Matter of half a degree at Paris climate talks

People enjoying unseasonably warm weather in lower Manhattan in New York City on Thursday.
People enjoying unseasonably warm weather in lower Manhattan in New York City on Thursday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Talks extended over money issues, timing for review of national climate plans

Talks in Paris to clinch a historic pact to fight climate change appeared to have overcome one major hurdle by agreeing to an aim to limit warming by 1.5 deg C, but arguments over money and the timing of when to review national climate plans have set back negotiations.

In the draft text released on Thursday, all references to a temperature goal have been taken out of brackets. The text says the world should aim for a temperature rise of well below 2 deg C and pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 deg C.

There is still a chance the wording could be changed again, with Saudi Arabia saying 1.5 deg C could threaten its oil-dependent economy, but vulnerable small island states and poorer African and Asian countries have pushed hard for that goal.

The lower the rise in temperature, the greater the chance to stave off weather extremes such as droughts and floods. It would also slow the rate of sea-level rise, which threatens to wipe island nations like the Maldives or Tuvalu off the map.

The talks, involving delegates from nearly 200 nations, have been extended by at least a day. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is president of the negotiations, said yesterday that things were still moving in the right direction after marathon talks overnight. A new text, which he said would be the final version, will be presented today.

KEEPING UP

The main issue is not so much the level but the rate at which it happens, the speed of the sea-level rise. The big thing for Singapore is to keep up with sea-level rise.

DR MICHIEL SCHAEFFER, Climate Analytics' scientific director and a biophysicist at Wageningen University in Holland. He was part of a team studying the impacts of warming on South-east Asia and the policy challenges.

A Paris climate pact involves all nations taking steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions from industry, transport and agriculture that are heating up the globe. With the global average temperature rise over pre- Industrial Revolution levels set to hit 1 deg C this year, striking a deal has become urgent after two decades of often bitter negotiations.

Capping warming at 1.5 deg C would matter a great deal in its impacts on people and livelihoods.

Climate Analytics, a non-profit climate science and policy institute based in Berlin, found that going with 1.5 deg C instead of 2 deg C could limit sea-level rise just enough to prevent some islands and coastal cities from being swamped.

It could also shorten the duration of heatwaves, reduce the area of coral reefs affected by bleaching, and shrink losses of key food crops.

But putting the world on a path to the 1.5 deg C limit will require rapid cuts in carbon emissions, and that means a quick switch to greener energy and far more efficient use of energy, not easy for many countries.

Sea-level rise is a challenge for Singapore, but one that it can manage, Dr Michiel Schaeffer, Climate Analytics' scientific director and a biophysicist at Wageningen University in Holland, said in Paris.

"The main issue is not so much the level but the rate at which it hap- pens, the speed of the sea-level rise. The big thing for Singapore is to keep up with sea-level rise," said Dr Schaeffer, part of a team studying the impacts of warming on South- east Asia and the policy challenges.

A cut of 0.5 deg C could make a big difference to coral reefs, which are vital habitats for fish and fishing communities across South-east Asia. At 2 deg C or above, most reefs would die off.

With the talks running into extra time today, and possibly longer, delegates said financing was among the key disputes, with poorer nations insisting the developed world spell out how it will provide money for green energy investments and help poorer nations adapt to climate extremes. The text sets US$100 billion (S$140.6 billion) as a floor from 2020, but it is unclear where the money will come from and how it will be scaled up. Developing countries insist on clarity.

Some nations also want an agreement on some form of compensation for severe impacts, saying wealthier states are responsible for much of the carbon pollution that is stoking climate change.

China came under fire for pushing back on a five-year timeline to review national climate pledges submitted prior to the talks, saying its climate plan sets out action to 2030. But developed countries, small island states and others say the climate plans are not ambitious enough and need to be reviewed.

China yesterday urged all nations to show flexibility and said it supported an ambitious, balanced and powerful deal, Xinhua quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama spoke by phone, Chinese state TV reported. Mr Xi said both nations "must strengthen coordination with all parties and work together to ensure the Paris climate summit reaches an accord as scheduled", it added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2015, with the headline 'Matter of half a degree at Paris climate talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe