UN Climate Talks Start Today—7 Things You Need to Know
By Molly Bergen
This week in Doha, Qatar, representatives from 194 countries are gathering for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 18). I recently talked with Rebecca Chacko, Conservation International’s (CI) senior director of climate policy, to learn more about what will be discussed, what the obstacles are—and what’s at stake if countries continue to delay action.
1. What is the overall goal of the U.N. climate meetings?
The goal of the UNFCCC is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in order to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, which means limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius at the most.
If nations in Doha don’t make the necessary commitments, this goal may soon be out of our reach. A new World Bank report warns that we are currently on track for a 4-degree increase in temperature, which would mean devastating consequences for people and ecosystems. We are talking about the most basic components of life on Earth—where we can live, the food we eat, the water we drink, our economic well-being and our ability to survive, let alone live happy, healthy lives.
Successful decisions from the U.N. climate summit offer us an alternate, more prosperous future—one in which we can not only maintain, but improve, human well-being.
2. Superstorm Sandy has spurred a deluge of climate change media coverage in the past few weeks. Do you think more frequent extreme weather events will encourage countries to take the action necessary in Doha?
It’s sad that it takes major disasters to invoke political action. The truth is, Sandy is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what we face with climate change. More waits for us beneath the surface due to the changes we have already put in motion, and even more will come if we don’t make changes immediately.
But here’s the good news: We can begin to transition to sustainable, low-emissions economies. And Hurricane Sandy may be the wake up call we need. It’s much easier to react to real events on the ground than address abstract predictions of what is to come.
We are starting to see the costs of inaction. Hurricane Sandy came with a US$60 billion price tag. In the long run, reducing emissions and taking actions to adapt to likely impacts will be more cost-effective than sticking our heads in the sand.
Public officials owe it to the people they represent to participate in Doha with Superstorm Sandy and other extreme weather events at the front of their minds. CI’s role as an NGO—and the role of every citizen on this planet—is to remind our government representatives of the stakes, ensure they are informed by science and provide them with the support they need to make the tough decisions necessary.
3. How effective was the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol—and what will the outcome of COP18 mean for this agreement?
The Kyoto Protocol is a historic agreement that legally binds developed (or Annex I) countries to emission reduction targets. It also created market mechanisms that allowed countries to meet their targets by trading in carbon emissions. Out of the 195 signatories to the UNFCCC, 192 have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, with the U.S. being the most notable exception.
While it is difficult to measure the impact the Kyoto Protocol has had, in 2011 the UNFCCC estimated that it reduced global emissions by about 5 percent by 2010—the equivalent of taking 300 million cars off the road for a year—and will prevent 10 percent by 2020.
The Kyoto Protocol‘s first commitment period comes to a close at the end of this year. That’s one reason Doha is so important—parties are finalizing the second commitment period, which will start on Jan. 1, 2013. The EU, Australia and nine other countries have indicated they will participate in the second commitment period, but four countries have indicated that they will not: Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand.
The Kyoto Protocol is currently the only legally binding mechanism we have to limit international greenhouse gas emissions. Eventually a new global climate treaty should also provide legally binding obligations, but until then, the Kyoto Protocol is all we have, and maintaining it is critical.
4. What issues do you expect to see the most progress on at COP 18?
The broad political issues at play in Doha will really set the tone for how we move forward on climate change. But CI will also be directly engaged in a number of the nuts and bolts issues on the table, and this is where there is an opportunity to see real progress.
A lot of CI’s focus will be on deforestation—which contributes to 16 percent of global emissions—and adaptation. We want to see details that will enable implementation at scale by reducing deforestation and helping people cope with climate change all over the world.
For example, CI is contributing to the development of guidance on how countries should do carbon accounting in the forest sector, and on planning processes for adaptation in the mid- to long-term. This may not sound as sexy as some of the climate issues more likely to be picked up in the news, but these issues are where the rubber meets the road in terms of turning policy into action and offering real benefits to people.
5. What do you think will be the biggest obstacle to progress at this meeting?
The word you can expect to hear over and over again in Doha is “equity.” And while it’s easy to agree that equity is important, it’s pretty tough to define what it looks like.
Developed countries have a historical responsibility for climate change because of all of the gases they emitted in the process of development. They are also in a better economic position to contribute to climate solutions. But as the climate problem grows, it is clear that developed countries won’t be able to solve it on their own.
Developing countries will need to be part of the equation, whether they are growing economic powerhouses whose emissions now rival those of the U.S. or small island states whose territories are at risk of going underwater. The question in Doha will be: What responsibilities do different countries hold, and how can we implement climate solutions fairly?
Answering these questions is Doha’s true challenge. If certain countries stick to their current positions, we could see a complete block to further progress.
6. Which countries will be especially influential at COP 18?
It’s easy to list off big countries like the U.S. and China, but one of the interesting things about the UNFCCC is that every country has a voice and an opportunity to show leadership. A lot of the true power comes from working with others.
Last year we saw the EU, the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries team together, and in doing so they were able to get things done. That’s the type of leadership we need now: progressive countries willing to push for more than common denominator solutions.
We can also expect to hear more from Brazil, South Africa, India and China, otherwise known as the BASIC countries. Then, of course, there is the COP President—Qatar—which has the challenging task of orchestrating agreement and pushing towards a more ambitious, successful conclusion.
7. What are the main outcomes CI hopes to see?
For a successful Doha outcome, we need to see three developments:
- A clear way forward towards developing a new 2015 agreement for all countries. In Durban, countries made a pivotal decision to establish a new legal agreement by 2015. This represents an opportunity to finally put in place the actions necessary to avoid dangerous climate impacts.
- Successful closure of negotiations on Long-term Cooperative Action so that countries can move forward with implementation on all of the necessary elements: mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity-building.
- An amendment to the Kyoto Protocol providing a robust second commitment period.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
Rebecca Chacko is CI’s senior director of climate policy. Molly Bergen is managing editor on CI’s news and publicity team. Learn more about CI’s role at COP 18.
Maryland will become the first state in the nation Thursday to implement a ban on foam takeout containers.
- New Jersey Legislature Passes 'Most Comprehensive' Plastics Ban ... ›
- Canada to Announce Ban on Single-Use Plastics - EcoWatch ›
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Dunkin' Says Bye to Foam Cups (But Bring Your Own Thermos ... ›
- Maine and Vermont Pass Plastic Bag Bans on the Same Day ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
- Destruction of Nature Is Triggering Pandemics, Say Leaders of WWF ... ›
- The UN Wants to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030 - EcoWatch ›
- New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future ... ›
Just days after a new report detailed the "unequivocal and pervasive role" climate change plays in the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, new fires burned 10,000 acres on Sunday as a "dome" of hot, dry air over Northern California created ideal fire conditions over the weekend.
- California's Iconic Redwoods Threatened by Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining - EcoWatch ›
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
- Overlooked Flood Risk Endangers Homeowners - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Coastal Flooding Maps: Residents Deny Predicted Risks to ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›