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COP-26 Results: High Hopes for Low Temperatures

Negotiators marking the closing of the United Nations climate summit, COP26, which opened in Glasgow, Scotland, on 31 October. The conference sought new global commitments to tackle climate change. UN News/Laura Quiñones

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The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP-26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Glasgow from October 31 to November 13, 2021 with delegations from almost 200 countries participating. The strategic goal of the Summit was to sum up the results achieved during six years since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Combating deforestation, phasing down of coal and increasing financial support for developing countries are among the successes of COP-26 however it revealed certain disagreements.

Conference of strategic importance

At the opening ceremony of COP-26, Chairman Alok Sharma stated that the decisions made in Glasgow should be more vigorous than those of Paris. In Scotland’s largest city, the parties to the UNFCCC, after several unsuccessful attempts made in previous years, were again trying to hammer out the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement. In addition, the participants were discussing plans for adaptation to the consequences of climate change that can no longer be prevented. The agenda was really demanding.

Ambitious agenda but unfavorable background

There were four issues on the COP-26 agenda. Countries should: 1) submit programs on carbon emissions reduction to net zero by the middle of this century; 2) propose programs to restore affected ecosystems; 3) mobilize finance to achieve all the climate goals; 4) agree on a procedure for reporting on the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

However, a breakthrough was unlikely even before the Summit began. The G-20 meeting that had taken place the day before cast serious doubt on a multilateral climate agreement between the world ’s largest economies. The meeting in Rome resulted in the 20 states failing to reach an agreement on reducing the deadline for achieving zero emissions and abandoning coal-fired power. Although the G-20 states upheld the goal of limiting the temperature rise, some countries avoided making firm commitments on how to keep its growth beyond the threshold of to 1.5°C.

Forest conservation: a step forward

Over 100 world leaders agreed on a declaration on stopping deforestation. The key point of the document was the joint work on stopping and reversing “the loss of forests and land degradation by 2030”. The states plan to increase investments in agriculture, in the conservation and restoration of forests, as well as in support of indigenous communities who are struggling due to deforestation.

This is one of the most significant achievements of COP-26 as among the signatories to the agreement was Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whom environmentalists recently accused in the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity over the deforestation of the Amazon region.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin in a video address to the forum on the protection of forests expressed confidence that the Glasgow Declaration “will undoubtedly serve the goals of the Paris Agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions”. He added that Russia, in an effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, relies, among other tools, on the unique resource of its trees, since about 20% of all forests of the world are located in Russia.

Abandoning coal: modest progress

Another meaningful issue on the COP-26 agenda was the abandonment of coal, and certain results were achieved as well. Firstly, major international banks pledged to stop financing coal-fired power plants by the end of 2021. Secondly, 40 countries made a commitment to gradually abandon coal-fired energy – developed countries by 2030, developing by 2040.

At the same time, the Financial Times characterizes the wording of the declaration as vague as it does not set the exact deadline. The document states that the countries should abandon coal by a certain date or as soon as possible after its expiration. In addition, the main users of coal energy – China, India, the US, Australia, Russia have not signed the declaration.

Alexey Kokorin, head of the WWF Russia Climate and Energy Program called the declaration a “conditional agreement”. The countries-signatories allocate certain financial resources to developing states so that they can abandon coal. If Russia had signed the agreement, it would have become a voluntary donor, not a recipient of climate finance.

At the same time, Jamie Peters from the environmental organization Friends of the Earth maintained that the key meaning of this “unimpressive agreement” was that everyone was allowed to continue using coal for many years to come.

Reducing emissions: methane on the agenda for the first time

Back in April 2021 during the virtual Climate Summit Russian President Vladimir Putin designated the reduction of methane as one of the main directions in combating global warming. During COP-26 the leaders held an event dedicated to the methane emissions reductions for the first time in many years. The US and the EU put forward a joint initiative on reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030 which was supported by 105 countries.

