Saudis throw a spanner

Climate science was buried at a meeting in Bonn. Meanwhile diplomats planted trees to symbolise their intention to combat desertification (Photo: UNFCCC)

At a mid-year meeting of UNFCCC in Bonn this year in June a small group of countries led by Saudi Arabia have put the kybosh on any formal consideration of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C in the UNFCCC forum.

In December every year the Conference of Parties (COP), the 197 participating states of the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), meets for two weeks to further the global response to climate change. The Paris meeting in 2015 gave us the Paris Agreement aimed at strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change by:

    (a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

The UNFCCC asked the IPCC to look at the science and build a scenario for limiting warming to 1.5°C. I reported on their October 2018 response in IPCC on 1.5°C: the target is wrong, but we have a strong wake-up call.

Accounts of what happened include:

Last December at the COP meeting in Katowice, Poland, a coalition of fossil fuel-producing nations consisting of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and the US refused to “welcome” the report, which had been released few weeks earlier. A sign of worse to come.

In the broad, the IPCC report found the situation urgent. There would have to be an active transition away from fossil fuels, not just a replacement of fossil fuel plants and mines with renewable energy as they ran their course.

When the IPCC 1.5°C report was first considered in the Bonn talks this June the small island states together with Latin American nations and the Least Developed Countries group proposed two workshops to guide nations’ responses to the 1.5C target, to be held in December and next summer in Bonn. The Least Developed Countries group:

    is made up of the 47 poorest countries in the world, which contribute the least to climate change, yet disproportionately suffer from its ever-increasing impacts. Representing almost one billion people throughout Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean, we work at the UN climate change negotiations to secure fair and ambitious action to tackle the global challenge of climate change.

However, the Saudi diplomats had been questioning the science of the report, emphasising uncertainties and “scientific knowledge gaps” within the report, thus questioning its usefulness. They wanted phrases to that effect included in the official response to the report. While arguing the toss on the wording they made clear that they opposed the proposed additional workshops on the report.

At this point it is useful to recall that at these meeting voting is by consensus of all parties. Hence a single vote can block a resolution.

After an extra negotiating session on Wednesday failed to reach an agreement the issue was hived off to the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) chaired by the French chief negotiator Paul Watkinson, who took the text to a closed meeting that evening. The result was:

My understanding is that this text is then conveyed to the next COP meeting in December to be held in Santiago, Chile. There the diplomats will talk for a week, followed by ministers for a week, with heads of state often turning up for the final decisions.

Effectively the response now says nice things about the report, but the trade off is that the SBSTA’s “work under this agenda sub-item has been completed.” In other words, nothing more will be done on this issue by the UNFCCC.

This time the Saudis were supported by “a loose coalition of oil-producing nations, including the US, Russia and Iran”. We can expect this unholy alliance to continue in Santiago.

Sadly the 1.5°C goal had been the hard-fought result of a group of low-lying and poor countries where climate change is already an existential threat, for example, through sea level rise, storm surges, extreme weather and changes in weather patterns.

I’d like to highlight four factors from my 1.5°C IPCC post. First, a 1.5°C target accepts that:

    Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2°C.

Second,:

    The best offerings [in the report] give only a 50% chance of staying within 1.5°C. Other scenarios involve “overshoot”. So if we want a better chance of staying within 1.5°C, or if we overshoot, then more atmospheric carbon will have to be removed and sequestered.

We should bear these 50% odds in mind when people blithely quote the report as saying that we need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

Third I re-post here Gavin Schmidt’s response:

Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate says of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C that responding to climate change is far more like a marathon than a sprint. He addresses directly the question Can we avoid going through 1.5°C?:

    So my answer is… no.

Gavin Schmidt is:

    a climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York and is interested in modeling past, present and future climate. He works on developing and improving coupled climate models and, in particular, is interested in how their results can be compared to paleoclimatic proxy data. (Emphasis added)

Schmidt had been second-in-charge to James Hansen for at NASA GISS for many years, and has taken over the top job now that Hansen has moved on.

Schmidt says there are many issues related to the feasibility question of which physical climate-related issues are only one.

    The basic issue is that the effort to reduce emissions sufficiently to never get past 1.5ºC would require a global effort to decarbonize starting immediately that would dwarf current efforts or pledges. This seems unlikely (IMO).

He says that if you want to stabilize CO2 then near-term reductions in carbon emissions by ~70% are required.

If you want to stabilize temperature, then even further (net) reductions are required.

If you want to stabilize sea level, then temperature drops would be required.

I think it is not appreciated that 1.5°C is a really big deal. Schmidt says it is a third of an ice age unit, that is, the amount of warming from the depths of the last ice age 20,000 years ago to the mid-19th Century.

