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UN climate change conference in Katowice: Questions and Answers

MD Staff

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  1. What will happen at COP24?

This year’s annual conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be a crucial moment for the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, as Parties are aiming to finalise a detailed set of rules and guidelines – the so-called Paris ‘work programme’ or ‘rule book’ – which will enable the landmark accord to be put into practice all around the world.

The conference, will take place from 2-14 December in Katowice, Poland, and will be presided over by the Government of Poland. It is officially the UNFCCC’s 24th Conference of the Parties which is where it gets its name ‘COP24’ from; the Kyoto Protocol’s 14th Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP 14) and the third part of the first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1.3).

The Paris Agreement, adopted in December 2015, sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C. It entered into force on 4 November 2016. 195 UNFCCC Parties have signed the Agreement and 184 have now ratified it.

  1. What are the EU’s expectations for COP24?

In December 2015, Parties to the Paris Agreement agreed to finalise a detailed set of rules and guidelines – a ‘work programme’ or ‘rulebook’ – for implementing the accord by the end of 2018. Adopting a clear and comprehensive work programme consistent with what was agreed in Paris is necessary for putting the Agreement into practice. It will enable and encourage climate action at all levels worldwide and will demonstrate the global commitment to ambition.

Adopting a strong Paris work programme, with clear provisions on all key issues including transparency, finance, mitigation and adaptation, is the EU’s top priority for COP24. The outcome must preserve the spirit of the Paris Agreement, be applicable to all Parties, take into account different national circumstances and reflect the highest possible ambition over time. Clear rules and guidelines will also serve Parties’ own policy-making, by providing a robust underpinning for policies and reflection on enhancing ambition over time.

In the build-up to the conference, EU Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete has conducted extensive outreach with global counterparts in order to ensure a successful outcome in Katowice. This includes the second Ministerial on Climate Action in Brussels co-hosted with counterparts from China and Canada, the Global Climate Action Summit in California, and a recent visit to Beijing where climate priorities were discussed with Chinese authorities. Additionally, the EU has also undertaken wide outreach at officials level with a view to moving towards landing zones on the key political issues related to the Paris rulebook. Party groupings reached out to include progressive developed and developing countries, the G77 and major economies including South Africa.

The political phase of the Talanoa dialogue should send a strong message to the world, in support of the implementation of the Paris Agreement to spur momentum for action. The EU expects all Parties to share evidence of their action and progress on their nationally determined contribution (NDC), as part of a collective global conversation on how to enhance ambition.

Ahead of COP24, the European Commission presented a strategic vision on how the EU could achieve climate neutrality – i.e. become a net zero emission economy – by 2050 (see point 4).

Alongside the formal negotiations, COP24 will have a strong focus on keeping up the political momentum for continued climate action by a wide range of stakeholders before 2020. It will provide a space for all relevant stakeholders to showcase their action, share information, foster new cooperation and raise awareness on climate change and the solutions available.

The EU has a rich programme of side events at COP24 – it will host more than 100 events over the two weeks, at the EU Pavilion in the conference centre.

  1. What is the EU doing to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions?

The EU’s NDC for Paris is to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990. This target is part of a wider EU climate and energy framework for 2030 and builds on the 2020 target to cut emissions by 20%, which the EU is well on course to exceed.

The EU has worked intensely to establish an economy-wide framework of legislation and initiatives that will allow the bloc to meet its 2030 target and drive the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient society. All key legislation for 2030 has already been adopted, including a modernisation of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and new energy efficiency and renewable energy targets to ensure the power sector and energy-intensive industries deliver the necessary emissions cuts, and new 2030 targets for all Member States to reduce emissions in non-ETS sectors including transport, buildings, agriculture and waste. New legislation will also ensure that emissions from land use and forestry will be balanced out by removals. Ambitious proposals to reduce EU road transport emissions are also on the table and still being negotiated by member states and the European Parliament. Fully implemented these measures could lead to an EU GHG emissions reduction of around 45% in 2030.

However, EU ambition and vision goes far beyond 2030. In March this year, following a similar request from the European Parliament, EU leaders called on the Commission to present a proposal for a strategy for long-term EU GHG emissions reduction, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Following broad stakeholder consultation and taking into account the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C, the Commission this week presented a strategic vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral EU economy in 2050. It is an ambitious vision in line with the Paris Agreement goals providing sustainable growth and jobs and improving the quality of life of all EU citizens.

The strategic vision will be followed by a broad debate among EU decision-makers and all stakeholders, which should allow the EU to adopt a long-term strategy and submit it to the UNFCCC by 2020, as requested under the Paris Agreement. The Commission will present its strategic vision to all global partners at COP24, hoping it can inspire others to prepare their own long-term strategies.