China, Russia and India, three out of top five states in methane emissions, did not join the agreement. However, the initiative was supported by Brazil, the country which Climate Watch Data includes in the list of leading methane emitters.

The rationale for Russia not to join the initiative of the Western powers may be economy. In the countries that willingly sign up to the agreement, the share of the oil-and-gas sector is significantly lower than in Russia. According to Igor Makarov, head of the HSE Climate Change Economics Research and Training Laboratory, in Russia methane emissions are linked to both natural gas production and transportation. So, it is challenging for the country to take on such commitments right now.

According to Alexey Kokorin, there is no point in joining this initiative either ideologically (there is no China and India in it) or technically (it is necessary to deal with mine methane, leaks in gas and oil fields, which is more expensive than energy efficiency, energy conservation and forest fire control).

Russia’s position was also shared by some countries from the Anglo-Saxon world. For instance, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke out against a concrete deadline for phasing out coal and pointed out that accelerating the reduction of methane emissions by 2030 will result in high costs for farmers engaged in dairy farming and animal husbandry.

Carbon neutrality: commitments without breakthroughs

Among the main topics at COP-26 was carbon neutrality. Even though many leaders spoke of it the goals set vary both in deadlines and in feasibility. Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced that the PRC would strive to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The Prime Minister of India promised to reduce emissions to zero by 2070, setting a zero target for the country for the first time. Environmentalists called the Indian president’s goals “ambitious”, but the Nature magazine noted that it was probably only about CO2, with other greenhouse gases being out of the plan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, addressing the summit virtually, maintained that carbon neutrality in Russia should be achieved by 2060. The international representative of Greenpeace characterized the goal as not ambitious enough.

Meaning of the final Glasgow Agreement

The stumbling block during the negotiations on the COP-26 final statement was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. It envisages specific mechanisms for international the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. This is why the states had to prolong the summit till November 13. Additionally, this very article prevented consensus on the text of COP-25 held in December 2019 in Madrid, which resulted in a failure. COPs are far from punctuality. Out of 26 summits, only seven ended on time (on Friday) 14 ended on Saturday and five were held till Sunday.

The final agreement, published late in the evening on November 13, disappointed many parties. The wording of certain points was softened. For instance, instead of “phasing out” coal and other fossil fuels, the participants made an eleventh-hour decision to use “phasing down”. India, the third largest emitter, insisted on this change. Meanwhile, Special Representative of the President of Russia on climate Ruslan Edelgeriev stated that Russia welcomed the result. Nevertheless, the COP-26 final document has certain breakthroughs:

  1. It calls on the countries to strengthen national commitments and by 2022 renew Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to achieve zero emissions and curb global warming within 1,5°C.
  2. The first measure will be combined with an annual political roundtable to consider global progress report and a top-level summit in 2023.
  3. The document contains a pledge to increase financial assistance to poor and developing countries to combat climate change.

The participants of COP-26 touched upon the issue of the global green transition based on four principles: energy efficiency, decarbonization, decentralization and digitalization. Many important statements have been made during COP-26. The countries have promised to achieve carbon neutrality by the middle of the century, significantly reduce the extraction and use of fossil fuels, completely stop the processes of deforestation, allocate considerable funds for the green transition. However, COP-26 also has its disappointments: ambitions of many countries remained weak, mistrust between developed and developing countries increased, and the real reduction of emissions was partially replaced by compensations.

Although the declaration was signed by almost 200 delegations, every point of it sparks disagreement. The Glasgow Agreement will not replace the Paris Agreement. It acts as a rulebook on the implementation of the 2015 Paris commitments. It defines more concrete actions in financing measures to combat climate change, mitigating its consequences and adapting to the ongoing climate changes.

What awaits us in the future?

