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One year after the Paris climate summit: where are we now?

Climate change is putting a strain on societies worldwide, particularly in lower-middle-income countries. The legally binding agreement reached in Paris in 2015 is a major step in the right direction but must be the first of many.

Monday 06 February 2017, Lorenza Geronimo, Thurstan Wright

At the 2015 UN climate change conference in Paris, world leaders agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius versus pre-industrial levels.

If we continue on the current ‘business as usual’ path, temperatures are set to rise to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Ahead of the Paris summit, developed and developing countries submitted their post-2020 climate action commitments, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These formed the foundation of the agreement reached in the French capital.

However, even if the world follows the INDCs, warming in 2100 will still reach 3.5 degrees Celsius.

This is not enough to avert dramatic consequences: water availability will decrease, crop yields will fall, sea levels will rise, species will face extinction and extreme weather events will become more regular.

Climate refugees will increase, together with conflicts, and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, will spread.

Moreover, tipping points may be reached above 2 degrees Celsius. These include the collapse of the Amazon Rainforest, which is the Earth’s ‘green lung’, arctic methane release due to the loss of permafrost, and the irreversible loss of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.

How to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius?

Global greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut by 40-70% by 2050, compared to 2010 levels.

Nations need to decarbonise their energy sectors with renewable energy sources, which are becoming cheaper.

Another solution is carbon capture and storage. This technology allows storing carbon dioxide produced in electricity generation and industrial processes in geological rock formation located several kilometres below the Earth’s surface.

A rapid scaling up of electric vehicles will also be necessary, together with the end of deforestation and the systematic adoption of energy-efficiency measures in buildings and industry.

Some emissions from agriculture will be allowed to remain (as there are fewer low-carbon alternatives), and the aviation sector has committed to carbon-neutral growth from 2020.

Additional challenges include:

  • A world’s population that will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. This means that emissions from agriculture, buildings and transport are set to rise.
  • Increasing global incomes that will result in more people eating meat, owning cars and travelling abroad.
  • Rapid urbanisation: the population living in urban areas is expected to rise from approximately 3.5 billion to around 6.3 billion by 2050.

Over the next 33 years, new cities would need to be built to accommodate an extra 2.5 billion people. This has to be done in a climate-smart and carbon-neutral manner.

Even if we do restrict global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, adaptation/resilience is still essential, particularly in developing countries, which are worst-impacted by climate change.

Adaptation options include early flood warning systems, better communication of weather forecasts, rainwater storage and drought resistant crops.

The key role of climate finance

‘Without the needed financial flows, both the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals will largely remain a promise rather than a transformative reality’, stated Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, during the 2016 UN climate change conference in Marrakech.

To limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that we need to spend $16.5 trillion on climate action by 2030, which is the equivalent to approximately $1.1 trillion a year.

However, the IEA also calculates that between 2015 and 2040 the world will invest about $68 trillion in all forms of energy ($1.94 trillion a year). So, finance is there, it just needs to be redirected.

To help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change, it was agreed in the 2010 Cancún climate summit, that developed countries will collectively mobilise $100 billion a year from 2020.

In line with this pledge, the UK is giving £1.76 billion annually from 2020. This contribution is channelled through International Climate Finance (ICF), which finances over 400 programmes in developing countries and whose impact IMC is monitoring and evaluating.

Despite significant commitments, the challenges ahead are monumental. As a powerful reminder, 2016 has just been announced as the warmest year on record.

Nature’s clock is ticking. We must act, and fast, as later might be too late.

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