Ending poverty through climate action in the Post-2015 development agenda

The post-2015 development agenda offers an extraordinary opportunity to tackle the world’s two most pressing challenges—poverty and climate change. A recent report from the Center for American Progress outlines a practical strategy for policymakers to ensure the new framework tackles both.

While it is sometimes tempting to despair that countries around the world are incapable of crafting multilateral solutions that are equal to the world’s most pressing challenges, there are tremendous opportunities for international agreements to bring about real change and accelerate progress.

In 2015, a pair of international summits – one to agree on a set of sustainable development goals, the other a new climate agreement – present a tremendous opportunity. These efforts can and should complement one another.

Where countries failed to fully integrating environmental concerns into the Millennium Development Goals, they have an unprecedented opportunity now to ensure that the new goals complement and mutually enforce global development and climate solutions.

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, a couple of colleagues and I outline specific, measurable targets to be incorporated into future development goals. These targets focus on specific actions that fight poverty and reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change, and support sustainable agriculture and food security, economic growth and infrastructure, sustainable energy, ecosystems, and healthy lives.

If adopted as part of the post-2015 development agenda, these targets would help drive investments and sensible actions by local and national governments, multilateral development banks, international organizations, and the private sector to end poverty and build a more resilient and sustainable future for generations to come.

Goodbye to all that

Yesterday’s findings from two scientific teams that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has now started to collapse (almost certainly unstoppably, implying 10 feet or more of long term sea level rise), is relevant to pretty much everyone around the world. But for us Brits in particular, the prospect of the disappearance of so much of Antarctica has a particular resonance, coming as it does just a couple of years after the centenary of the deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions in the race to the South Pole.

Scott’s last expedition didn’t cross the West Antarctic Ice Sheet on their way to the Pole; instead, they landed just to the east of the WAIS, at the edge of the Ross Sea, and made their way to the Pole over the Ross Ice Shelf.

They built their HQ, seen above, on Ross Island, at a place called Cape Evans – named, as it happens, for my great granddad, Teddy Evans, who was second in command of the expedition. (He was also one of the few who survived; he caught scurvy on the way to the Pole, and was hauled back by his companions William Lashley and Tom Crean – thanks to whom I’m here to write this blog post.) He’s just to Scott’s right in the photo above, taken at Cape Evans on Scott’s birthday in 1911.

But now the Ross Ice Shelf is melting too – not as fast as the WAIS, admittedly, but melting from underneath all the same, rather than just calving icebergs the way it always used to. Same story with Antarctica’s other giant cold-cavity ice shelves, Filchner and Ronne.

There’s a certain sad irony here in that the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust recently completed a successful appeal to preserve Scott’s hut at Cape Evans – a place that, as David Attenborough noted when he went there, is

“a time warp without parallel – you walk into Scott’s hut and you are transported to the year 1912 in a way that is quite impossible anywhere else in the world. Everything is there.”

But while the hut will stay the same, the continent that my great granddad and his fellow expeditioners would have looked out at whenever they stepped outside is disappearing. Not too many generations from now, only the bedrock will be left – and even that, rapidly disappearing under the waves.

See this companion post, also published today, for a short guide to other climate ‘tipping points’ – and a few links to what you can do to help prevent us from sleepwalking over any more of them.

Climate tipping points – a quick guide

Yesterday’s news that we now appear to be on course for the unstoppable and irreversible loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) – the largest ice body in the world (for now, anyway) – means that we’re now probably past two key climate tipping points, the other being the loss of summer Arctic sea ice. So this is probably a good time to post a quick overview of all of the main climate tipping points: if you’re not familiar with this list, you should be…

Below is a quick guide, adapted from a chapter by Exeter University’s Tim Lenton in his and Tim O’Riordan’s book on the same subject. The book was published last year; as you can see, scientific consensus at the time was that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet “appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart”. So much for that estimate.

