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The Paris Agreement is the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement adopted in 2015 by almost every nation on Earth that promotes a global consensus on addressing the climate crisis. But what does it actually propose, and five years on, how much progress has been made? 

What is the Paris Agreement?

Back in 2015, at COP21 in Paris, countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to accelerate and intensify the actions needed for a sustainable global future. The Agreement sets out a framework for limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius or ‘well below 2 degrees’ above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Global temperatures have already risen 1 degree and predictions for 2.7C warming or more would have catastrophic environmental, social and economic impacts. The Agreement also asks countries to become carbon neutral by no later than the second half of this century. 

Under the Agreement, each signatory country submits their own plan for emissions reductions, called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), in line with the overall targets. These include committing to improve financial preparedness against impacts of the climate crisis alongside directing finance flows to projects which align with lower GHG emissions. In line with evidence that less developed countries that contribute minimally to global warming are likely to be the most severely affected by the climate crisis, the Paris Agreement makes recommendations for developed countries to assist developing nations develop climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, committing a combined US$100 billion a year.

The Paris Agreement opened for signature on 22 April 2016 and entered into force on 4th November 2016 after the threshold of 55 signatory countries accounting for 55% of emissions was met. As of 2020, all UNFCCC members have signed the Agreement, with 189 (representing around 90% of global emissions) gaining formal approval on their climate proposals. The United States withdrew from the Agreement in 2020 during the Trump Administration, but recommitted in 2021 under President Joe Biden. The only significant emitters which are not parties are Iran and Turkey, ranking 8th and 15th in the world respectively for GHG emissions. 

You might also like: What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Paris Agreement Map

paris agreement
Figure 1: What percentage of the world’s emissions are covered by the Paris Agreement, and who has submitted what? (Source: The Carbon Brief)

The Paris climate agreement requires all parties to report on emissions and efforts towards climate change mitigation, with their NDCs being updated every five years. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed this year’s COP 26 talks, where updated NDCs would have been announced and the Paris Agreement would officially come into effect, until 2021. Alok Sharma, COP 26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, summarises the UK’s aims for COP26: 

it is hoped that the postponement of the COP 26 talks will not dissuade countries from continuing to prioritise climate plans, given the imperative nature of tough climate plans. Marianne Karlsen, chair of UN Climate Change’s implementation body, argues the postponement ‘doesn’t take away the pressure’ for countries to submit increased NDCs by the end of this year. According to speakers on a recent OECD-WWF hosted webinar, the delay offers governments a crucial window to improve and ensure plans are better aligned with efforts for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How Close are We to Meeting Any of These Commitments? 

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) covers 80% of global emissions and assesses countries based on how likely their Paris commitments will achieve the 1.5 degrees target. “If all governments meet their Paris Agreement target, we calculate the world would still see 3C of warming, but that warming is likely to be even higher given most are not taking enough action to meet their targets”, says Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT’s organisations. what is the paris agreement, climate action tracker

Figure 2: The Climate Action Tracker map (Source: Climate Action Tracker).

Morocco is one of only two countries with climate mitigation plans consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C. The country’s National Energy Strategy calls for generating 42% of its electricity from renewables by the end of 2020 (which they are on track to achieve) and 52% by 2030. 

At the other end of the scale is the US, with the CAT describing its Paris targets as ‘critically insufficient’. In 2020, President Trump withdrew the USA from the Paris Agreement. Despite the US re-joining again within months led by President Joe Biden,  the Trump administration rolled back many critical environmental protection policies and climate action during his four-year tenure – keep in mind that the the US remains to be the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally, the leading cause of global warming. It’s too early to tell the extent of which the Trump administration has damaged the country’s progress in combating global warming. 

Slightly more positive action comes from China, who have committed to levelling off their carbon emissions by 2030 at the very latest, whilst India has committed to generating 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Part of India’s pledge also sees the creation of a carbon sink area of 2.5 to 3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030. This action is crucial, and cannot come with much delay- a worldwide failure to meet the current targets could reduce global GDP by more than 25% by 2100.  

In the IPCC Report published in August 2021, which is put together by an intergovernmental body dedicated to uncovering and understanding the purely scientific underpinnings of climate change, has found that global temperatures will very likely rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2040.

It’s clear that the Paris Agreement is more important than ever, and can be a powerful and influential force in the fight against the climate crisis. But signatory countries and other will need to take it up a notch and urgent action must be taken if we are to slow down the rapid rate of global warming and to meet the 1.5C target.

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement that aimed to manage and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases. The Protocol was adopted at a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and became international law on February 16, 2005. 

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Protocol operationalised the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 192 nations committed to reducing their emissions by an average of 5.2% by 2012, which would represent about 29% of the world’s total emissions. 

Countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol were assigned maximum carbon emission levels for specific periods and participated in carbon credit trading. If a country emitted more than its assigned limit, then it would receive a lower emissions limit in the following period.

Key Facts of the Kyoto Protocol

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kyoto protocol

Green- Annex B parties with binding targets in the second period; purple- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but not the second; blue- Non-Annex B parties without binding targets; yellow- Annex B parties with binding targets in the first period but which withdrew from the Protocol; orange- Signatories to the Protocol that have not ratified; red- Other UN member states and observers that are not party to the Protocol (Source:Wikipedia).

Developed vs Developing Nations

Recognising that developed countries are principally responsible for the current levels of GHG emissions as a result of more than 150 years of unmitigated industrial activity, the Protocol placed a heavier burden on them. 37 industrialised nations plus the EU were mandated to cut their GHG emissions, while developing countries were asked to voluntarily comply; more than 100 developing countries, including China and India, were exempted from the treaty.

The Protocol separated countries into two groups: Annex I contained developed nations, and Non-Annex I contained developing countries. Emission limits were placed on Annex I countries only. Non-Annex I countries could invest in projects to lower emissions in their countries. For these projects, developing countries earned carbon credits that they could trade or sell to developed countries, allowing the developing nations a higher level of maximum carbon emissions for that period. This effectively allowed developed countries to continue emitting GHGs.

The Protocol established a monitoring, review and verification system, as well as a compliance system to ensure transparency and hold parties accountable. All countries’ emissions had to be monitored and precise records of the trades kept through registry systems.

3 Kyoto Mechanisms

The Protocol established market mechanisms based on the trade of emissions permits. It allowed countries an additional means to meet their targets by way of three market-based mechanisms: International Emissions Trading, Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI). 

The mechanisms encouraged GHG mitigation in the most cost-effective ways, ie. in the developing world. The idea was that as long as pollution is removed from the atmosphere, it does not matter where it is reduced, which stimulated green investment in developing countries and included the private sector to develop cleaner infrastructure and systems over older, dirtier technology. 

An Adaptation Fund was established to finance adaptation projects and programmes in developing countries that are parties to the Protocol. In the first commitment period, the Fund was financed mainly with a share of proceeds from CDM project activities. For the second commitment period, international emissions trading and joint implementation would also provide the Fund with a 2% share of proceeds. 

The International Emissions Trading mechanism allows countries that have emission units to spare – emissions permitted them but not “used”- to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.

The Clean Development Mechanism allows a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable certified emission reduction (CER) credits, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets.

Finally, the Joint Implementation mechanism allows a country with an emission reduction or limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to earn emission reduction units (ERUs) from an emission-reduction or emission removal project in another Annex B Party, each equivalent to one tonne of CO2, which can be counted towards meeting its Kyoto target.

The Doha Amendment

After the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ended in December 2012, parties to the Protocol met in Doha, Qatar, to discuss an amendment to the original Kyoto agreement. The Doha Amendment added new targets for the second commitment period, 2012-2020. While first commitment period aimed to reduce GHG by 5%, the second amendment committed to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18% below 1990 levels.

This was short-lived; in 2015, all UNFCCC participants signed another pact, the Paris Climate Agreement, which effectively replaced the Kyoto Protocol.

The Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Agreement was adopted by nearly every nation- 190 states and the EU- in 2015 to address the negative effects of the climate crisis. The agreement covers around 97% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Commitments were made from all major GHG-emitting countries to cut their emissions and strengthen these commitments over time. It was arguably the first time that most of the world agreed to pursue a common cause. 

A major directive of the agreement is to cut GHG emissions so as to limit global temperature rise in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while taking steps to limit this to 1.5 degrees. It also provides a way for developed nations to help developing nations and creates a framework for monitoring and reporting countries’ climate goals transparently. 

Unfortunately, countries are not on their way to achieving the Paris Agreement- a report by the UNFCCC indicated that nations must redouble their climate efforts if they are to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2C—ideally 1.5C—by 2100.

How Has the Kyoto Protocol Worked Out?