Schmidt appears to be saying that what is proposed is insufficient to stabilise the climate in an acceptable way.

If we take Schmidt seriously, and we would be foolish not to, then there are implications for stranded assets. New fossil fuel mines and power plants, and many already there, will need to become stranded assets, unless they feature carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and use, which are anything but straight forward.

Fourth, the report leaves out information on the potential for human populations to be displaced, climate change as a national security “threat multiplier”, potential tipping points, and other important thresholds that may be breached, for example interruption of the Gulf Stream and the monsoons.

Nevertheless the report was a huge wake-up call which could have been used to inject appropriate urgency into climate change action. The Saudis have crossed a line in using political power to suppress science.

Meanwhile as I mentioned in the Four graphs post, the burning of fossil fuels continues to increase:

as do the CO2 emissions at Muana Loa:

and as Kenneth Rogoff tells us the average age of coal-fired power plants is 42 years in advanced economies, while in Asia the average is only 11 years, and a new one is being built every week.

A UN disaster representative now warns that one climate crisis disaster is happening on average every week, with profound implications for developing countries:

Aftermath of the damage left by Cyclone Kenneth in a village north of Pemba, Mozambique in May. Photograph: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Climate change has already gone too far. We could know that by looking out the window, listening and watching the daily news. Who among our Australian politicians has done so?

See also: Climate refugees in the Central Pacific -the Republic of Kiribati, guest post by Geoff Henderson.

Update: Former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong tells a meeting of CEOs and leaders of 230 companies at the Ocean Conservation event at Salesforce Tower in San Francisco to boost their efforts to combat climate change. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss and explore “climate resilience and ocean conservation.”

    Tong caught the world’s attention when he purchased approximately 20 square kilometers of land in Fiji in 2014 — a purchase he describes as an “investment,” a place his people can migrate to just in case his people need it.

Tong was the leader who led the charge to get the 1.5°C included in the Paris Agreement. Tong urges the need for a rapid global response:

    “Climate change is only now becoming known as a fight for the survival of humanity,” Tong said. “When I come here to speak, I also come here to inspire people to act quickly.”

5 thoughts on “Saudis throw a spanner”

  1. Geoff, indeed.

    I’ve added an update:

    See also: Climate refugees in the Central Pacific -the Republic of Kiribati, guest post by Geoff Henderson.

    And added a sentence to the section on Gavin Schmidt:

    If we take Schmidt seriously, and we would be foolish not to, then there are implications for stranded assets. New fossil fuel mines and power plants, and many already there, will need to become stranded assets, unless they feature carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and use, which are anything but straight forward.

  2. Update: Former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong tells a meeting of CEOs and leaders of 230 companies at the Ocean Conservation event at Salesforce Tower in San Francisco to boost their efforts to combat climate change. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss and explore “climate resilience and ocean conservation.”

      Tong caught the world’s attention when he purchased approximately 20 square kilometers of land in Fiji in 2014 — a purchase he describes as an “investment,” a place his people can migrate to just in case his people need it.

    Tong was the leader who led the charge to get the 1.5°C included in the Paris Agreement. Tong urges the need for a rapid global response:

      “Climate change is only now becoming known as a fight for the survival of humanity,” Tong said. “When I come here to speak, I also come here to inspire people to act quickly.”
  3. This is very concerning, Brian. I take it the next meeting will be able to act on the 1.5C report advice though, even if they aren’t going to discuss it further? I hope so.

    I’ve just submitted to a Victorian consultation on emissions targets. The report on Victoria’s progress sounds ok, although the targets are a bit less than would be compatible with 1.5, even at the high end. However there were some things I didn’t understand, including that the target for renewables by 2050 is 50% – I don’t see how that’s compatible with net zero, unless they are relying very heavily on land use changes as offsets, or carbon capture.

    According to the report, there’s been a decline in Vic emissions in recent years, but quite a lot of this comes from land use changes and reforestation.

  4. Val, I think there is a way around in that the information and ideas contained in the IPCC report can be discussed, and will, without naming and focussing on the report directly.

    50% by 2050 sounds weak. Renewables in electricity are the low-hanging fruit, which then flows through to transport.

    Carbo capture is expensive and still has technical issues as to where you can store the stuff. I’m not sure how reforestation and such is accounted for. In Germany they count a tree as fully grown as soon as they plant it, which is why I say look at the CO2 at Muana Loa etc if you want to know how we are going, not at the results of the formal accounting process.

    It’s like looking at the sewage waste stream to see how well we are doing on the ‘war on drugs’.

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