BONN, GERMANY (REUTERS, AFP) - This year is set to be among the three warmest since records began in the 19th century, the head of the UN's weather agency said at the start of a 200-nation conference on slowing climate change in Bonn, Germany.
Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation, said that 2017 would be slightly cooler than a record 2016.
"2017 is going to be among the three warmest years on record," he said in a speech to delegates. That would put it roughly level with average surface temperatures in 2015.
Following a cascade of grim reports on the gathering pace of global warming, Fiji's prime minister made an open plea to the world for 'urgent action' on climate change at the UN talks.
"Our collective plea for the world is to maintain the course we set in Paris," said Frank Bainimarama, referring to the 196-nation treaty inked in 2015.
"Our world is in distress from extreme weather events caused by climate change - destructive hurricanes, fires, floods, droughts, melting ice and changes to agriculture that threaten our food security," he told the opening plenary of the 12-day talks, over which he will preside.
“Our collective plea for the world is to maintain the course we set in Paris,” he added, referring to the 196-nation treaty inked in 2015.
But five months after US President Donald Trump said he would yank the United States out of that pact, diplomats and leaders are still wondering to what extent he will make their jobs more difficult.
The Paris treaty calls for capping global warming at “well under” two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and 1.5 C if possible. So far, Earth’s average temperature has gone up 1 C compared to pre-industrial levels – enough to wreak havoc in many parts of the world.
Voluntary national pledges to reduce carbon pollution would still see the world heat up by a blistering 3 C, leaving a critical “emissions gap,” and very little time to fill it.
“We have less than three years left to bend the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions downward to avoid the very worst and most catastrophic impacts of climate change,” said Paula Caballero, global director for climate at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based policy think tank.
That daunting task has been made all the more difficult by the US pullout, diplomats and experts said. The problem extends beyond the likely shortfall in the reduction of US emissions, despite Trump’s vow to protect carbon-intensive, coal-fired power plants from closure.
State-level governments led by California, along with major US-based companies, will likely pick up much of the slack. Nor is what some call the “Trump Gap” in climate financing – including US$2.5 billion promised by Barack Obama but disavowed by his successor – a deal breaker, experts said.
Signs of back-sliding
The concern is more whether other leaders who were already reluctant to foreswear fossil fuels as the main engine of economic growth for their countries will lose resolve.
“The Paris Agreement boosted climate action, but momentum is clearly faltering,” said Costa Rica’s environment minister Edgar Gutierrez-Espeleta, recalling a smattering of applause when Trump told the UN General Assembly in September that the climate pact was “not fair” for the United States.
“It will be very important to listen to ministers, to see how determined they are, and whether there will be any back-sliding,” said Laurence Tubiana, president of the European Climate Foundation and – as France’s climate ambassador in 2015 – one of the Paris Agreement’s main architects.
The Bonn meeting, she noted, was supposed to be mostly technical, a chance to complete a complicated “rule book” for implementing the treaty’s provisions. These include ensuring transparency and compliance, reporting of emissions, procedures for dispersing climate funds, and half-a-dozen other key areas.
“But with the US decision, it has in fact become an important ‘political moment’,” Tubiana told AFP.
The true test will come next year, when nations will be under pressure to start ramping up their carbon-cutting commitments to keep temperature rise under the 2 C threshold.
Washington has kept a low profile going into the Bonn talks. “The United States will participate in the 23rd meeting of the Conference of the Parties,” a State Department official told AFP by email. At the same time, “the Administration’s position on the Paris Agreement remains unchanged,” the official added.
“The United States intends to withdraw ... as soon as it is eligible to do so, unless the President can identify terms that are more favourable to American businesses, workers, and taxpayers.”
Leaders from a score of nations are expected to take part in the 12-day talks running through Nov 17, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.