In 2005, many countries, including those in the EU, planned to meet or exceed their targets under the agreement by 2011. Others, such as the US and China- the world’s biggest emitters- produced enough GHGs to mitigate any of the progress made by countries who met their targets. In fact, there was an increase of about 40% in emissions globally between 1990 and 2009. 

Why Did the United States Not Sign the Kyoto Protocol?

The US dropped out of the agreement in 2001, calling the treaty unfair because it mandated only developed countries to reduce emissions, and felt that doing so would hinder the US economy. 

Talks have been marred by politics, money, lack of leadership and lack of consensus. GHG emissions are still rising, and countries are not addressing them quickly enough.

Important Dates of the Kyoto Protocol

December 1-11, 1997 The Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is held in Kyoto, Japan. Nearly 200 nations attend and adopt the first international treaty on managing and reducing greenhouse gases.

November 2, 1998 – In Buenos Aires 160 nations meet to work out details of the protocol and create the “Buenos Aires Action Plan.”

July 23, 2001 – Negotiators from 178 countries meet in Germany and agree to adopt the protocol, without the participation of the US. 

November 10, 2001 – Representatives from 160 countries meet in Marrakech, Morocco, to work out details of the protocol.

November 18, 2004 – The Russian Federation ratifies the protocol.

February 16, 2005 – The Kyoto Protocol comes into effect.

December 12, 2011 – Canada renounces the Kyoto Protocol, saying its goals are unworkable because the US and China never agreed to it, and says that a new pact is needed to address emissions.

December 2012 – The Kyoto Protocol is extended to 2020 during a conference in Doha, Qatar. 

June 23, 2013 – Afghanistan adopts the Kyoto Protocol, becoming the 192nd signatory.

2015 – At the COP21 summit, held in Paris, all UNFCCC participants sign the Paris Agreement that effectively replaces the Kyoto Protocol. The parties agree to limit warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees, and below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels if possible.

Featured image by: flickr 

On November 4, the US officially left the Paris Agreement, three years after President Donald Trump vowed to do so. However, this may be short-lived, as President-elect Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement later that day. The move has drawn praise from experts and environmentalists alike.

In the afternoon of November 4, Biden tweeted, “Today, the Trump administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.” 

Why Does This Matter?

Further, on his campaign website, Biden has promised not only to rejoin the agreement, but to lobby for more significant international climate ambition. The site says, “He will lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets. He will make sure those commitments are transparent and enforceable, and stop countries from cheating by using America’s economic leverage and power of example.”

You might also like: The US Leaves the Paris Agreement Today. How Can it Get Back In?

Scientists around the world are breathing a sigh of relief. Trump and Biden have taken opposite positions on how to address the climate crisis. Biden has proposed to spend USD$2 trillion over four years to boost green jobs and infrastructure and achieve a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions nationwide by 2050. In contrast, incumbent president Trump has repeatedly denied climate science and has rolled back nearly 100 climate policies throughout his term, including standards for power plant and vehicle emissions. He has also appointed former energy lobbyists to head both the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a climate change denier at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

If Biden rejoins the agreement on January 20, the US would officially be back in 30 days later.

However, Joe Biden has his work cut out for him if he does rejoin the Paris Agreement. Other countries may be reluctant to trust US leadership on the issue; after all, this is the second time that the US has helped to negotiate an international climate deal and then been unable to garner domestic support- the Clinton administration was unable to get the Senate to support the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Featured image by: Flickr

Russia has announced a national-level state of emergency after 21 000 tons of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed in late May. The spill has polluted large stretches of Arctic rivers- colouring tundra waterways bright red- and was caused by melting permafrost, according to Russian officials. While Russia has ordered a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones, this oil spill incident highlights the danger of the climate crisis for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid rising temperatures. 

Norilsk Oil Spill: The Effects

The spill happened when a fuel tank at a power plant near the city of Norilsk collapsed. A subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, owns the plant. According to reports, a criminal case has been launched, as there was reportedly a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill. Minister for Emergencies in Russia Yevgeny Zinichev claims that the plant spent two days trying to contain the oil spill before alerting his ministry, however Norilsk Nickel says that the incident was reported in a ‘timely and proper’ way.

The oil leaked at least 12km from the accident site, turning stretches of the Ambarnaya River deep red and has overall contaminated a 350 sq km area.The spill also polluted 180 000 sq metres of land before reaching the river, regional prosecutors said.

