At the UN climate talks that ended wearily on Saturday night in Warsaw, negotiators showed little appetite for making firm climate finance commitments or promising ambitious climate action. But they did succeed, again, in keeping hope alive for a 2015 agreement.
The final outcome was a broad framework agreement that outlines a system for pledging emissions cuts and a new mechanism to tackle loss and damage. There were new pledges and payments for reducing deforestation through REDD+ and for the Adaptation Fund, however the meeting did little more than avoid creating roadblocks on the road to a Paris agreement in 2015. In one of the few new financial commitments, the United Kingdom, Norway, and the United States together contributed $280 million to building sustainable landscapes through the BioCarbon Fund set up by the World Bank Group.
At the same time, COP19 was an increasingly emotional Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The overture to this round of climate drama was provided by Typhoon Haiyan. Haiyan added, sadly, more to the mounting evidence of the costs of failure in tackling climate change. The language is inexorably moving towards one of solidarity, of justice. But for the moment, this framing is insufficient to prevent emission reduction commitments from moving backwards.
And yet again, as was the case in the climate conferences in Cancun, Durban, Doha, and now Warsaw, outside the official negotiations, there is growing pragmatic climate action driven by climate leaders from every walk of life.
The sense of urgency and opportunity is building, it just fails to translate into textual agreement.
In the climate negotiations under the United Nations framework, we are used to seeing geographical blocs and other blocs at loggerheads. The tension draws attention, but it isn’t the only story of blocs at the climate conference.
In Warsaw Thursday, members of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition – 75 countries and international organizations working together – met and talked about their progress so far and work for the future to slow climate change.
What do these countries – among them, Nigeria, Sweden, the United States, Ghana, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Chile, Morocco, and Canada – have in common?
Answer: The firm belief that we can work together and substantially reduce black carbon, methane, and other short-lived climate pollutants.
What generates 70 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted from cities like New York, Beijing, or New Delhi? Not long ago, I might have answered “cars.” But the real culprit is buildings – our homes, offices, schools, and hospitals. Many of which use electricity, water, and fuel extremely inefficiently because of the way they were initially designed.
In fact, about 40 percent of the world’s electricity is used to cool, light and ventilate buildings, even though much more efficient technology exists.
The longevity of buildings is why we need to think much more about them at the new construction phase. Decisions about building materials, insulation, and plumbing live on for decades or longer. That’s why IFC, the private sector-focused arm of the World Bank Group, is working to help builders and developers in emerging markets lock in climate-smart choices at the early design stage.
Our new certification tool EDGE, which stands for Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies, was designed specifically for emerging markets, where housing needs are set to grow exponentially as a result of urbanization pressures. It is Internet-based and easy to use, offering developers a range of inexpensive design choices that might otherwise be overlooked in the rush to build.
Buildings certified by EDGE use 20 percent less energy than their peers, offering long-term emissions savings and lower utility bills – a major benefit in affordable housing.
Today, three countries – Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States – pledged $280 million to the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund, kicking off a groundbreaking initiative for sustainable forest landscapes.
Their significant commitment to land and forest preservation is important for two reasons.
The new Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes will manage landscapes in a holistic fashion by working across sectors, rather than in “silos.” It also brings in the private sector already in the design phase, recognizing that many private firms are committed to “greening” and securing their supply chains from the impact of climate change.
The more the world urbanizes – and we’re forecast to be 70 percent urban-dwellers by 2050 – the more critical clean, efficient, safe transportation becomes. Access to better jobs, schools, and clinics gives the poor a ladder out of poverty and towards greater prosperity.
But transport as we know it today, with roads clogged with cars and trucks and fumes, is also a threat. We have inefficient supply chains, inefficient fuels, and a growing car culture, with all the congestion, lost productivity, and deadly crashes that brings. Urban air pollution exacerbated by vehicle traffic is blamed for an estimated 3 million deaths a year, according to the Global Burden of Disease report, and the black carbon it contains is contributing to climate change. The transport sector contributes 20 percent of all energy-related CO2 emissions, with emissions growing at about 1.7 percent a year since 2000, contributing to the growing threats posed by climate change.
To sum it up, much of today’s transport is unhealthy for people and planet.
Last month, I drove through dust on bumpy dirt roads from Nairobi to visit the Oloirowua Primary School in Suswa, 140 kilometers northeast of the Kenya capital. The school sits on the vast savannah near Hell’s Gate National Park, an area with substantial geothermal potential.
At the school, classes are being taught outdoors and kids sit under a few trees with notebooks in their laps. Their old and crumbling school will soon be replaced by a new building that will accommodate 200 students. Their faces light up when they talk about the new school, and I feel thankful for being able to work with projects like this where I see the direct effects of our work on kids’ education.
Last week, the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom reported that snow in the Himalayas was melting because of religious activity on the Indian subcontinent. The report, based on research by American and Indian scientists, found that burning of wood for cremations and incense sticks for religious ceremonies and marriages leads to emissions of black carbon and other compounds. This, in turn, accelerates the melting of ice and snow-covered surfaces.
There is a growing body of research looking at how black carbon is accelerating snow and glacial melting. A scientific paper published in India early this year associated forest fires and other biomass burning to the accelerated melting of one of the Himalayan glaciers. Scientists have even implicated black carbon emission from increased industrial activity in Europe for the retreat of glaciers in the Alps in the mid-19th century.
I am an asthmatic. Walking or biking behind a black-smoke-belching truck makes me choke, I mean really choke. I am sure it sounds familiar to other asthmatics or to those who have friends with respiratory problems.
The World Health Organization last month classified outdoor air pollution as a leading carcinogen. It particularly singled out particulate matter – the stuff that makes up the black smoke from those diesel trucks – as a carcinogen for humans.
On the heels of that news came word from China that record-air pollution levels nearly shut down one of northeastern China's largest cities, Harbin, forcing schools to suspend classes, snarling traffic and closing the city airport. An index measuring particulate matter reached a reading of 1,000 in some parts of the city, home to some 11 million people. A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the WHO recommends a daily level of no more than 20.
Imagine the fate of my fellow sufferers, the asthmatics. Needless to say there was surge of hospital emergency room visits in Harbin on October 21.