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UN climate talks: A heartfelt appeal from a 12-yr-old amid US plans for pullout

Paris Agreement: 200 nations show united front in backing the climate pact despite US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord and instead promote the coal and oil industry.

environment Updated: Nov 18, 2017 12:24 IST
Agencies, Bonn
Bonn climate talks,Paris climate deal,Paris Agreement
German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier and COP23 president, Fiji prime minister Frank Bainimarama, with teenager Timothy Naulusala after his speech at the 23rd UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn.(Reuters)

Almost 200 nations kept a 2015 global agreement to tackle climate change on track on Saturday after marathon talks overshadowed by US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out.

Fijian prime minister Frank Bainimarama, presiding at the two-week talks in Bonn, said the outcome “underscores the importance of keeping the momentum and of holding the spirit and vision of our Paris Agreement.”

Delegates agreed to launch a process in 2018 to start reviewing existing plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions as part of a long-term effort to ratchet up ambition. It would be called the “Talanoa Dialogue, after a Fijian word for story-telling and sharing experiences.

The Paris pact aims to limit a rise in average world temperatures to “well below” 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial times, ideally 1.5 (5.4F) to limit more droughts, floods, heatwaves and rising sea levels.

‘What am I going to do?’

But the telling moment at the 23rd edition of the climate talks came from Timoci Naulusala. The 12-year-old from Fiji, a nation disappearing under rising seas, was delivering a testimonial to ministers and heads of state with crisp English and irresistible charm.

Suddenly, describing the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winston last year, his words became measured, his voice hushed.

“My home, my school -- my source of food, water, money -- was totally destroyed,” he said.

“My life was in chaos. I asked myself: Why is this happening? What am I going to do?”

The answer to Timoci’s first question has become frightening clear: climate change.

With only a single degree Celsius of global warming so far, the planet has already seen a crescendo of deadly droughts, heatwaves, and superstorms engorged by rising seas.

“Climate change is here. It is dangerous. And it is about to get much worse,” said Johan Rockstroem, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a climate change research centre.

The 196-nation Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, enjoins the world to cap the rise in temperature at “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal barely within reach that still may not save Fiji and dozens of small island states.

Bangladesh and other countries with highly-populated delta regions are also at high risk.

But Timoci’s second question remains open: What is he, and by extension the world, going to do?

‘Should’ or ‘Shall’

At first, the answer — laid out in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change — seemed straight-forward: Humans must stop loading the atmosphere with the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

The successful repair of the ozone hole suggested a way forward: An international treaty.

But it took a quarter of a century to get one, in 2015, and even then it is woefully inadequate: Voluntary national pledges to curb carbon pollution would still allow the global thermometer to go up 3°C, a recipe for human misery on a vast scale.

Since Paris, the UN climate talks — known to participants as “COPs”, or Conferences of the Parties — have focused on working out an operational handbook for the treaty, which goes into effect in 2020.

But as the years tick by, the byzantine bureaucracy — where hundreds of diplomats can argue for days over whether a text will say “should” or “shall” — has struggled to keep pace with both the problem, and what some negotiators call “the real world”.

“What is at stake here is the relevance of the COP process,” said Nicaragua’s chief negotiator Paul Oquist, lamenting a point of blockage and the generally slow pace.

“We cannot risk becoming more and more irrelevant with each meeting.”

US pullout

The Bonn meeting was under the shadow of Trump’s decision in June to withdraw from the Paris accord and instead promote the coal and oil industry. Trump doubts that man-made emissions are the prime cause of rising temperatures.

No other nations have followed suit and even nations whose economies depend on fossil fuels have rallied around.

“Everyone got together and said ‘we have to protect the world. We have to protect the Paris Agreement’. Countries are moving forward,” United Arab Emirates Climate Minister Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi told Reuters.

One senior European diplomat said Trump’s decision had “sedated” the talks into a numbed sense of unity, avoiding major confrontations to underscore that the main faultline on policy was between Trump and the rest of the world.

Washington retains its place in the talks for now because the Paris pact stipulates that no country can formally pull out before November 2020.

The fossil fuel industry was very much under the spotlight during the talks. The US administration’s only event in Bonn was to promote coal, which jarred with many other nations who wanted talks to focus on renewable energies.

‘Little adrenaline’

The UN’s 12-day negotiations came to an end Saturday with an agreement to hold a stocktake in 2018 of national efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions.

But the talks are falling behind the response of cities, sub-national regions and especially businesses, which have leaped headlong into the transition from a dirty to a clean global economy.

“For the first time in the history of the COPs, the heart of the action was not in the negotiating arena but in the ‘green’ zone” showcasing innovations in sustainable development, said David Levai, head of the climate program at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris.

Some 7,500 cities and local governments have set carbon cutting targets, and hundreds of global companies are retooling for a low-carbon world.

A veteran EU climate diplomat, meanwhile, bemoaned the lack of dynamism in the negotiating arena. “I’ve never seen a COP with so little adrenaline,” he told AFP.

Mads Randboll Wolff, a Danish expert in bioeconomics — a field that didn’t even exist a decade ago — recalled the bitter disappointment of the failed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

“The entire world was looking up to the podium, waiting for world leaders to strike the deal that would save us,” he said.

“One of the lessons from Copenhagen is that the negotiations are not enough,” he added. “We need them. But we also need civil society — people, citizens — to take action.”

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 12:24 IST

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