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russia oil spill
A gif showing the reach of the oil spill in Norilsk, Russia (Source: European Space Agency).

The Ambarnaya River feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is extremely important to the entire Taimyr peninsula. Satellite images released by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos show that a large spot of reddish fuel travelled over 20km towards the lake from the spill site. 

President Vladimir Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin that he expects the company to pay for clean-up operations. Potanin estimates that the operations will cost about US$146 million, on top of any fines, and says, “We will spend whatever is needed. We will return the ecosystem back to normal.” The country’s technical safety watchdog says that since 2016, it has been unable to check the condition of the reservoir, because the company said it was under repairs. 

Floating barriers erected on the river by responders are unable to stop most of the pollution, which can quickly dissolve or sink, according to Russia’s fisheries agency. 

The state of emergency means that extra forces are going to the area to assist with the clean-up operation, however environmental groups say that the scale of the spill and geography of the river mean it will be difficult to clean up. 

The area has been affected by decades of pollution from metals production and other activities in Norilsk, which is Russia’s most polluted city.

Environmentalists say that the spill is the worst such accident ever in the Arctic region and Alexei Knizhnikv, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, says that the accident is believed to be the second largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume. 

He added that despite melting permafrost, the incident could have been avoided if the company followed the rules, such as erecting a barrier around its fuel reservoir to contain spillage.

Arctic permafrost has been melting in exceptionally warm weather for this time of year; Russia recently experienced its warmest winter temperatures ever recorded. Moscow reported temperatures 7.5 degrees Celsius above average and set 11 all-time daily temperature records. 

Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the world average. 65% of the country is covered by permafrost and the environment ministry warned in 2018 that the melting of permafrost threatens pipes and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways. This makes it all the more important that Russia follows through with its climate action targets. In September 2019, the nation formally ratified the Paris Agreement, saying that climate change could endanger key sectors like agriculture as well as the ‘safety of people living in areas with permafrost’ and has pledged to reduce emissions to 25 to 30% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Update, June 29: Norilsk Nickel has said that it has suspended workers at a metals plant who were responsible for pumping wastewater into nearby Arctic tundra. The workers dumped about 6 000 cubic metres of liquid used to process minerals at the facility. The plant says that it is impossible to determine how far the wastewater has dispersed.

Update July 31: Norilsk Nickel has been fined $2.1bn over the spill.

Featured image: ESA

A new study from the University of California Davis has revealed how rapidly the polar regions are warming and examines the global consequences of continued polar warming. 

Published in the journal Science Advances, the study reports that the Arctic has warmed by 0.75°C over the past decade alone. By comparison, the Earth as a whole has warmed by 0.8°C since the late 19th century. 

“Many of the changes over the past decade are so dramatic they make you wonder what the next decade of warming will bring,” says lead author Eric Post, a professor of climate change ecology at the university. 

As Earth approaches 2°C warming by 2100, the Arctic and Antarctic may reach 4°C and 2°C mean annual warming respectively. “Under a business-as-usual scenario, the Earth as a whole may reach that milestone in about 40 years. But the Arctic is already there during some months of the year, and it could reach 2°C on an annual mean basis as soon as 25 years before the rest of the planet,” Post says.

The Ecological Consequences of Continued Sea-Ice Loss

One of the major potential consequences of warming in the polar regions is the development of an ice-free summer Arctic Ocean which may be realised within a few decades, affecting Arctic marine mammal’s movements and feeding as well as the human communities that rely on these animals for food and fuel. Polar bears as an example will have to spend more time foraging for food on land or risk unstable sea ice or open water. 

As species from the south relocate northward in search of colder climates, they are likely to displace Arctic species (who are unable to migrate northward because of the Arctic Ocean).

Furthermore, expected increases in human activity, such as offshore oil and gas drilling and trans-Atlantic shipping will affect the animals living in these areas. Improved monitoring will be important for improving these animals’ population status by continuously developing adaptive management and conservation policies. 

The most recent IPCC projection for sea level rise by 2100 is approximately 0.5m even under an emissions mitigation scenario. This rise can be mostly attributed to thermal expansion of ocean water and melting mountain glaciers. 

Warming above a ‘survival’ threshold, previously estimated as 1° to 4°C above pre-industrial temperatures, may cause loss of most of the Greenland ice sheet (GiS) over the following centuries. The collapse of the Thwaites Glacier and other Antarctic water sources could contribute more than 3m to global sea level rise over less than a century. Further warming could extend these processes into marine basins of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), potentially adding an additional 12m or more of sea level rise further in the future. Geoengineering solutions have been proposed, but grave difficulties remain.

