From John Lanchbery RSPB Climate Change Principal Policy Officer
For the last two weeks I have been at the UN climate talks in Bonn – known in the jargon as COP 23. It is the first COP with a small island country as president: Fiji. Unfortunately the meeting could not be held in Fiji simply because it is too small to house the tens of thousands of people who come to these meetings nowadays and it is a very long way to go for the rest of the World. The RSPB (Sarah Nelson and I) have been here with BirdLife Partners Siteri from Nature Fiji, David from SEO in Spain, Ed from the BirdLife Secretariat (who is from New Zealand) and a lot of people from NABU, our German Partner, led by Olaf their President.
The venue was centred on the old West German Parliament building down by the Rhine, surrounded by a huge new conference centre with vast conference rooms which was, in turn, surrounded by enormous tented camps in which countries had their national “pavilions” and where lectures and other events are held.
In spite of a great deal of activity on the fringes, progress in the main event (the UN climate talks!) was disappointingly slow. Since the highly successful Paris COP two years ago, nations have meant to be preparing for the first formal meeting of the Paris Agreement at the end of next year – ironically to be held in the small coal-mining town of Catowice in the Silesian coal fields of southern Poland. Yet countries are nowhere near finishing the work mandated by their heads of government in Paris - in spite of twenty five heads of government being here in Bonn, including Chancellor Merkel and President Macron.
In Catowice, nations will review where we are in terms of limiting warming to 1.5C in light of a new report by the UN’s climate science body – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC will inevitably find that we are miles off course and that countries will need to strengthen their emission reduction targets dramatically. To do this, countries will need to use the rule book on carbon reporting and accounting, which is what they should have been preparing here but have not. 2018 looks like being a pretty intensive year.
On the more positive side. The mood here has been good – helped a lot by Fiji being a happy and inclusive president. Also, America has engaged constructively – with the same core bunch of people who came for the Obama Administration. They working on the basis that they comply with the latest instructions given to them by the Administration and the most recent instructions were from Obama. Having said that, the “US minister” who is definitely from the Trump Administration was also conciliatory in her speech. Surprising but good.
Another positive thing was that us Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been pushing hard on what we call “natural solutions” to climate change. For a few years now we have been banging on about the dangers of the so-called negative emissions technologies used in almost all climate scenario models to go to 1.5C. We have now turned positive by proposing natural solutions instead: conserving and enhancing natural carbon sinks and reservoirs, such as forests and peatlands. We have always said this but we now have far more science-based numbers to back us up, thanks most recently to a paper in the Proceedings of American Academies of Science, led by the Nature Conservancy in the USA. Some of us have worked up a Climate Action Network position on the subject which, if successful, will represent 1,200 NGOs Worldwide, including not just the big environmental groups but the development groups too.
I gave talks at a lot of events mainly, but not exclusively, on natural solutions. These included two talks with the Convention on Biodiversity and IUCN, one with the Convention on Migratory Species (with Ed and Sebastian from NABU on planning for renewables), one with WWF and WCS of forests (Trillion Trees), one with Climate Action Network International and one on the harm done to Caribbean UK Overseas Territories by hurricane Irma (written entirely by Lyndon John our Caribbean UKOTs officer base in St Lucia).
Onwards and upwards.
UNFCCC COP kicked off this week. John Lanchbery our Principal Policy Officer reports on the activities from the first couple of days….
The climate COP in Bonn started as all COPs do for environment and development groups - with a six-hour strategy session on Sunday afternoon. We had a very good turnout for the session on agriculture, forestry and other land use – getting on for 50 people which must be a record. My co-chair (Teresa from Action Aid) and I were delighted.
On Monday, as the Fijian COP started, Siteri from Nature Fiji arrived looking very much the Pacific Islander complete with a Jacaranda flower in her hair. (Nature Fiji is the Fijian BirdLife Partner.) This is Siteria’s first COP and we were delighted to be able to help facilitate her to attend – her presence not only increases our impact as BirdLife at this meeting but also helps build the capacity of our smaller BirdLife partners - a vital tool in helping us to achieve our International ambitions. I briefed Siteri on how COPs work, insofar as one can outline such a complex process.
We then went to our first side event on nature-based solutions to climate change run by the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), the IUCN and other wildlife folk. I gave a talk on how we should conserve and enhance natural sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases to help reach the Paris Agreement goal (such as preserving areas of tropical rainforest, like Gola Rainforest) rather than using suspect and often downright dodgy geo-engineering “solutions” such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage. It predictably went down well with the IUCN and especially the CBD, who have been concerned about the dangers of geo-engineering for many years.
