Can COP23 Fill The Ambition Gap?

Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events pose an imminent threat to low-lying atoll islands across the Pacific. Show
Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events pose an imminent threat to low-lying atoll islands across the Pacific. Shown here, Rabi Island in Fiji.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted 20 years ago and since then we have seen an explosion of extreme weather events which have cost many lives and made the struggle to end poverty more challenging than it otherwise needs to be.

About 90 percent of recorded major disasters are now weather and climate related. Extreme weather has played a role in the first rise in 10 years in the numbers of people who go hungry every day.

In 2016, the numbers of people suffering from food insecurity rose from 777 million to 815 million or 11 percent of the global population.

Problems of acute food insecurity and malnutrition tend to be magnified where natural hazards such as droughts and floods compound the consequence of conflicts. The challenge of addressing this critical issue is underlined by the fact that 20 countries have declared drought emergencies in the last 18 months.

Over the last two years, the food security situation has visibly worsened in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South Eastern and Western Asia linked in part to the El Niño phenomenon and climate-related shocks.

Since the first attempt to establish an internationally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, under the Kyoto Protocol, those emissions have continued to rise and new records have piled up in terms of hottest years on record, Arctic ice melt, most intense storms to make landfall and widespread droughts.

Over the last two years more people were displaced in their own countries by weather events than by conflict, over 40 million.

Low and middle income countries are struggling with the quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink. Latest estimates are that pollution is responsible for 9 million premature deaths worldwide, or one in six of all deaths.

Fossil fuel consumption has now joined the traditional drivers of disaster risk such as poverty, inappropriate land use, weak building codes, the disappearance of protective ecosystems and lax governance, as drivers of preventable loss of life, displacement and loss of livelihoods.

It is a cliché to say that we are in the last chance saloon as the world meets in Bonn for the COP23 climate conference but if the calamitous and unprecedented chain of extreme weather events witnessed over the last year, does not provide impetus for change then one dreads to think what will.

The eighth edition of the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report warns that even full implementation of current national pledges makes a temperature rise of at least three degrees Celsius by 2100 very likely.

The expectation among the most vulnerable to climate change, represented by the 47 member Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, is that they will leave Bonn with a draft negotiating text for the Paris Agreement work programme which will be finalized in the coming year.

The LDC Group are pushing for greater ambition in reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that global warming does not exceed two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and, ideally, is kept below 1.5 degrees.

They have called for robust frameworks for reporting, implementation and compliance, and more financial support given that they “face the unique and unprecedented challenge of lifting people out of poverty and achieving sustainable development without relying on fossil fuels.”

Reducing emissions now is essential to global efforts to reduce existing levels of disaster risk and to avoid the creation of new risk, often of an unforeseen nature given how much climate change impacts are uncharted territory.

The world has experienced many successes in reducing loss of life from extreme weather events and UN Member States committed to substantial reductions in the numbers of people affected by disasters and economic losses when they adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction two years ago.

Advances that are being made in risk governance, early warning systems, better disaster preparedness and response, could be overwhelmed if we do not fill the “ambition gap” by increasing significantly existing pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stepping up financial commitments.

None of the world’s leading industrial powers are doing nearly enough, let’s hope COP23 provides some impetus to correct this.

Robert Glasser is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction and head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

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