Extreme Weather at Lower Latitudes 

Increased warming associated with sea-ice loss may increase the probability of the Northern Hemisphere experiencing more deadly heatwaves and wildfires, among other extreme weather events. The California drought of 2011- 2017 has been linked to changing arctic conditions. 

Thawing Permafrost Emitting Methane

Methane has 30 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide. Future warming could substantially increase these methane emissions from wetlands and permafrost decomposition, serving as a positive feedback to warming of the global climate system. Under business-as-usual emissions, total wetland areas will increase by 13% by 2100, and global methane emissions will nearly double relative to current levels.  

Vegetation Shifts 

Climate change is projected to cause vegetation shifts because rising temperatures favour taller, denser vegetation, and will thus promote the expansion of forests into the arctic tundra, and tundra into the polar deserts. 

This process will cause a decrease in surface reflectivity, amplifying global warming because the newly forested areas will be darker and more textured and thus will absorb more solar radiation than the lighter, cooler tundra. Additionally, expanding forests mask highly reflective snow. This darkening will create a feedback loop whereby more warming will lead to more trees and forest cover, which will cause more warming, and so on. 

Global warming is projected to advance the potential for commercial crop production northward throughout this century, with some crops now suitable only for the warmer parts of the boreal region becoming suitable as far north as the Arctic Circle. Average annual yield potential is likely to increase as the probability of low temperatures that limit growth is reduced. However, in warmer areas, increased warmth during the growing season may cause decreases in yields since higher temperatures speed development, reducing time to accumulate dry matter.

Unless irrigation is used, water stress is likely to negatively affect crop yields and water limitation is likely to become more important than temperature limitations for many crops in much of the region. 

International Collaboration is Key 

The challenges that will inevitably arise from increasing access to the polar regions and global pressure for resources cannot be managed by one nation in isolation. 

Existing monitoring programs, such as the US Arctic Observing Network and the British Antarctic Survey, are well-developed in the polar regions and these efforts should be maintained and expanded to allow for effective scenario planning and policy development. 

The Antarctic Treaty seeks to regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica, however, increasing risks of intrusion by private vessels and pressure to exploit Antarctic fisheries and mineral resources have led to calls for modifications to the treaty. 

No comprehensive agreement like the Antarctic Treaty covers the Arctic. However, several relevant treaties and agreements are in place including The Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, signed in 2018. 

In the absence of efforts to curb or reduce carbon emissions over the next two to four decades, warming, especially in the northern high latitudes, is likely to accelerate. Given the implications of this warming, it is essential to also accelerate efforts to better understand, prepare for, and be able to address the environmental, ecological, and societal changes that will result from continued high-latitude warming.

Featured image by: Rick Segal 

As the realities of the climate crisis become more widely discussed around the world, governments are increasingly under pressure from the general public to take action. Many institutions and governments have declared a ‘climate emergency’, but does this translate into policy or is it just hot air?

Climate Emergency Declaration: First Country

The city of Bristol was the UK’s first council to declare a climate emergency. Bristol’s move has since been widely credited as a breakthrough for cities, local governments and parliaments worldwide to follow its example. Six months later, the UK became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency. 

One of the UK’s research hubs on climate change, the University of Bristol, declared such an emergency soon after, becoming the first UK university to do so following widespread pressure from its student body. Reacted to with much elation from environmentally-conscious students, the move was soon followed by other universities across the UK.

However, the question of whether such announcements will translate into effective policy remains.

Dr Dann Mitchell, an Atmospheric Scientist and Associate Professor at the university, responded to the declaration by highlighting the importance of policy follow-through once the declaration has been made.

“Legally, there are no commitments for declaring a climate emergency, so the university doesn’t actually have to do anything. That is a cause for concern because it raises the question of whether the university is just declaring this as a publicity stunt, or if it’s actually developing strategies to become carbon-neutral.”

UK institutions have paved the way for such landmark declarations, and other international bodies are beginning to follow suit. In November, the EU parliament declared a climate emergency following a landslide vote from members, with the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, asserting that it was a resounding ‘agenda for change’. 

However, these calls to action are waiting to be met with discernible change. Such an agenda places pressure on countries to join the ranks to fight climate change without significant promises or legal action. It invites the European Council to align with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global mean temperature rise below 1.5°C, but imposes no obligation on them to align themselves with such a goal.