  1. How does the Paris Agreement ensure countries deliver on their commitments?

In 2015, countries agreed to set up an enhanced transparency framework for action and support to build mutual trust and confidence and to promote effective implementation of the Paris commitments. The key task is to make this framework a reality by adopting a strong set of detailed rules.

The enhanced transparency framework will help not only the understanding of progress made individually by Parties in the implementation of their nationally determined contributions, but is also critical for providing robust data to support the global stocktakes and assess the progress towards the long-term goals.

Solid multilateral transparency and accountability guidelines would help countries to design good policies at home. They should provide an incentive to build and maintain domestic institutions, data collection and tracking systems that policymakers need to make the right decisions.

The transparency, accountability and compliance system under the Paris Agreement is not punitive, but it is meant to identify when Parties are off track and help them to get back on track if they are not delivering. Underpinning this system are new and comprehensive requirements and procedures applicable to all Parties to track and facilitate their performance. These include technical expert reviews, a multilateral peer review process, and a standing committee on implementation and compliance. Together, these will maintain a focus on both technical and political aspects of performance.

  1. What does the Paris Agreement mean for the EU’s contribution to climate finance for developing countries before 2020?

At the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries collectively committed to contribute USD 100 billion of climate finance per year by 2020, from both public and private sources, for meaningful mitigation action and transparency of implementation. In Paris in 2015, the EU and other developed countries committed to continue to provide financial resources to help developing countries tackle climate change.

Together, the EU, its Member States and the European Investment Bank are the biggest donor of climate finance to developing countries. We have progressively raised our contribution in recent years, providing EUR 20.4 billion in 2017 alone. The EU is delivering its fair share of the overall USD 100 billion commitment.

The Paris Agreement called for a “concrete roadmap” to achieve the USD 100 billion goal, with a Climate Finance Roadmap prepared by the donor community in 2016 indicating that they are on track to meet the ambitious goal.

  1. How does the Paris Agreement address adaptation and loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change?

The Paris Agreement put adaptation on an equal footing with mitigation and established the first global goal on adaptation, namely to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change. The global stocktake will review the overall progress towards this goal. Adaptation is a key element of EU policy and planning. National, regional and local adaptation strategies are gaining ground since the adoption of the EU Adaptation Strategy in 2013. Today, 25 Member States have a strategy or plan and over 1,500 cities and municipalities have committed to developing one, in the framework of the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy.

The Commission published an evaluation of the Adaptation Strategy earlier this month – highlighting successes achieved and actions needed to further reduce Europe’s vulnerability to climate impacts. The evaluation also concluded that adapting EU regions and economic sectors to the impacts of climate change is now more urgent than forecast when the strategy was adopted in 2013.

In addition, the EU is highly committed to supporting partner countries to take climate action, including adaptation efforts. The percentage of EU climate finance targeted at adaptation is increasing, with particular focus on action in the most vulnerable countries. In 2017, roughly 50% of climate finance from the EU budget (excludes Member State funds) was dedicated to adaptation projects. The Paris Agreement recognises the importance of averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with climate change, including extreme weather events, such as floods, landslides, storms and forest fires, and slow onset events such as the loss of fresh water aquifers and glaciers.

These concerns were addressed when the Paris Agreement was adopted by giving the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage the role of promoting cooperation on these issues. This includes further work on emergency response and insurance issues and a task force to develop recommendations on approaches to address displacement due to climate change, which delivered comprehensive recommendations on the subject.

  1. What is the role for business and other non-state actors and how can the Global Climate Action Agenda be strengthened?

The Paris Agreement recognises the key role of businesses, local governments, cities and other organisations in the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient world. The private sector will ultimately need to bring about the economic transformation, turning challenges into business opportunities. The sharing of experience from the private sector side, on the conditions to achieve sustainability in practice, is therefore extremely valuable.

Actions showcased through the Global Climate Action Agenda (GCAA) – also known as the Marrakesh Partnership on Global Climate Action – are helping to build on the growing momentum. The GCAA has the potential to deliver transformative impacts on the ground, enhance ambition pre-2020 and contribute to implementing national climate plans and the long-term Paris goals.

While measuring the impact and identifying what is additional to national climate pledges remains difficult, data indicates that the aggregated impact of the initiatives is in the order of a few gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2030 beyond the current NDCs – a potentially significant contribution to closing the gap (UNEP Gap Report 2016).

The EU and its Member States have been proactive in promoting and sponsoring specific GCAA initiatives. Flagship initiatives include the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and Mission Innovation.

The high-level events on global climate action and the thematic days at COP24 will be excellent opportunities to reflect on progress made under existing initiatives, as well as for announcements on new transformative initiatives.

