A message for the planet: beware the urgency gap

The call for urgent climate action during COP23 in Bonn by activists and NGOs is supported by the science. Images via COP23Demo on Flickr.
The call for urgent climate action during COP23 in Bonn by activists and NGOs is supported by the science. Images via COP23Demo on Flickr.
The former co-leader of the Green party, NATALIE BENNETT is in Bonn where she tells of the story of two cities: the politicians on one side performing seemingly endless negotiations and the scientists and NGOs on the other calling for urgent action.
But the chasm isn't just in wardrobe or language but most strikingly in the level of urgency.

There are two distinct, and physically separate parts of the COP climate talks in Bonn. One, known as the Bulla zone, is mainly housed in a grand conference centre. The other, the Bonn zone, is in a giant tent complex, beside a funfair.

They are considerably more than the officially claimed "10-minute walk" apart (although there is a free bicycle option) - but sometimes it seems like the distance between them is more of an unbridgeable chasm.

The Bulla zone is where the official talks and plenaries take place, and it is full of people in suits, and many contributions from the floor start with long flowery paragraphs along the lines of: "I compliment madam cofacilitator and her committee on their excellent work on paragraph 3 (b), clause seven..."

Campaigning youth

Suits are not de rigeur, but one Greenpeace campaigner at a session I was at yesterday did feel obliged to apologise for his T-shirt.

The Bonn zone by contrast is at its cultural heart the non-governmental and campaigning organisations centre (although there are also national pavilions and scientific institutions here - and some companies), with most of the meetings run by the NGOs.

Even some of the national pavilions pretty well hand over to them: at the Cities and Regions Pavilion yesterday I attended an event on inter-generational justice with campaigning youth organisations.

But the chasm isn't just in wardrobe or language. Perhaps the most striking - and disturbing - gap is in the level of urgency.

People do move between the two sites, and press conference room two is one of the places where the Bonn side gets to try to deliver its messages to Bulla, and the world.

Propeller polishing

It was there yesterday that Yamide Dagnet from the World Resources Institute said we have a "window of the next two years" to stop runaway climate change. "We can't wait until 2023 for ‘global stocktake' on climate change emissions. ‘Enhanced ambition' can't wait until 2020."

Nisreen A.H. Elsaim, a young woman speaking at a Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance press conference, passionately called for action: "it is the youth who will suffer most if we don't act now."

But the chasm isn't just in wardrobe or language but most strikingly in the level of urgency.

A speaker at the same event from Tanzania said the human cost of climate change was already threatening the lives of millions of her people: "our livelihood is at stake if we don't act now".

By contrast, at an event in the Bonn zone on aviation and shipping, the International Maritime Organisation, the UN agency overseeing global shipping, explained that any change in environmental regulations would take a minimum of 22 months to bring into effect.

But we were reassured, new environmental regulations had come in for ships, covering incremental improvements such as "propeller polishing, hull cleaning and LED lighting". 

A five-year cycle

The aviation industry was even worse: it has committed to take extremely limited action from 2020 - but only to offset increases in emissions, even though it's generally agreed that all the cuts we can make need to be just that, not trade-offs for increases elsewhere. It appeared that for the International Civil Aviation Organization, anything faster wasn't even on the horizon.

The timetables for the global stocktake that Ms Dagnet was referring to is what's generally accepted in the Bonn zone, as is the "enhanced ambition" schedule.

That refers to the fact that the Paris talks two years ago, although states (to the surprise and delight of campaigners) agreed to have an ambition of stopping climate change at 1.5 degrees (and we're two-thirds of the way there now), only assembled offers of national contributions at about 3.4 degrees.

What's needed is for them to considerable increase their offers - but the significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions are all waiting for each other to act. Many of the events in the Bonn zone are offering suggestions of what they could do - but what there's yet to be any signs of are solid promises to act.

It isn't that there isn't discussion in the Bonn zone about this. One of the terms covering it is "the near-term agenda" (referring to actions before the next big scheduled meeting in 2020 - the talks operating on a five-year cycle of decision then implementation).

Truly essential

It had been hoped the formal talks would start with some agreement on that. It hasn't happened, not yet anyway.  And that aviation and maritime meeting, even though not part of the main agenda, with jam-packed, with three times as many people in the room as seats. And almost no one left despite the rising heat.

One of the key events of day one of COP was the International Meterological Organization announcement of its latest climate calculations - and they were all bad news. It said 2017 is set to be the third-warmest on record (higher than had been expected after the end of the El Nino weather phenomenon, which has lifted temperatures in the last couple of years).

The report is of rising sea levels, a shrinking cryosphere and between 2000 and 2016 the number of people vulnerable to extreme heatwaves rising by 125 million. 

In the division of urgency between the states and the campaigners, there's no doubt on which side the scientists are on. And that should be taken as a clear and urgent message for the states.

Listen to the campaigners, and the scientists, and bridge that urgency gap. It is truly essential you do it now. A few years' time is too late.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is the former co-leader of the Green party. She is in Bonn with the Green Economics Institute. She tweets at @natalieben



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