Around the world, it seems that climate emergency declarations haven’t delivered many material accomplishments. One day after Canada declared such an emergency, the government approved a tar sands pipeline expansion that could bring an additional 600 000 barrels of oil per day to international markets. The UK’s declaration in May came as local authorities supported plans to significantly expand coal mining. 

Environmental campaigners approached the declaration in a familiar manner, by applauding the language of change but wanting to see real change. Greenpeace EU policy climate advisor, Sebastian Lang, responded by saying, “Our house is on fire. The European Parliament have seen the blaze, but it’s not enough to stand by and watch.”

Von Der Leyen’s commission has already proposed a reduction to net zero emissions by 2050, but the European Council has failed to pass this motion as of yet with staunch opposition from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It’s alarmingly evident that tough words often don’t translate to tough policy. 

The climate crisis however, is obviously not limited to developed countries, where climate action is proclaimed by countries built on the use of fossil fuels and natural resources. Tackling the climate emergency in developing countries must address the complex interface of the need for emissions reduction alongside the necessity for economic development. 

So far, few African and Asian countries have incorporated the climate crisis into their respective policy output, nor adopted the language of ‘climate emergency’. When understood in the wider framework of meeting people’s basic needs, impending environmental issues are often sidelined in favour of more immediate socio-economic development. 

Although wealthy Western nations disproportionately emit the largest percentage of emissions, it must also be considered that six of the top ten global emitters are rapidly developing countries, whose growth has come at the cost of immense emissions output. As economic growth continues around the world, the need to rethink the way that growth progresses, and incorporate the climate crisis into a multi-faceted approach to ‘development’ is becoming even more necessary. The climate crisis demands global cooperation on these issues, or humanity risks losing the determination and effort that such a crisis deserves.

Encouragingly, African leaders called for a global climate emergency at a UN climate action summit in September, in addition to requesting more funding from the international community for droughts, rising sea levels and severe tropical cyclones. However, questions arise as to whether declaring such an emergency will change attitudes in their countries. If developed nations face resistance from those who regard their own issues to be of greater importance, then the world’s lower-income countries will most likely be faced with even more resistance from their people. 

When considering that developing countries are the most likely to bear the brunt of climate change, policymakers and the masses must work together to produce an impactful response to such a declaration that incorporates emissions reduction with a sustainable approach to economic and social development. 

Progress has undoubtedly been made as the world wakes up to the reality of how the climate crisis is unfolding and how it is affecting the planet and those who live on it. Now that the nomenclature is beginning to be more widely adopted, questions abound as to whether effective policy implementation remains, as ever, just out of reach. 

To meet climate change mitigation targets, practices that improve soil quality, like soil carbon sequestration, could be an effective and accessible solution. 

The Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming “well below 2 °C” and to “pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 °C”by 2100 requires a change in global consumption, CO2 emissions and lifestyle habits that are currently not occurring at a fast enough rate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2018 report ‘Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development’ state the need to implement carbon dioxide removal to have any chance of hitting the 1.5°C target.

The techniques mainly discussed in the report are Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation, strategies that have been explored as options to mitigate climate change but may have negative side impacts, including increasing land-use competition leading to increased food prices, increased fertiliser usage, increased water usage and a threat to biodiversity. 

In the race for the 1.5°C target, what other Negative Emission Technologies (N.E.Ts) could be implemented that pose a lower need for in-demand land and a lower risk of unwanted negative side effects? The answer: Soil Carbon Sequestration

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A tractor ploughing a field. Changes in farming techniques can lead to carbon drawdown.

Soil Carbon Sequestration to Mitigate Climate Change

Soil carbon sequestration involves changing the way land is managed by increasing the amount of carbon content in soil leading to an overall net removal of CO2 in order to mitigate climate change. Changing the carbon balance so there is a higher level of inputs than carbon losses leads to a N.E.T phenomenon. To achieve this, practices that increase inputs or reduce losses must be implemented. An example of such a change in practice is decreasing tillage (the preparation of land for growing crops), resulting in a potential 30% decrease in organic carbon lost from the soil.

In her comprehensive topical review paper “Negative emissions—Part 2: Costs, potentials and side effects,” Dr Sabine Fuss from The Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, analyses multiple N.E.Ts, giving a comprehensive breakdown of the pros, cons and potentials of each technique. When implemented correctly, soil carbon sequestration is the technique that has the smallest negative impact on socio-economic, environmental, biophysical and bio-geophysical factors.

