LIMA: Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is due to fly to Lima early next week, amid warnings from the climate change conference that the world’s coral reefs face catastrophic losses, even if we manage to meet a 2°C warming target.
Bishop last month rebuked US President Barack Obama for suggesting that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was under threat. She said Obama ignored national efforts to manage the reef and, in any case, climate change was not a threat.
“It’s not under threat from climate change because its biggest threat is nutrient runoffs from agricultural land [and] the second biggest threat is natural disasters, but this has been for 200 years,” Bishop told Fairfax Media in New York.
Her comments were dismissed by Australian scientists at the time, and on Tuesday in Lima, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it was clear that the world’s reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, were facing major threats.
IPCC scientist Hans Otto Portner, a lead author of the organisation’s latest synthesis report, said even if the world managed to hold warming to an average 1.5°C, more than half the world’s coral reefs could be lost.
“We would not expect them to become completely extinct, but they will not provide the services that they are currently providing,” he said at a meeting in Lima.
“It is a regional disaster, as you call it,” he said in response to a question from the representative of small island states.
There is nothing new in his comments. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, backed the US President, saying Obama was “right on the money”.
“We have one of the jewels of the planet in our possession and we should care a lot about climate and he wasn’t getting that from our leader [Prime Minister Tony Abbott],” Hoegh-Guldberg told Fairfax. Peer reviewed research conducted by Hoegh-Guldberg says that even global warming limited to 2°C will be devastating to the reefs.
But it is the context of the IPCC remarks which are interesting, and will make things difficult for Bishop.
One of the unsung legacies of the Copenhagen COP was the commitment to consider, between 2013 and 2015, whether the world should in fact push to limit global warming to 1.5°C – as proposed by nations most exposed to climate change – rather than 2°C.
This has created a special stream at the climate talks known as the “The structured expert dialogue”, hailed as the one part of the negotiations where science actually meets policy.
The SED is meeting in two sessions over two days at Lima. The first session, held on Tuesday Lima time, heard from the IPCC.
Among the things it will consider are:
What is the gap between current mitigation and adaptation efforts and those required to achieve the long-term global goal as characterized by a 2/1.5°C level of warming relative to pre-industrial levels? How can this gap be bridged?
And what policy options have been identified for the decarbonisation of the energy system called for by pathways consistent with limiting warming below 1.5 or 2 °C compared to pre-industrial levels? What are the economic and technological risks associated with this decarbonisation?
While organisations such as AOSIS and 350.org are pushing for targets that will limit global warming to 1.5°C, there is little chance that this would be agreed – given the difficulties in even meeting the 2°C target.
UNFCCC secretary general Christiana Figueres conceded this week that even a successful agreement in Paris would be unlikely to elicit pledges required to limit warming to 2°C. But she says the “emissions gap” would be small, and be steadily reduced in ensuing years.
The 2°C scenario ascribes a carbon budget of just one trillion tonnes, or leaving two-thirds of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Something that Big Oil and Big Coal are having a hard time digesting, although the potential of such a target to cause a “carbon bubble” and systemic financial risk has attracted the interest of the Bank of England.
The 1.5°C target ascribes a carbon budget of just 277 billion tonnes – or about 8 years of emissions at current rates. The world will surely overshoot that target, although the IPCC scenarios say the 1.5°C goal could be met if “negative emissions” are used.
“Those numbers are particularly alarming for small islands like ours, where we are already being forced to relocate,” said the representative for the Solomon Islands.