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Long road of climate action to follow Paris, officials say

Officials say national pledges to cut emissions not ambitious enough, real work to begin after Paris treaty

Four negotiating days remain at the United Nations in New York to draft a global agreement to avert the worst effects of climate change before world leaders gather in Paris in December to sign the treaty. But high-level officials have admitted this week that the Paris pact won’t be the definitive answer to climate change as many had hoped, but merely “one step” in the right direction.

Ahead of Paris, negotiators are trying to determine how much money developed nations should contribute to help more vulnerable ones adapt to climate change as well as nail down what each nation will pledge to do to cut carbon emissions and increase the use of renewable energy.

But with the realization that these national pledges won't be ambitious enough to hit warming targets, U.N. officials acknowledged this week that a lot more will have to be done after Paris. 

“In one of [U.N. Climate Chief] Christiana Figueres’ first interviews when she took over the job from me, she said she would not be alive to see the definitive answer to climate change,” said Yvo de Boer, former U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCC) executive director and current director-general of Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute.

“It’s one step on a longer journey,” he said.

One of the negotiators, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony DeBrum, described the fight to slow climate change a "generational" one.

The treaty is based on a set of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), climate-protecting steps that nations are expected to announce ahead of Paris. They include cutting carbon emissions, protecting forests that store atmospheric carbon and converting to renewable energy sources.

The Paris treaty was supposed to contain actions aimed to put the world on a trajectory in this century to warm less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — a temperature rise believed likely to avert the worst effects of climate change.

But Figueres recently told reporters that, based on the INDCs that have been submitted, the world is on a path toward a 3 to 4 C rise, no matter what the remaining INDCs contain.

For low-lying nations like the Marshall Islands, anything above a 2 C rise is an existential threat. With world temperatures just 1 C above preindustrial levels, the Pacific atoll nation has already been battered by rising seas and stronger storm surges, drought and flooding.

“Some of our elders have been saying nature has gone crazy,” DeBrum told Al Jazeera on Monday.

DeBrum said that he hoped the world would stick to the goal of keeping the rise under 2 C — and that for his country, whose islands average about three feet above sea level, moving forward on the assumption of a 3 to 4 C rise is “not an option.”

The islands will go under,” he said.

But de Boer said the world is very close to — if not past — the point where a 2 C temperature rise can be avoided.

With the current INDCs being “not nearly enough” to keep the rise under 2 C, “Paris will have to set a very clear timeline for how current commitments are going to be evaluated, reviewed and ratcheted up over time,” De Boer said.

When Figueres said that the Paris agreement would be unlikely to hold the rise to 2 C, she added that nations would need to keep meeting in the following decades to maintain a sense of urgency on the issue — guessing that they would meet every five or 10 years.

DeBrum said he would push in Paris for a five-year meeting cycle rather than 10, because technology and climate science will advance, possibly giving countries more ability to cut more emissions and shift to renewable energy sources.

Waiting 10 years between evaluations would be “too long for small-island, vulnerable states,” DeBrum said. “It would also certainly make dealing with the impacts a lot more expensive than if we do something now, on a regular five-year basis.”

Funding for climate adaptation and resiliency in developing nations is another of the Paris treaty’s main goals. In theory, developed nations that have contributed most to climate change are expected to donate funding for those countries already hit by its effects. The U.N. hopes to receive $100 billion from developed nations including the U.S., which has already donated $3 billion, for its Green Climate Fund to help poorer nations adapt and sustainably grow their economies. 

For the Marshall Islands, that money would help the government pay for adaptation to flooding and stronger storms, for increasing food security and for switching to green energy — while still being able to pay for essential services like education, health care and transportation.

“Money that could have been spent on [those services] is now having to be redirected to deal with climate change,” DeBrum said.

Though the Green Climate Fund is far from meeting is $100 billion target, there is a growing recognition among developed nations that they must find ways to compensate vulnerable countries for loss and damage associated with global warming, de Boer said. He added that failure to do so could prompt a surge in climate-related migration, which would affect developed nations.

“I think there is a recognition that countries are going to disappear,” he said. “You either help countries like the Marshall Islands and Maldives adapt to climate change or you have to accept that they’re going to try to find somewhere else to go.”

While U.N. negotiations have effectively raised this issue to global consciousness, its failure to agree on a treaty for a 2 C trajectory has caused de Boer to question whether international government negotiations alone would be sufficient to avert catastrophic climate change.

“If tens of thousands of negotiators have met at hundreds of meetings over a period of 21 years and have only got us a quarter of the way to the solution," he said. "You really have to start asking yourself, ‘Is this the best we can do?’” 

While national governments are a necessary part of the solution because they control energy policy and regulate international shipping and airline emissions, there are other “pieces to the climate puzzle,” de Boer said. “You do see subnational governments, cities and the private sector beginning to pick up some of the slack.” 

One example is the Western Climate Initiative, created by five western U.S. states and four Canadian provinces to develop regional strategies against climate change.

Promoting economic growth and fighting climate change have long been considered opposing interests, but de Boer argued that cutting emissions and using more green energy can be financially beneficial. The costs of renewable energy technology have dropped dramatically in recent years, putting it on par with the costs of fossil fuels, he said.

He added that the Global Green Growth Institute he heads is working with countries including Ethiopia, Kuwait and Jordan to find economic growth models that are environmentally sustainable while still creating jobs.

“I’ve found that if you can work with countries to understand how addressing climate change is to their national, economic and social advantage it very much changes their stance in negotiations,” de Boer said. “They no longer see this as something the international community is trying to ram down their throats, but something that is actually in their national interests."

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