Fuss summarises that soil carbon sequestration (SCS) techniques have a realistic carbon drawdown potential of between 2-5 GtCO2 yr−1 (other papers estimate both lower and higher potentials due to differing estimates of areas being adaptable to SCS techniques).

Aside from the potential drawdown of CO2, SCS has a number of potential positive side effects including:

Improved soil quality and health

Improved and more stable crop yields

No impact on competition for land; some other N.E.Ts require land-use change that could lead to an initial increase in emissions or lead to conflict over land that is needed to meet growing demand for food

Negligible additional water usage, since no further water is needed to implement SCS, just a change in land-use practices

Negligible energy usage, as SCS requires little change in farming techniques or energy input to be successful. Indeed, it could even lead to a reduction in energy usage if soil is worked less intensely

Increased organic nitrogen in the soil

Reduced pollution

Compared to other N.E.Ts such as BECCS, there are some drawbacks. Firstly, the amount of carbon that the soil can absorb decreases over time. The soil might also reach a “saturation cap”, after which no more sequestration can occur. Depending on the SCS option, soil type and climate, saturation may take anytime between 10 to 100 years. During this time, constancy in soil maintenance is crucial.

Aside from this, when compared to other N.E.Ts, SCS is far more accessible for people globally. The costs of SCS are low, knowledge is already in place or is easy to acquire (soils have been managed for thousands of years), it is readily deployable and presents a wide range of benefits.

Fuss admits additional feasibility studies are needed to scale up deployment, particularly in developing economies., However, she concludes that presents a viable, green and affordable option for farmers looking to manage their lands in an ecologically responsible manner. 

The world is “losing the race” on tackling climate change, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres candidly told business and political leaders at the first major international gathering of the year. The 2019 annual World Economic Forum wrapped up on January 25th, closing out a week of talks dominated by climate change and fears over slow economic growth.

Demanding bolder action from governments, Guterres renewed the call for more resources to be deployed for tackling climate change mitigation and adaptation, along with increased financial aid for poorer countries.

“Climate change is the defining issue of our time,” he stressed. “It is absolutely central to reverse this trend”.

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A World Economic Forum survey conducted ahead of the meeting found that climate change was the leading concern of international participants to the conference.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who signed the Paris Accord to combat climate change for the US in 2016, said 38 out of the 50 states are implementing their own climate policies despite Trump’s withdrawal and scepticism on climate change.

But Kerry noted that the Paris agreement was based on the expectation that the private sector will ramp up investments in green technologies like energy efficient batteries and solar power.

“It’s not happening enough, and even in Katowice recently, you saw the fight that was taking place, just to be able to try to be reasonable here,” he said, referring to the contentious COP24 UN climate change discussions in December 2018.

Ahead of the Katowice conference, a group of 50 global CEOs, responsible for generating more than $1.3 trillion in revenue across more than 150 countries and territories, published an open letter on climate action.

Cutting their collective emissions by 9% so far since 2016, the companies developed “climate governance” principles to help corporate boards manage climate change by translating climate risks into business processes.

Their practical actions highlight that while global commitments and campaigns often make headlines, the commitments need to be translated into business-led climate initiatives and measures to transform industries and operating models.

But while corporate executives, including Patrick Pouyanne CEO of French oil and energy giant Total, publicised their own measures to transition to a greener economy, activists say that companies are still not doing enough in tackling climate change.

How to tackle climate change with a carbon tax?

A carbon tax movement is making headway, under an initiative by the Climate Leadership Council that is backed by 27 Nobel economic laureates and all four former chairs of the US Federal Reserve – Janet Yellen, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker.

Ted Halstead, president of the Council, was in Davos this week to promote the scheme.

Recognising that “global climate change is a serious problem calling for immediate national action”, signatories said in a statement that a carbon tax “offers the most cost-effective solution to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary”.

The tax would factor in the polluting price of fossil fuels so as to discourage their use over time – starting with US $40 per ton of carbon emissions on US businesses, which would produce about US $200 billion in revenue per year.

Revenues would be returned to US citizens through equal lump-sum rebates – echoing Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s carbon “dividend”, which was passed in October 2018. A similar proposal for a carbon tax was recently introduced by US bipartisan lawmakers.

Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, wrapped up the conference in Davos calling for “unique partnerships between governments, business and civil society to solve the most pressing global challenges”.

The next major global assembly on climate change, the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit will be held in September this year.


190 countries, including China and US, the largest carbon emitters, have adopted a 133-page climate rulebook that reinvigorates the 2015 Paris climate agreement by setting out how countries will report their emissions and efforts to reduce them.

What is the climate rulebook?

To keep nations in check, the climate ‘rulebook’ contains a compliance mechanism, which means that countries that don’t submit their reports on time will face an enquiry. For developing countries, the new regulations are “flexible”, so they can sign up for the rules at a later date.

It was the outcome of two weeks of negotiations at COP24, the UN climate change conference that brought over 20 000 participants – from politicians to scientists and business representatives – to the industrial city of Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

Each column is divided into chunks for text covering separate Articles of the Paris Agreement.
Source: Carbon Brief

What’s missing from the climate ‘rulebook’?

Countries failed to agree on Article 6 – Market Mechanisms – excluding an important element of the rulebook to address international cooperation on carbon markets.

The contentious point that nearly derailed the climate negotiations was on basic accounting rules to prevent “double counting” of emissions reductions.

Brazil refused to budge, insisting that it be allowed to double-count carbon credits by applying them towards its own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) while selling them to another country that wishes to apply them toward that country’s NDC.

This is the equivalent of paying your bills, but not deducting the amounts from your bank balance. Brazil has amassed large piles of carbon credits under the 1991 Kyoto treaty rules.

“Such a loophole would undermine the integrity of the mechanism and could potentially threaten the objectives of the Paris Agreement”, said Nathaniel Keohane, Senior VP at the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDI).

Economists believe that a functioning carbon trading system is an effective way to drive down emissions and raise large revenues for measures to curb global warming. Nations can nearly double their ambition through the use of well-designed carbon markets, relative to the current targets, according to EDF analysis. 

“This is the potential value of Article 6, and why it deserves such serious attention. It is also why the business community is so intently focused on its success, because it can lower cost and enable transformation”, said International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) CEO Dick Forrister.

Unable to reach agreement, negotiators delayed a decision on Article 6 until next year. But they made surprisingly rapid progress on other areas.

Breakthrough on transparency, climate reporting rules

All nations agreed to a common transparency framework that ensures robust accounting and biannual reporting requirements for carbon emissions.

COP24 Chairman Michal Kurtyka celebrates the adoption of the Paris Agreement rulebook. Photo: UNclimatechange/ Flickr

The US negotiated for strong transparency rules that put all countries under the same rules, in spite of refusing to “welcome” the IPCC report at the outset of the conference.

“Overall, the United States’ role here has been somewhat schizophrenic, pushing coal and dissing science on the one hand, but also working hard in the room for strong transparency rules,” said Elliot Diringer of the Washington-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Ensuring China and the US face similar regulations has long been a key of American policy.

Negotiators also finalised the rules for climate finance reporting.

Developed countries are now obliged to report every two years on what climate finance they have provided to developing countries, and will biennially report estimates of future financing to be contributed. Other countries are encouraged to follow suit.

But dramatic efforts are needed to “ramp up climate finance”, says Han Chen, Manager of Energy Policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

She says countries need to intensify financing through the Green Climate Fund and other channels and shift resources from high-carbon to low-carbon projects across the economy.

“We’re running out of time, and need to align all financial investments with the Paris Agreement by getting out the dirtiest, worst-polluting projects. There’s no time to waste.”

Mixed reactions to COP24 outcome

As the talks trailed on to late Saturday, the rulebook was hailed as “positive for the world” by Michal Kurtyka, the Polish official who chaired the summit. But many environmental campaigners believe that more ambitious targets should have been set.

“The majority of the rulebook for the Paris agreement has been created, which is something to be thankful for,” said Mohamed Adow, a climate policy expert at Christian Aid.

“But the fact countries had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the finish line shows that some nations have not woken up” to the alarming consequences of global warming as outlined in a report by the UN Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Climate activist Greta Thunberg condemns world leaders’ inaction on climate change at COP24.

Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, believes that COP24 was a missed opportunity for radical action. “A year of climate disasters and dire warning from the world’s top scientists should have led to so much more,” she said.

“Recognising the urgency of raised ambition and adopting a set of rules for climate action is not nearly enough when whole nations face extinction.”

Featured image courtesy of UNclimatechange/ Flickr

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