Do calls for ‘enhancement’ of Paris Agreement commitments make sense? 
It depends Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition Last week, the United Nations announced yet another massive international climate change conference, Asia Pacific Climate Week (APCW2018), to be held in Singapore from July 11–13. The UN press release asserts that “the high-level segment” will “focus on areas, such as: visions for NDC enhancement…” We will undoubtedly hear much more about ‘NDC enhancement’ in the months to come, particularly at this year’s G7 from June 8-9, so let’s examine it more closely. NDCs are ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ of countries under the Paris Agreement on climate change. According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “NDCs embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.” The UN considers current NDCs as only a starting point. World Resources Institute, a global research non-profit organization headquartered in Washington DC, reported in April that current NDCs are inadequate to limit warming to the Paris Agreement targets of “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels,” let alone the aspirational target of “1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” Consequently, the pressure is on to enhance national NDCs. The UN’s Talanoa Dialogue was launched at the start of 2018 to identify how countries can strengthen their NDCs. In particular, the Dialogue is encouraging governments to boost their NDCs by 2020. We will hear more about this at the next UN Climate Change Conference, to be held in Katowice, Poland in December, where significant national NDC enhancements will likely be announced. At least that is the hope of climate activist groups. The Ottawa, Canada-based Climate Action Network asserted in its March 21 press release that, “Canada as the President of the G7 [this year’s G7 summit will be hosted by Canada from June 8–9] should encourage G7 members to enhance their NDCs and raise the ambition of their climate action in 2018.” Putting even more pressure on G7 leaders to enhance NDCs is a statement presented on Monday to UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa from 319 institutional investors with US$28 trillion in assets under management. It calls on governments to, among other things, “update and strengthen nationally-determined contributions to meet the emissions reduction goal of the Paris Agreement, starting the process now in 2018 and completing it no later than 2020, and focusing swiftly on implementation.” Enhancing NDCs makes sense, or not, depending on which aspect of a country’s NDC is being addressed—emissions reduction or adaptation planning. Efforts to enhance adaptation to the impacts of climate change is smart, no matter what point of view one takes on the causes of climate change. After all, climate change (particularly drought) has played a significant role in the collapse of many civilizations. Most people have heard of how the once prosperous Greenland Viking colonies perished when they were unable to adapt to the severe cold that returned when the Medieval Warm Period ended in the mid-14th century. In Climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations, NASA gives several other examples of climate change-driven catastrophes: The legendary settlement of Ubar, in what is now southern Oman, vanished when water levels dropped, causing a sinkhole to form which enveloped the outpost. 4,200 years ago, an Egyptian Kingdom collapsed due to an extended drought. The fall of the Maya civilization around 900 AD has also been linked to prolonged drought. The abandonment of Angkor, the capital city of the Khmer Empire and home to over 700,000 people in what is now Cambodia, has been linked to extended drought, as well. Discoveries announced in 2007 by Australian archaeologists support the theory that Angkor became unsustainable due to new monsoon patterns brought about by climate change. Harvard archaeologist Jason Ur comments, “When we excavate the remains of past civilizations, we very rarely find any evidence that they as a whole society made any attempts to change in the face of a drying climate, a warming atmosphere or other changes. I view this inflexibility as the real reason for collapse.” So, learning from the mistakes of our ancestors is important if we are to avoid climate change-related disasters. This applies in rich nations as well as poor. For example, The New York Times published a letter from a Manhattan-based lawyer who wrote that, during Hurricane Sandy, he had uninterrupted internet, telephone, and electric power because all his cables were buried underground. This is just one example of how to harden infrastructure to withstand extreme events. Other examples would include reinforcing buildings, building levees to protect against hurricane-driven storm surges, and upgrading our irrigation systems where needed. We also need to relocate populations living on flood plains or at risk from tornadoes and hurricanes. Concerning hurricane preparation, Florida, Texas and other states that are threatened by these tropical cyclones need to build multistory storm shelters that allow people to take refuge above the storm surge, instead of forcing resident to flee the waves on clogged highways. India’s storm shelter network is a good example—no one needs to walk more than one kilometer anywhere in India on coast of the Bay of Bengal to get to a shelter. The cost