Climate Action Tracker has published a report that shows that the risks of rising temperatures in the world are even higher. Even with the current goals of emissions reduction, by 2100 the temperature in the world could rise by 2.4 degrees. It means that the strategies announced at COP-26 would not meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Today, the world can only effect the green transition by a gradual replacement of technologies. It is obvious that electricity has been and will remain the main energy source for humanity. But the question is: how to accumulate it more efficiently and more environmentally friendly in the new realities? Hydrogen is recognized as a viable option. At the same time, the issues of green transition and carbon emissions reduction are over politicized and often do not take into account regional peculiarities of the countries. For now, the easiest step to make is to continue focusing on energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Afterwards, it is necessary to reconsider the attitude to the types of energy generation and modernize them according to the environmental agenda. It is important to use technologies that meet economic needs and cause minimal harm to the environment. It means that Russia should rely on three main areas during the energy transition: nuclear power, hydrogen, and natural gas generation.

From our partner RIAC

Post-Graduate Researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia

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How do greenhouse gases actually warm the planet?

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Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – the atmospheric gases responsible for causing global warming and climatic change – are critical to understanding and addressing the climate crisis. Despite an initial dip in global GHG emissions due to COVID-19, the United Nations Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report (EGR) expects a strong rebound in 2021, when emissions are expected to be only slightly lower than the record levels of 2019.

While most GHGs are naturally occurring, human activities have also been leading to a problematic increase in the amount of GHG emitted and their concentration in the atmosphere. This increased concentration, in turn, can lead to adverse effects on climate. Effects include increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – including flooding, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes – that affect millions of people and cause trillions in economic losses.

The Emissions Gap Report found that if we do not halve annual GHG emissions by 2030, it will be very difficult to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Based on current unconditional pledges to reduce emissions, the world is on a path to see global warming of 2.7 °C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial levels.

“Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions endanger human and environmental health,” says Mark Radka, Chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “And the impacts will become more widespread and severed without strong climate action.”

So how exactly do GHG emissions warm the planet and what can we do?

What are the major greenhouse gases?

Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are the major GHGs. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years, methane for around a decade and nitrous oxide for approximately 120 years. Measured over a 20-year period, methane is 80 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming, while nitrous oxide is 280 times more potent.

Coal, oil and natural gas continue to power many parts of the world. Carbon is the main element in these fuels, and when they’re burned to generate electricity, power transportation or provide heat, they produce CO2, a colourless, odourless gas.

Oil and gas extraction, coal mining and waste landfills account for 55 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Approximately 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions are attributable to cows, sheep and other ruminants that ferment food in their stomachs. Manure decomposition is another agricultural source of the gas, as is rice cultivation. 

Human-caused nitrous oxide emissions largely arise from agriculture practices. Bacteria in soil and water naturally convert nitrogen into nitrous oxide, but fertilizer use and run-off add to this process by putting more nitrogen into the environment.

What are the other greenhouse gases?

Fluorinated gases – such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – are GHGs that do not occur naturally. Hydrofluorocarbons are refrigerants used as alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which depleted the ozone layer and were phased out thanks to the Montreal Protocol. The other gases have industrial and commercial uses.

While fluorinated gases are far less prevalent than other GHGs and do not deplete the ozone layer like CFCs, they are still very powerful. Over a 20-year period, the various fluorinated gases’ global warming potential ranges from 460–16,300 times greater than that of CO2.

Water vapour is the most abundant GHG in the atmosphere and is the biggest overall contributor to the greenhouse effect. However, almost all the water vapour in the atmosphere comes from natural processes. Human emissions are very small and thus relatively less impactful.

What is the greenhouse effect?

The Earth’s surface absorbs about 48 per cent of incoming solar energy, while the atmosphere absorbs 23 per cent. The rest is reflected back into space. Natural processes ensure that the amount of incoming and outgoing energy are equal, keeping the planet’s temperature stable,

However, GHGs, unlike other atmospheric gases such as oxygen and nitrogen, are opaque to outgoing infrared radiation. As the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere increases due to human-caused emissions, energy radiated from the surface becomes trapped in the atmosphere, unable to escape the planet. This energy returns to the surface, where it is reabsorbed.

