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Did we just lose a few islands?

Published: 
Monday, December 14, 2015

Did we just lose a few islands at the Paris climate deal? COP21 was touted as the “last chance” to avert cataclysmic climate change. It was warned that the agreement would have little practical value unless a binding deal was struck. COP 21 ended without any binding commitments for emissions reductions. 

Instead there is a message of “hope.” Hope that the agreement will act as a catalyst for countries to achieve what negotiators are not willing to commit to. Scientists say that we need to limit human-caused climate change to 1.5˚C temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels. The pledges made at Paris set us on a track of 2.7˚C. 

Rich countries have not committed to the requested US$100 billion annually for poor countries to mitigate climate impacts. 

The good news is that before countries made pledges at COP21 the world was on course for up to 5.4˚C temperature rise, relative to 1850 when the Industrial Revolutions started. We are now locked in to 2.7˚C. It is not what is needed but it is an improvement. 

For the first time it appears that small island states are taken seriously. The introduction of the 1.5˚C temperature rise is important. In the Caribbean the rallying cry has become “1.5 to stay alive.”

The difference between 1.5˚C and 2˚C is important. Science suggests that coral reefs and fisheries will be severely and irreversibly impacted by greater than 1.5˚C temperature rise. 

Scientists know that the 2˚C limit is a conservative figure, a negotiators compromise that gives a “50 per cent chance” of avoiding dangerous climate change. Now science slowly gets the upper hand from objecting countries, like Saudi Arabia. It’s unclear that even 1.5˚C will be enough to save the lowest-lying small island states. 

The agreement includes a non-binding pledge to peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. This allows developing nations, often the ones most at risk and least able to mitigate, to emit more while developed nations reduce emissions. 

The Paris agreement urges countries to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by the end of the century. This will be done by creating carbon sinks and reducing emissions.  Maybe the single most important thing that comes out of this is that nearly 200 countries were able to agree that something is wrong, and that something needs to be done. 

Humans are procrastinators.  We put immediate survival, or greed if you want to call it that, over long-term sustainability. Whale conservation is a good example. Whales were saved only when there were too few of them to be hunted commercially. 

I suspect we will do the same with climate change: make a cost-benefit analysis and push it to the limit. 

A recent article in the Japan Times shows how we manage. It was titled “Whale meat arrives in Osaka via new arctic route to avoid protesters”. The summery is that climate change has opened up new shipping routes in the Arctic Sea. Japan used this route to transport whale meat from Iceland to Japan. The ship that carried the whale meat was registered in St Kitts and a Russian icebreaker helped open the route. If only we had that kind of co-operation at the COP21. 

Developing countries and small island states are calling on the developed world to be ethical and moral. They want the rich to save them from the climate change that is largely due to emissions from the wealthy. 

Some angry commentators have said that the lack of binding agreements is racist. The reality is race doesn’t matter much in the cost-benefit analysis. Trinidad and Tobago is proof of that. We had no problem spending TT$19 billion on a wasteful fuel subsidy over five years, but we are loath to dip in our pocket to reduce our carbon emissions. Every negotiator fights from their corner. Some worldviews will include a level of acceptable loss. 

Somebody somewhere has given the Maldives, or Carriacou, a value. They are now making a cost-benefit analysis. Are these islands worth saving or can the billions (that they will not commit to) be better used to shore up a pension fund somewhere? 

The science is clear. We are on a path that will threaten the existence of many Caribbean islands and coastal communities globally. The cost benefit analysis is made. For the time being we will have to depend on unilateral emission reductions that are pursued by some countries. 

Those countries are creating renewable energy markets and technology that can compete with fossil fuels. Solar energy is already cheaper than fossil fuel electricity from the grid in many places. Storing this energy is still an expensive problem, but at some point that will become price-competitive too. 

The market, edged on by environmental and political need, will create the solution for clean energy. Without a binding and science based plan to reduce emissions that conversion will be slower than it must be. 

We may have already lost a few islands. 

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