for such projects will be huge, but we have no other responsible choice. Our expanding population will continue to put increasing numbers of people in harm’s way if we do not undertake major adaptation projects. So, enhancement of the adaptation planning side of countries’ NDCs, makes good sense in cases where it has not yet been given enough attention. However, NDC enhancement through increasing countries’ greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction pledges (the focus is mostly on reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions) is another matter entirely. The reports of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) summarize thousands of studies from peer-reviewed scientific journals that either debunk or cast serious doubt on the hypothesis that emissions of CO2 from human activities will cause catastrophic climate change. According to the late Dr Bob Carter, an NIPCC lead author and former Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at James Cook University in Australia, “Science has yet to provide unambiguous evidence that problematic, or even measurable, human-caused global warming is occurring.” This means that there was no need to make NDC emission reduction pledges in the first place, let alone to commit to enhancements. But even if one accepts that CO2-driven climate problems lay ahead, enhancing NDC emission reduction pledges still makes no sense, since much of the developing world, the source of most of the world’s emissions, will clearly not be making real emission cuts any time soon. They understand that they must continue to build inexpensive coal-fired power plants, a significant source of CO2 emissions, to meet their growing electricity needs. For example, The New York Times reported (As Beijing Joins Climate Fight, Chinese Companies Build Coal Plants, July 1, 2017): “Chinese corporations are building or planning to build more than 700 new coal plants at home and around the world, some in countries that today burn little or no coal, according to tallies compiled by Urgewald, an environmental group based in Berlin…Over all, 1,600 coal plants are planned or under construction in 62 countries, according to Urgewald’s tally, which uses data from the Global Coal Plant Tracker portal. The new plants would expand the world’s coal-fired power capacity by 43 percent.” India also is not backing away from coal. Their heavy reliance on the fuel will continue even in 2047, according to the June 16, 2017 report, Energizing India, by National Institute for Transforming India (NTTI) and the Institute of Energy Economic Japan (IEEJ). Coal is predicted to rise from its 2012 level of 46% of India’s total energy mix to 50% in 2047 in Business as Usual scenario. Even in an ‘ambitious’ scenario in which renewables provide 12% of India’s primary energy (it was only 3% in 2012), coal is forecast to account for 42% of India’s energy mix. NTTI/IEEJ report authors state, “India would like to use its abundant coal reserves as it provides a cheap source of energy and ensures energy security as well.” All this is apparently fine with the UN, since developing countries have an opt-out clause in the original 1992 UNFCCC document that forms the foundation of all UN climate change treaties, including the Paris Agreement. UNFCCC Article 4 states: “Economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.” Actions to significantly reduce developing countries’ CO2 emissions would usually involve reducing their coal usage. But coal is typically their least expensive power source, so reducing emissions by restricting coal use would obviously interfere with their development priorities. So, developing countries are unlikely to do it, legitimately citing UNFCCC Article 4 as their excuse. Developed nations do not have this option—we are presumably supposed to meet our emission targets no matter how it impacts our economies. The UN has not hidden this imbalance. A Google search for the Article 4 phrase cited above yields over 1,500 results. UN bureaucrats have made it crystal clear: “development and poverty eradication,” not emission reduction, takes top billing for developing countries. It has been suggested that tougher requirements may be imposed on developing nations as they advance. That is naïve. The UNFCCC treaty, especially Article 4, has been the foundation of all UN climate negotiations and developing nations are unlikely to allow this to change. At the 2014 UN Climate Change Conference in Peru, Chinese negotiator Su Wei made it very clear—the purpose of the Paris Agreement is to “reinforce and enhance” the UNFCCC, not rewrite it. So, the emissions side of NDCs are not in need of enhancement. Indeed, many scientists would say that they should be cancelled outright since they will have essentially no impact on climate, especially since the large emitters in the developing world have been given an escape clause. But the adaptation side of national NDCs is important and, where it is currently inadequate, it should be enhanced. It will take inspired leadership and hard, grinding work to make happen. Unlike the high-profile emissions reduction planning that gets all the press coverage, adaptation may not be glamorous, but it is something successful societies have always had to do.
... the adaptation side of national NDCs is important and, where it is currently inadequate, it should be enhanced. It will take inspired leadership and hard, grinding work to make happen