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Green Planet

Thwarting Trump on Climate Change Denial

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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We now have the remarkable convenience of the internal combustion engine, and also its noise and chaos and emissions to energize climate change.  Burning fossil fuels has put us on planet Titanic …

The doomsday clock remains at a critical two minutes to midnight, the ‘new abnormal,’ spelling future disaster, and we will continue to be like the “Titanic, ignoring the iceberg ahead, enjoying the fine food and music,” to quote former California governor Jerry Brown.  He is now the executive chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization behind the clock.  This year climate change is cited as a major cause; it was the principal reason in 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when it noted, “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.”  The report mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government was repudiated by President Trump:  “I do not believe it,” was his blunt response.  Mr. Trump religiously opposes climate change, believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally.  About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was quoted in Science as saying, “They’re in la-la-land.” Science has labeled the inaction, the policy breakdown of the year.

Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless as tell-tale signs of the exacerbation of weather events are already here:  Hurricanes intensify quickly, then move slowly shedding unprecedented amounts of rain.  It happened with Harvey over Houston in 2017, and with Florence over North Carolina in 2018.  That overall temperature in the oceans is breaking new records is one good reason.

The 1.5C report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us, on the safe side, a 12-year window in which to start reducing emissions, to try to achieve neutral balance by mid-century, or eventually a self-reinforcing feedback loop will lead to uncontrollable warming and a “Hothouse Earth.”  If   we cannot expect any policy initiatives from this administration, can changes in individual behaviors help?  Apparently yes, and it is within our power to address two major CO2 sources:

Carbon capture from the atmosphere is difficult and expensive.  A better alternative might be to remove it at the source.  That means at power stations and factories, and there are new processes offering hope.  However, most carbon emission comes from transportation, and it points to a future of electric cars using electricity from CO2 scrubbed power stations.  The choice of car is clearly up to us.

Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries.  Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs.  Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry.  As Bill Gates has observed if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is another way to look at it.  One can translate a kilo of different food sources into the number of car miles driven.  Lamb is definitely the worst at 91 miles followed by beef at 63.  Bad news for vegetarians, cheese comes in at 31 miles.  It is followed by pork (28), turkey (25), chicken (16), nuts (5) and lentils (2).  Imagine if dietary habits changed from beef to lentils, even once a week would make an enormous difference.  Also chicken, turkey and pork are reasonable substitutes as cutting out beef and lamb is clearly critical.  By the way, Indian food has delicious lentil recipes.

Scientists may soon have other intriguing possibilities, including lab-grown meat, that is if the current Beyond Burger type bean substitutes do not quite make the taste test.  Then there are crickets!  They happen to be an excellent source of protein offering more per pound than beef, and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison.  Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods, and it is available.  Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion.  There is also a new oil made from algae.  Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive.  With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans.

Personal choices can make a huge difference, including walking whenever possible for short distances instead of driving — mostly it’s just habit.  Bicycles, tricycles and push scooters are all out there, including some with electrical power assist.

Yes, there are options available to cut back our contributions to climate change; they require changes in habits and tastes, perhaps difficult, but we will have to eventually if we are not to leave behind a raging planet for future generations.  Meanwhile, the young in Europe have been marching in their tens of thousands to draw attention to the issue, and it cannot hurt to do likewise.

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Eye in the sky: Using satellites to better manage natural resources

MD Staff

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Looking up towards the stars at night, the sky can give the impression of being empty and infinite. In reality, space is getting more and more crowded every day.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there are currently 4,857 satellites orbiting the planet. Among them are two Sentinel-2 satellites, part of a space-borne mission provided by the Copernicus European Earth Observation programme. The two satellites visit the same spot on Earth every two to five days, depending on the location.

Their sensors acquire multispectral images with spatial resolution varying between 10, 20, or 60 metres, depending on the spectral band. The data produced by Sentinel satellites is freely available to the public and the volumes of data are staggering. Between Sentinel 1, 2 and 3, over 10 petabyte of new data are made available for download every year. With a single petabyte equalling 500 billion pages of standard typed text, this is Big Data worthy of its name.

The satellites are providing ever more detailed information about the state of our planet, and businesses have long ago figured out how to use this data. The European Commission estimates that the cumulative benefits of the Copernicus programme by 2020 range between US$11.4 to US$15 billion (10 to 13 billion euros). So how can we translate this wealth of information into tangible benefits for the environment at the local level?

“In Colombia, small-scale, mechanized illegal gold mining is creating environmental challenges on an unprecedented scale,” says Inga Petersen, Senior Extractives Adviser within UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch. “Excavators and dredgers used to dig up river beds for alluvial gold mining are contributing to wide-ranging deforestation and the loss of natural wetlands. Highly toxic mercury used in processing contaminates air and water and has accumulated in the food chain, posing significant threats to human health and ecosystems,” she adds.

However, mining areas are often hard to reach and keeping track of new or abandoned operations can be a challenge to local government agencies.

To support the mapping of new and abandoned sites and identify opportunities for restoration, UN Environment is collaborating with the University of Liège, in Belgium, to leverage Sentinel-2 data for local-level decision-making and early warning.