  • Arctic sea ice loss underwent a new record summer loss of area in 2012, breaking the previous record of 2007, and now covers only half the area of the late 1970s when satellites first began monitoring it. Current projections suggest we’re looking at complete loss of Arctic summer sea ice within decades. Already, the changing ice cover is changing air circulation patterns, and leading to cold winter extremes in Europe and North America.
  • The Greenland ice sheet may be nearing a tipping point beyond which it is committed to shrink; here too, the summer of 2012 saw record melting. Ice loss would probably take place over centuries, so this form of change wouldn’t be abrupt – but it might well be irreversible, and could ultimately lead to 7 metres of sea level rise, including up to half a metre this century.
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet appears to be further from a tipping point than its Greenland counterpart, but has the potential for more rapid change, and hence bigger impacts in the near term. If warming exceeds 4º Celsius, the current best guess is that the West Antarctic ice sheet is ‘more likely than not’ to collapse, causing sea level rise of 1 metre per century and 3-4 metres in total.
  • The Yedoma permafrost in Siberia contains massive amounts of carbon – potentially up to 500 billion tonnes of it, about the same as has been emitted by human activity since the start of the industrial revolution. If decomposition inside the permafrost starts to generate enough heat, all of the permafrost could tip into irreversible, self-sustaining collapse, generating a “runaway positive feedback” with emissions of 2-3 billion tonnes of carbon a year, or about a third of current fossil fuel emissions. The current best guess is that this would not happen before regional warming of 9º Celsius, but that could be closer than we think: in 2007, for instance, Arctic surface temperatures jumped 3º Celsius.
  • Ocean methane hydrates are thought to store up to 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon under the seabed. As the deep ocean warms, this frozen reservoir of methane could conceivably melt, causing an abrupt, massive release of the gas – which is four times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. This is probably at the least likely end of the spectrum, but the impacts if it happened would be extreme.
  • The Himalayan glaciers could lose much of their mass over the coming century, with the change becoming self-amplifying as exposure of bare ground increases the amount of sunlight energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface rather than reflected back into space. Scientists are so far unsure as to whether a large-scale tipping point could apply to this trend.
  • The Amazon rainforest experienced severe droughts in both 2005 and 2010 – in both cases, turning the forest into a source of carbon rather than a sink for absorbing it. If, as is currently happening, the dry season continues to lengthen, and droughts get more frequent and severe, then the rainforest could reach a tipping point, with up to 80% of trees dying off. Widespread dieback is expected at increases of over 4º Celsius, and could be committed to at much lower temperature increases – long before we notice it happening.
  • Western Canada’s boreal forest is currently suffering from an invasion of mountain pine beetle, leading to widespread dieback which has already turned the forest from a source to a sink. More widespread die-off could happen in future at global average warming of more than 3º Celsius, further amplifying global warming.
  • Tropical coral reefs are already experiencing bleaching as oceans warm up, and may be nearing a ‘point of no return’. Further risks come from the increasing acidification of the oceans, which could see up to 70% of corals in corrosive water by the end of this century.
  • The Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) – in effect, a massive oceanic conveyer belt that drives the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, and which helps keep northern Europe much warmer than it would otherwise be – could shut down altogether if enough freshwater dilutes the ocean’s salinity; current best guesses are that this could happen at global average warming of over 4º Celsius. A weakening THC could also drive an additional quarter metre of sea level rise along the north-eastern seaboard of the United States.
  • The Sahel and West African Monsoon has experienced rapid changes in the past, including a catastrophic drought that lasted from the late 1960s through to the 1980s, and could be disrupted anew by changes to the THC. The Indian Summer Monsoon, meanwhile, is already being disrupted and rice harvests damaged, in particular by the cloud of brown haze that now sits semi-permanently over the Indian sub-continent.

Of course, the really big question in each case is exactly where the tipping points lie, and what level of temperature increase might push us over the threshold. Some research suggests that warning of 1º Celsius over the average temperature of the 1980s and 1990s would be dangerous; other recent work suggests that 4º could be where the danger zone begins.