Since more energy enters than exits the planet, surface temperatures increase until a new balance is achieved. This temperature increase has long-term climate impacts and affects myriad natural systems.

What can we do to reduce GHG emissions?

Shifting to renewable energy, putting a price on carbon and phasing out coal are all important elements in reducing GHG emissions. Ultimately, stronger nationally determined contributions are needed to accelerate this reduction to preserve long-term human and environmental health.

 “We need to implement strong policies that back the raised ambitions,” says Radka. “We cannot continue down the same path and expect better results. Action is needed now.”

During COP26, the European Union and the United States launched the Global Methane Pledge, which will see over 100 countries aim to reduce 30 per cent of methane emissions in the fuel, agriculture and waste sectors by 2030.

UNEP has outlined its six-sector solution, which can reduce 29–32 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030 to meet the 1.5°C warming limit. UNEP also maintains an online “Climate Note,” a tool that visualizes the changing state of the climate with a baseline of 1990.

Despite the challenges, there is reason to be positive. From 2010 to 2021, policies were put in place which will lower annual emissions by 11 gigatons by 2030 compared to what would have otherwise happened.

Through its other multilateral environmental agreements and reports, UNEP raises awareness and advocates for effective environmental action. UNEP will continue to work closely with its 193 Member States and other stakeholders to set the environmental agenda and advocate for a drastic reduction in GHG emissions.

Beyond these movements, individuals can also join the UN’s #ActNow campaign for ideas to take climate-positive actions.

By making choices that have less harmful effects on the environment, everyone can be part of the solution and influence change. Speaking up is one way to multiply impact and create change on a much bigger scale.

UNEP

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The social aspect of biodiversity reduction in Brazil

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What most people ignore is that climate change is also a social issue, arising from unawareness of the human population about the impact of their activities. Biodiversity plays a key role in ecosystems and also services benefits to the tourism industry. Marine life biodiversity specifically plays a role in attracting tourists for activities like scuba diving, snorkeling and other observation activities alike. Currently, the Brazilian Guitarfish, commonly found in the South Atlantic Brazilian waters, specifically around the South coast of Rio De Janeiro is facing massive decline in numbers, and is also on the list of critically endangered species.

One major reason for the rapid decline in numbers of Brazilian Guitarfish is overfishing of the female population for illegal, highly valued meat sale in fish markets. Most fishermen catch the female guitarfish along with their little offspring in shallow waters around Rio De Janeiro. The decline in species of guitarfish is mostly among the female population, however this impacts the long term numbers of the guitarfish population. Fishermen who catch guitarfish and engage in the illegal meat industry know little about the impact created by their fishing activities on biodiversity in the oceans. A valid solution to solving the issue of high levels of guitarfish fishing in Brazil is empowering fishermen to engage in other trades and businesses that are more sustainable with steady profits, simply raising awareness about the downside of overfishing endangered species might not be enough. A dollar is a dollar, or in this case a real is a real.

An alternate model for sustainable fishing has been developed in Fuji, specifically to protect the coastline that attracts tourism across the year. The local government in fishing villages is working in collaboration with fishers to ensure that they have access to a greater number of opportunities, even outside the fishing industry. Moreover, the local government is regulating the prices of fish meat and creating a bandwidth for sustainable profits by encouraging fishing of species that are more abundant in the local waters. This is creating a low incentive situation for Fujian fishers to fish endangered species and engage in local trade. This unique model, with a mix of government involvement and local incentives, can be amplified to other countries like Brazil too.

While most experts talk about climate change, they ignore the social aspect of climate change, which is perhaps the biggest contributor. Human activities impacting climate change don’t just arise from unawareness but also from lack of other opportunities that can incentivise a change in decision making. Creating consumer end awareness about the downside of consuming illegal meat is also crucial. The same can be done in fish markets with the use of artwork to support behavioral change. Brazilian Guitarfish also carry high content of Mercury and chemicals and are therefore not the safest to consume in the unregulated illegal meat industry, without safety approvals from the government. Making consumers aware about the fact that they are not just paying high prices for meat that is illegal but also consuming meat that can potentially give them cancer and other diseases is crucial. This can be done using artwork in fish markets, as is being done across fishing villages in Bali.