Funded by the European Commission (DG Grow) and EIT RawMaterials, the RawMatCop CopX project (Geospatial mining transparency through Copernicus and MapX) is analysing changes on land and water bodies, focusing specifically on mining ponds created on riverbeds. These ponds offer clues regarding the status of the mining activities.

Detecting and analysing these clues with the use of Earth Observation requires machine learning and image processing techniques in challenging, highly clouded areas. These techniques are key to understanding the dynamics in the mining area and to potentially automate the search to cover larger areas and track changes over time.

Testing this innovative underlying methodology started in 2018 in the Bajo Cauca region in the Antioquia department. The project is being implemented in close cooperation with the Government of Colombia, including the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development as well as other UN agencies and strategic partners. Once established, CopX aims for the analysis to be applied at a larger scale and even offer the potential to establish an early warning system which can be adopted by the government to tackle illegal gold mining and monitor the implementation of restoration strategies.

However, translating big data into actionable insights is only a part of the solution. Making this data available to the relevant policymakers at the local and national level in a format which is accessible to non-experts is a critical step to enable evidence-based decision-making.

With this in mind, the project will use MapX, an online, open-source geospatial platform backed by the neutrality of the United Nations, to make the results available in easy-to-understand maps. The platform uses summary story maps, such as this one, to outline the interlinkages between the environment, conflict and natural resources.

“Whilst MapX can host sensitive datasets in private projects, MapX’s mission is to increase global environmental transparency by making the best available data widely accessible. Access to information is especially important in places like Colombia, where the environment features prominently in the 2016 peace agreement,” says Petersen.

In addition to featuring the outcomes of the project, MapX provides a comprehensive data catalogue, including data on the environment, the socio-economic context and conflict interlinkages. Combined with a suite of analytical and visualization tools, platform users can easily analyse, contextualize and visualize interactions between different data layers to increase awareness and inform decisions. Data, maps, narrative and multimedia files can then be summarized in interactive story maps to help tell the story hidden in the data.

UN Environment

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Air pollution is choking Bangkok, but a solution is in reach

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

A recent spell of especially soupy air has Bangkok scrambling to disperse dangerous pollutants and protect residents against dire health impacts.

The government has reacted quickly, clamping down on heavily polluting vehicles, deploying police and military to inspect factories and incinerators, shutting schools to protect children, and even deploying cloud-seeding planes to force rain and clear the air.

According to Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UN Environment’s Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste, and Air Quality, it’s a good start.

“The government has to take decisive action to enforce pollution regulations, and they are on the right track so far, deploying efforts such as strict enforcement of emission controls. We know they are also looking at more urgent measures and UN Environment is working closely with the government on longer-term solutions,” she said.

“While solutions like cloud seeding may provide temporary relief for larger particulates, it does not, however, help reduce PM2.5,” she warns. “After these interim measures, the next logical step is to shut down the most polluting factory. That may mean accepting some economic damage in the short term, but protecting public health must be the utmost priority. Beyond factories, the government can move urgently to replace soot-spewing public buses and boats running on diesel fuel with versions that are less polluting.”

Air pollution in Bangkok arises from a mix of factors. Traffic, construction and factory emissions are the main reasons, but at this time of the year, burning of waste and crop residues is also a major source. There isn’t just one culprit for the recent bout of air pollution, but it has been exacerbated by weather conditions that have not allowed the pollutants to disperse.

Bangkok and other areas in Thailand already experience regular air pollution. The prolonged period of unhealthy air in Bangkok is not unique to the city nor the country: 92 per cent of Asia and the Pacific’s population—some 4 billion people—are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health.

The current countermeasures are a short-term solution to this problem because, as Nagatani-Yoshida points out, “Factories can’t be closed forever. People need to get around. Ultimately, if people want to breathe clean air, numerous measures must be taken to tackle pollution.”

UN Environment recently published guidance on reducing air pollution. Some 25 measures could reduce premature mortality in the region by one third and see one billion people living in Asia breathing clean air.

“We hope country, provincial and city governments across the region, including Bangkok, look at these recommendations and implement them urgently,” said Nagatani-Yoshida.

UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are already working with the Thailand Pollution Control Department, the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, and other agencies to implement some of these clean air measures and substantially reduce PM2.5 levels.

In particular, UN Environment is collaborating with the Pollution Control Department to leapfrog from Euro IV vehicle emission standards to Euro VI, which are currently the strictest standards in place.

Collaboration will also focus on helping shift 2–3 wheelers in Bangkok from gasoline to electric and retrofitting the numerous boats and ferries used for public transportation in the canal-connected city.

There is no time to waste. The faster the government moves to clamp down on emitters and back clean alternatives, the sooner Bangkok and the rest of the country can start to breathe again.

UN Environment

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