At last week’s Conference of the Parties (COP) in Warsaw, key figures met to discuss the small matter of how to combat climate change by cutting carbon emissions. Dr Alice Bows-Larkin travelled there with colleagues, using research to highlight to policy players just how much carbon emissions need to be cut if catastrophic temperature rises are to be avoided. She left feeling good about the engagement achieved, but less positive about prospects for ultimate agreement.
The super typhoon that hit the Philippines added an unexpected, emotional dimension to my first experience of a COP.
The disaster impacted on the families and friends of Filipino nationals present, even leading to an impassioned, tearful speech by their lead negotiator. This served to remind the community what kinds of impacts negotiating we are trying to avoid.
The central issue on the table in Warsaw was agreeing a framework, so that by the 2015 COP in Paris binding targets for cutting CO2 emissions in line with avoiding 2°C of warming can be set.
The implications of agreeing such a framework and taking positive steps towards setting targets in line with 2°C were intended to reassure the poor and less wealthy nations, or ‘non-Annex B’ nations as they are referred to, that the wealthy nations take the 2°C target seriously.
Cutting emissions in line with a reasonable chance of avoiding 2°C would limit the degree of climate impacts to be experienced worldwide.
But from the outset optimism was not high around securing such a deal, following a collapse of the much heralded COP15 in Copenhagen back in 2009.
With colleagues from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) in Norway as well as academics from the Global Carbon Project (GCP) based in the University of East Anglia and Exeter, I was there to host a side-event, aimed at emphasizing to policy players the scale of the challenge we face in holding down temperature rises.
After an update of key statistics and the launch of a new Carbon Atlas from the GCP team, I spoke about the scale of the climate change challenge, alongside my Manchester colleague Prof Kevin Anderson.
My talk drew from research Kevin and I have conducted, articulating how urgently and rapidly emissions need to be cut for an equitable and high chance of avoiding the threshold associated with ‘dangerous climate change’ – or 2°C as it is commonly referred to.
The quantitative analysis suggests a challenge to the economic growth paradigm – clearly this is the most controversial aspect of our research.
We both have quantitative backgrounds, Kevin in mechanical engineering and me in physics, but we now both work in an interdisciplinary research group, where social and natural scientists, as well as engineers, rub along together to devise research questions and conduct our work without the confines of disciplinary conventions.
This is not something that is common either within Manchester or elsewhere either, and in some quarters is not particularly highly regarded in academic terms. Nevertheless, in order to understand and source solutions for some of society’s great challenges, of which climate change is one, researchers who are willing to go beyond disciplinary boundaries have a key role to play.
Overall the experience in Poland was positive on an engagement level, but negative regarding the grindingly slow and fractious nature of the negotiations.
By the last Friday evening there was no framework agreement, there had been a walk out by the ‘G77+China’ group of 133 countries earlier in the week, and a group of ‘civil society’ participants from NGOs staged a mass walk out, exasperated by the absence of progress.
Nevertheless, the response to our side event – which was demonstrating that avoiding 2°C was far more challenging than being considered by the negotiators – was extremely positive. Some even considered it to be ‘the best side-event so far’, so obviously we couldn’t hope for much more.
Our event had a packed room with 120+ people ranging from party negotiators, policymakers, industry representatives, NGOs and academics. After a lively discussion we were somewhat mobbed for further information – particularly from organisations supporting the ‘global South’, as our research considers seriously the issue of equity within this grand debate.
Interviews followed, including a 25 minute one-to-two discussion on ‘Democracy Now’, beamed live to “millions of viewers in the US and across the world”. The tweets continued the momentum as did an impromptu meeting organised by the ‘Youth Space’ of COP where our talks were revisited. The debate goes on.
The impact of our event is difficult to ascertain, but we know that some of the negotiators were discussing it in other fora and judging by the tweets, that it certainly raised some eyebrows.
But, as to its role in the negotiations proper – who can say? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know.
Our side-event was part of a grand spectacle, but activity like this does have a role in the great debate on climate change and associated targets.
It is my view that without such efforts and the pressure of civil society, progressing towards a real deal on carbon emission targets would be even more ponderous.