Brazilian Guitarfish are also rare in other parts of the world and attract divers to premium diving locations, fetching around $75 to $100 per dive, higher than most other locations where rare species like Guitarfish cannot be spotted. More efforts can be taken to set up dive centers in Brazil specifically dedicated towards Brazilian Guitarfish. This will not only be an attractive source of income for locals but also encourage conservation efforts. Tourism can be a major source of revenue for Brazilian fishermen and farmers, encouraging development and infrastructural promotion across major cities in Brazil, thereby creating a line of opportunities for Brazilian citizens across different industries.

With biodiversity as high as Brazil, more efforts should be taken to fuel tourism, interaction and awareness with Brazilian biodiversity, including rainforests and marine life. With the empowerment of local communities, we can together create a more sustainable future, inclusive towards all organisms.

To promote the cause of Brazilian Guitarfish conservation, I have started a movement called The Brazilian Guitarfish movement, operating via  whatsapp group involving people across continents from various fields – climate researchers, marine conservationists, scuba divers, fishing industry experts, government authorities, public policy enthusiasts and tourism officials to curate solutions specific to conserving Brazilian Guitarfish. It’s a global initiative, with hands contributing from across the world to save Brazilian Guitarfish by empowering local fishers with diverse opportunities. There is always an alternate solution, sometimes all we need is a fresh approach along with fresh minds to find it. Fortunately, connecting globally in the digital world makes problem solving  easier for all of us.

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Global Warming Impacts Antarctic Glaciers and Wildfires

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Come year end and prognosticators abound.  Dire portents from the pessimists and the reverse from the optimists; from disasters of one kind or another to the stock market going sky high.

Not necessarily in 2022, yet there is the possibility with global warming of a melting Greenland ice cap or the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.  The latter is the size of Florida, and its collapse has the potential of rising sea levels by 10 feet.  Imagine the effect when almost 250 million people live just 3 feet above high tide levels.

The difference between Greenland and the Antarctic is that Greenland’s glaciers are on solid ground and melt from above due to warmer temperatures; the Antarctic ice shelf melts from the bottom due to warmer ocean water.  As it is eaten away from the bottom it destabilizes.  Cracks begin to form on the surface, a harbinger of collapse, and eventually massive chunks of ice shear off and fall into the ocean.  Like adding ice cubes to a drink, it does not have to melt to raise sea levels.  

It is almost impossible to predict when chunks will collapse but some cracks have been observed.  In 2019, satellite images revealed a massive block of ice 15 by 21 miles cracking up in a few days.  Scientists from the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration reported on cracks and fissures in the glacier’s ice shelf, predicting its fracture within five years and disappearance into the sea in less than a decade. 

Then there is the case of forest fires and in particular the fire in Colorado that has been in the news.  A fire in December is certainly unusual because the fire season runs from May to September although extended to November of late due to global warming.  The rest of the time the trees are too wet to sustain a fire and any small fires started by broken power lines or lightning strikes during storms tend to extinguish on their own. 

Thus the devastating wildfire that has swept through the Denver suburbs is unprecedented, as Governor Jared Polis observed.  He has declared a state of emergency thereby permitting access to disaster funding.  The fast spreading fire left residents in commuting suburbs like Superior very little time to evacuate and nearby roads were soon clogged with traffic.  Fortunately, to date, no deaths have been reported and no serious injuries although three people are still missing.  A substantial loss of property however, as around a 1000 houses have been destroyed.  About the only explanation for a changing equation for natural disasters is global warming.  It affects weather patterns, rain and snow, drought and floods. 

We hear no loss of life or serious injuries and we move on to the next news story.  Yet it is not too difficult to imagine the trauma of families standing in front of a heap of ashes, who have had their life’s memories swept away in a couple of hours.  Nothing left except the clothes covering them. 

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