But again, note that the best guess just one year ago was that it would take 4º of warming to cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse; in the event, current warming of 0.7º above pre-industrial levels seems to have been enough to push us over the edge. It’s a salutary reminder of how little we know about climate tipping points – and hence just how risky and high stakes a situation we’re in.

And in all scenarios, the key point is that these kinds of temperature increases are exactly where our current trajectory is headed: current policies have us on track for 3.6-5.3 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the IEA. In the worst case scenario, Tim Lenton observes, we could slide into

“…’domino dynamics’, in which tipping one element of the Earth system significantly increases the probability of tipping another, and so on … on several occasions in the past, the planet was radically reorganized without there being any sign of a particularly large forcing perturbation.”

Wondering what you can do in the face of such relentlessly gloomy news? Get hold of any policymaker you can and ask them whether they support a binding global carbon budget, and fair – i.e. equal per capita – shares of it for all the world’s people. Ask whichever NGO you support whether they’re calling for the same thing at the Paris summit next year. And don’t take any shit from anyone about how technology and voluntary action are going to do the business without anyone having to take any tough decisions.

(See also this companion post, also published here today, for a slightly different take on the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.)

Implementing the Post-2015 Development Agenda in the United States

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, we explore the implications of implementing the post-2015 development agenda in the United States.

Given the massive changes in the world since 2000, when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted the United Nations headquarters, it should come as no surprise that the post-2015 development agenda is shaping up to be quite different from the MDGs. One of the most profound shifts is that the post-2015 will be a universal agenda.

To echo the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP), a universal agenda is based upon true global partnership, a joint endeavor to end poverty and promote sustainable development. Universality signals a transition away from the North-South dynamic that has defined development policy for decades.Though the specifics are still unclear – in particular how best to accommodate varying national circumstances and contexts – the basic idea is that every country would have work to do, both at home and as members of the global community, in order to achieve the post-2015 development agenda.

While an incredible amount of energy is focused on the what of the post-2015 development agenda, relatively less attention has been paid to the all-important question of how it will be implemented.

In this new report, John Norris, Casey Dunning, and I explore what implementing the post-2015 development agenda might look like from the perspective of the United States. The result of our analysis is a report, Universality In Focus. We use the illustrative set of goals and targets set out by the HLP as our starting point, identifying the achievability, measurability, and merit of each target, and as appropriate, the potential level of ambition for the U.S. in meeting such targets.

Rather than a definitive analysis of a very broad and complicated set of issues, it is our hope that this report is the start of a more specific and focused conversation on implementation and the practical implications of universality in the post-2015 development agenda. We would hope that others undertake similar analysis in different countries, to further inform the ongoing conversations among diplomats in New York.

Continue reading

It’s developed country, not emerging economy, attitudes that are the problem on sustainability

One of the best sets of data available on attitudes to sustainability around the world is the ‘Greendex’ produced by the polling company Globescan for National Geographic magazine. Its most recent version, published in 2012 (highlights; full pdf), paints a fascinating – and often surprising – picture.

For me, the key headline finding from the survey is all about the gap in perceptions between people in emerging economies and those in developed countries. Despite the fact that emerging economy citizens have much lower per capita consumption levels, the survey found that:

  • Emerging economy citizens are substantially more concerned about environmental problems than developed country citizens. The six countries in which most people agree with the statement “I am very concerned about environmental problems” are Mexico, China, Brazil, South Korea (which is a developed country, of course), Argentina, and India. The bottom six (with the least concerned last) are Japan, the US, Germany, Britain, Australia, and (weirdly) Sweden. When prompted about global issues, environmental challenges like climate change, air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, and species and habitat loss all score consistently highly as concerns in emerging economies. In developed countries, on the other hand, consumers are less concerned about the environment and more focused on the economy and the cost of energy and fuel.
  • People in emerging economies are much more likely than people in developed countries to say that they feel guilty about their environmental impacts – despite the fact that their per capita environmental impacts are much lower. The countries in which most people agree that they feel guilty about their impacts are India, Mexico, China, Brazil, and Argentina; the lowest scoring are Britain, France, America, Australia, Germany, and (last and least) Japan.  Yet when these findings are plotted on the same graph as countries’ actual Greendex score – a measure of the sustainability or unsustainability of their consumption patterns – it emerges that those countries that feel least guilty are in fact those with the highest environmental impacts.

