Alarm sounded, nations urged to act at major UN climate talks in Poland

A firefighter is silhouetted by a burning home along the Pacific Coast Highway during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California, on Nov 9, 2018.
A firefighter is silhouetted by a burning home along the Pacific Coast Highway during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California, on Nov 9, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

KATOWICE, POLAND (AFP) - With the direst warnings yet of impending environmental disaster still ringing in their ears, representatives from nearly 200 nations gathered on Sunday (Dec 2) in Poland to firm up their plan to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The United Nations climate summit, which runs to Dec 14 but is likely to run into overtime, comes at a crucial juncture in mankind's response to planetary warming. The smaller, poorer nations that will bear its devastating brunt are pushing for richer states to make good on the promises they made in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

In Paris three years ago, countries committed to limit global temperature rises to well below 2 deg C, and to the safer cap of 1.5 deg C if at all possible.

But with only a single degree Celsius of warming so far, the world has already seen a crescendo of deadly wildfires, heatwaves and hurricanes made more destructive by rising seas.

Professor Johan Rockstrom, designated director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said the talks in the Silesian mining city of Katowice were crucial in nailing down how the Paris promises will work in practice.

Delegates at the COP24, as the talks are termed, "cannot and will not discuss if governments worldwide must achieve rapid greenhouse gas emission reductions to limit climate risks - but how they can do this", he said.

In Katowice, nations must agree to a rule book palatable to all 183 states that have ratified the Paris deal.

 
 
 

This is far from a given: The dust is still settling from US President Donald Trump's decision to ditch the Paris accord, although the US is still taking part in the negotiations because the US can't formally withdraw for a few more years under UN rules.

Group of 20 (G-20) leaders last Saturday agreed on a final communique after their summit in Buenos Aires, declaring that the Paris Agreement was "irreversible".

But it said the US "reiterates its decision to withdraw" from the landmark accord.

Even solid progress in Katowice on the Paris goals might not be enough to prevent runaway global warming, as a series of major climate reports have outlined.

'FAILURE TO ACT WILL BE CATASTROPHIC'

Just this week, the UN Environment Programme said the voluntary national contributions agreed in Paris would have to triple if the world was to cap global warming below 2 deg C.

For 1.5 deg C, they must increase five-fold.

A group of over 90 independent climate scientists said in October that fossil fuel use must be slashed by half in the next 12 years to have any hope of hitting the 1.5 deg C target.

While the data is clear, a global political consensus over how to tackle climate change remains elusive.

Ms Laurence Tubiana is chief executive officer of the European Climate Foundation and, as France's top negotiator, one of the main architects of the 2015 treaty.

"Katowice may show us if there will be any domino effect" following the US withdrawal, she told Agence France-Presse.

Brazil's strongman president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, for one, had promised to follow the American lead during his campaign.

"A failure to act now risks pushing us beyond a point of no return with catastrophic consequences for life as we know it," said Mr Amjad Abdulla, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, of the UN talks.

And Mr Gebru Jember Endalew, chair of the Least Developed Nations group of negotiators at COP24, said "international cooperation is the only way to address the global threat of climate change".