Yesterday, the UK Government took the historic step of ratifying the global climate deal agreed in Paris one year ago. This announcement comes as countries are meeting in Morocco for this year’s round of talks. Ratification of the deal sends a strong signal that the Paris deal has ongoing momentum behind it and that the UK is intent on maintaining its global ambition on climate change regardless of anything else that has changed in the past 12 months.
Once again our ‘correspondent at the UNFCCC’, John Lanchbery, has been attending the negotiations on behalf of the RSPB and BirdLife International to follow and influence the discussions.
Coinciding with this year’s conference in Marrakech, scientists released new research suggesting that, without action, climate change could result in up to seven degrees of temperature rise this century, putting wildlife around the world at severe risk.
I had seen previous estimates that temperatures might rise as much as six degrees. But the new research has used historical data on the Earth’s temperatures and has identified that when the Earth is warmer it is more sensitive to climate change gases than normal. This means that temperatures could rise by as much as seven degrees.
These kinds of changes would fundamentally alter the planet’s ability to support life. Recently published studies such as The State of Nature 2016, and WWF’s Living Planet Report 2016 demonstrate the contribution that climate change is already making to the decline of both national and global biodiversity. The RSPB’s own Nature of Climate Change report last year highlighted some stark examples of these impacts, such as extreme weather events impacting on the breeding of bearded tits and tumbling numbers of kittiwakes around our coasts due to changes in sand eel distribution as North Sea temperatures warm.
Such effects will increase as the global temperature rises, and as our understanding of climate change also grows it seems that the scale and severity and the resulting impacts across the globe may prove to be worse than we could have ever previously imagined. The UN’s weather agency confirmed just days ago that the last five years have been the hottest on record.
The Paris agreement set out a goal to keep temperature rises well below two degrees and ideally below 1.5 degrees. The chance to achieve this is rapidly slipping away. At present the commitments countries have made to cut their emissions still leave us likely to experience three degrees or more of temperature rise, according to various studies.
The UK has been told by the Committee on Climate Change that its efforts to cut emissions are not putting it on course to meet its own targets. The Committee has also recently advised the Government that even those targets are only ambitious enough to contribute to keeping temperatures to two degrees. To do its fair share to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees the UK would need to do even more, hitting ‘net zero’ emissions by the 2040s.
In its forthcoming Carbon Plan the Government will set out how it will go beyond current efforts. The RSPB has been vocal in calling on Government to be as ambitious as possible and this week has published a report with NGO partners highlighting priorities and solutions for the Carbon Plan. While we have seen some real progress on efforts to generate renewable electricity, tackling heat and transport have proved trickier. A holistic strategy for reducing emissions across all sectors is urgently needed, including energy efficiency which is a no-regrets way to bring emissions down with no risk to the natural environment.
But the urgency to act could also put our wildlife at risk in the UK. Our recent Energy Vision report showed that strategic spatial planning and careful choices can avoid the negative impacts renewable energy developments can have on nature and we have been very active in showcasing this report to Government. However, many scenarios for achieving net zero emissions also rely on planting lots of crops or trees to suck emissions from the atmosphere. Some think this planting needs to be on a massive scale – a scale so great that it would cause significant damage to wildlife.
The UK has always played a leading role within the EU on climate change. Given Brexit, and a new US President-elect who has promised to reverse the US’s climate policies, there is, as our friends at Green Alliance have written, a chance for the UK to step up on the international stage; ratification of the Paris deal is an important first step. Now this must be backed up with action back home to make the emissions cuts we have promised. It is very clear that the threat to wildlife from climate change has never been greater and the need for leadership has never been more pressing.
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