Greendex vs guilt

  • Emerging economy citizens are far more likely than those in the rich world to agree with the statement that “as a society we will need to consume a lot less to improve the environment for future generations”. The countries that most endorse this view are Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and China; the US, Australia, Germany, and Japan are least convinced. And even though developed countries are least convinced of the need to consume less, they are also the most sceptical of the view that “people in all countries should have the same standard of living as people in the most wealthy countries”, with Germany, Canada, America, South Korea, and Japan all in the bottom five. (Interestingly, though, Britain and Spain score significantly higher than most other developed countries on both fronts.)

A similar story emerges on the specific issue of climate change. Of the 17 countries covered in the Greendex survey, the six in which most concern is expressed about climate change are Mexico, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, India, and China, with over 70% of people in each country saying that they are either concerned or very concerned about the issue. Britain, America, and Australia, on the other hand, rank  lowest, in every case with less than 45% of people in these two categories.

People in emerging economies are also much more likely to agree that “global warming will worsen my way of life within my own lifetime” than those in developed countries, and to support the statement that “most scientists are convinced that human activity causes climate change and global warming”.

A high ambition coalition of the willing on climate change

As the Center for Global Development’s Owen Barder and Alice Lepissier noted in their post from the COP19 climate summit in Warsaw last month, there was “lots of cloud and not much silver lining” in evidence there, what with Japan’s announcement of reduced emissions targets and the further diluting of the already dubious ‘pledge and review’ approach.

For me, though, the most depressing thing of all was the deafening silence among governments attending the COP about the issue of global carbon budgets. It’s a deep irony that, just as the IPCC publishes by far its most unequivocal analysis to date about the need to define (and then stay within) a safe global carbon budget, governments are less willing than ever to talk about the issue.

Part of the problem is that governments and other UNFCCC process hacks assume that a carbon budget is just too difficult to talk about. Not just because countries would have to agree on a way to share it out, but also, even more fundamentally, because of a sense that agreeing a carbon budget would depend on a ‘big bang’ moment at which all countries agreed on an allocation mechanism – and good luck with that.

This set Owen, Alice, and I thinking about whether there’s a way for some countries to go ahead with a carbon budget-based approach, but without all governments having to be on board at the outset: a high ambition coalition of the willing, in other words. Continue reading

A Global Partnership for the post-2015 Agenda

Debate about what new Goals should succeed the Millennium Development Goals after their 2015 deadline is now well underway. But there has so far been much less discussion of another key issue: a new Global Partnership to deliver them.

This is worrying – because although we won’t know the full list of new Goals for another two years, it already seems clear that we’re heading for a much more ambitious set of objectives than the Millennium Development Goals. There’s a real risk of a mismatch between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of post-2015, if governments agree an ambitious, universal set of Goals, but fail to commit to a credible action plan for making them happen.

Against this backdrop, I’ve just finished a Center on International Cooperation report (full pdf available here, and 8 page policy brief here) that sets out to explore both what kind of a Global Partnership is needed, and which elements of it look feasible for agreement in the current political context.

The report starts with an assessment of which countries want what from post-2015, and of what sort of goals the new Global Partnership may have to deliver, before setting out analysis and policy options of two key areas: financing, in the broadest sense, and the wider sustainable development agenda (encompassing areas like trade, migration, sustainability, technology, data, and global governance reform).

It also sets out a 10 point ‘early harvest’ plan of measures that could – at a stretch – be agreed over the next two to three years, and which have the potential to act as confidence building measures that might, with luck, start to catalyse more momentum and trust in an agenda that badly needs more of both.