "It has developed over the last 400 years.

"We are here because we are the gateway to America."

- Building for a warmer era -

The engineer says the key to climate adaptation is assessing and reducing risk, and swiftly investing in those zones under the greatest threat.

Many hard-hit areas -- as well as parts of the city's subway system -- are still rebuilding from the destruction wrought by Sandy, reconstruction funded by a budget of more than $20 billion allocated by the city, state and federal governments.

At the same time the city has been erecting new developments in some of its most vulnerable areas: the new Hudson Yards district on Manhattan's northwest coast boasts skyscraper apartment buildings practically teetering on the banks of the Hudson River.

But Zarrilli says those buildings are actually among the city's most secure: "The safest place to be right now during any sort of threat is in a new building."

Steven Cohen, the executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, explained that future skyscrapers will install heating and electricity units on the second or third floors, rather than in basements, which had been standard protocol.

Cohen said scientists assume sea levels could rise anywhere from 4.5 to 15 feet in the future, but abandoning one of the world's most economically powerful cities is unreasonable.

"There is so much money and infrastructure in the city," he said. "The idea that you can walk away from it is just not cost-effective."

- 'Climate-ready' construction -

The now abandoned Oakwood Beach neighborhood of the Staten Island borough saw entire rows of seaside bungalows bulldozed after Sandy's passing.

After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo offered local homeowners the chance to sell, the vast majority of residents did so, even if they had lived there for decades.

But in Manhattan such a buyout program would be "completely impossible," said Joe Tirone, a Staten Island real estate agent.

"It would not make sense in Manhattan, just because of the price of the properties," he said.

For many New Yorkers, the main short-term risk lies in skyrocketing insurance premiums. The areas covered by flood-zone maps will likely double, putting the number of residents living in high risk areas at 400,000.

The resulting insurance premium hike could prompt wealthier New Yorkers to flee swanky neighborhoods for higher ground, while threatening to push what's left of the city's dwindling lower classes out of their homes.

Zarrilli remains optimistic for the city's future flood resistance because of what he sees as the commitment from elected officials to support protective urban planning -- even if the election of climate change skeptic Donald Trump creates an element of doubt.

"We will never be climate-safe," he said. "We will be climate-ready.

"Every day we get safer."

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