Spent a quiet but very long evening writing a Climate Action Network (CAN) position on nature-based solutions which I am doing with Christoph Thies from Greenpeace Germany who follows both the climate talks and the CBD. We will present out thoughts to the rest of CAN on Wednesday afternoon. Producing joint positions to present to Governments, which provide a clear and consistent message from all of the key NGOs, really helps us achieve the most impact.
Up in pitch darkness on Tuesday for the daily CAN coordination meeting and then off to a huge tented camp down by the Rhine where most side events are being held. (A side event is anything that is not part of the formal UN process). Siteri joined me there, complete with the Jacaranda flower, and we went to our RSPB side event in the UK Government Pavilion.
Our event was on building climate resilience in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) following Hurricane Irma. It went down very well. I can say that because Lyndon John, the RSPB’s UKOTs officer in St Lucia, wrote all of it. We had some good questions, especially from a Mexican lady on the extent to which small island states can cope with emergencies. Siteri chipped in with experiences in Fiji of their recent cyclone – having someone at the event who had been personally been affected by such extreme weather events, really helped bring the importance of this issue to life.
Had a late lunch and moved on to the WWF Pavilion, for our Trillion Trees event with WWF and WCS. I was on a panel with a very nice bloke from Tanzania, two Columbians and a German, who is sponsoring Trillion Trees. I did natural solutions to climate change again but with a slightly different spin. Again, all went well with a full house and lots of questions.
Finished the day in the Fijian Pavilion with Siteri drinking cassava wine from coconut shells - as is traditional in Germany.
Do follow our blogs as negotiations progress and we will keep you updated on how we get on….
A changing climate is one of the greatest threats to our wildlife, and we’re already seeing effects in Europe. A couple of weeks ago scientists confirmed that it is possible to achieve the ambitious aim, set in the Paris Agreement, of holding temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. But we’ll need faster and deeper emissions cuts than countries have so far promised, as the UN warned yesterday.
The UK is far from alone in needing to do far more in the near future. Only recently, the Prime Minister used a speech in Canada to make a welcome re-commitment to phasing out unabated coal power by 2025 (this pledge has been under consultation in recent months). As long as this coal isn’t all replaced by dirty biomass then it is to be warmly welcomed.
But make no mistake, getting rid of our dirtiest source of electricity is low-hanging fruit compared to what the UK will need to do in the coming decade. Coal plant are becoming uneconomical thanks to the UK’s price on carbon. And renewable energy is getting cheaper faster than anyone expected. Earlier this autumn we learned that the cost of offshore wind has halved compared to two years ago (see a blog by my colleague Melanie Coath here). This is great news, but as we’ve set out in our Energy Vision reports care is needed to make sure these developments are put in places where they won’t harm wildlife.
The surface transport sector, on the other hand, is a much harder nut to crack, not least because we’ve already wasted a number of years chasing after false solutions. The EU’s and UK’s renewable transport targets have driven the use of environmentally damaging biofuels. While the UK may be leaving the EU, it recently it announced plans to continue support for biofuels to at least 2032, plans that it reaffirmed in the new Clean Growth Strategy.
The most damaging types of biofuels are those made from crops (food crops like oil palm, wheat, maize, or energy crops like miscanthus). This is because they put pressure on land (directly where they’re grown or indirectly by displacing other crops). This pressure can mean the loss of important habitat for wildlife and the release of emissions (such as through forests being turned into cropland). In fact some biofuels are more polluting than petrol or diesel.
The RSPB has a long history of working on biofuels, and experience in fighting off environmentally damaging proposals, such as working with Nature Kenya to fight a biofuel plantation that could have destroyed important woodland habitat.
At present 3% of UK vehicle fuel is comprised of biofuels. The plan is for this to reach up to 9.75% by 2020 and rise to over 12% by 2032. There will be an upper limit on the contribution of biofuels made from crops. They will be allowed to make up at most 4% of UK fuels in 2020 and 2% by 2032.
We’ve never believed that a target for fuel volume is the best mechanism for cutting emissions from transport. Instead, a target for emissions reductions from the sector would be more effective. The volume target has simply driven significant use of unsustainable biofuels, particularly in other EU countries.
The UK currently uses large quantities of biofuels made from wastes, such as used cooking oil, which is good as they can provide emissions reductions and be sustainable. But the 4% cap on crop-based biofuels (which currently make up around 1% of all UK fuels) could still allow a quadrupling of their contribution. These may seem like small numbers but the volume of fuel used in the UK is large enough that this could have significant environmental impacts. Instead crop-based biofuels need to be phased out completely by 2030 at the latest.
Reducing emissions from the surface transport sector is possible through an aggressive programme of policies focussed on reducing demand and encouraging people to walk and cycle more and to choose electric vehicles. A number of car companies have announced plans in recent weeks to phase out the sale of fossil fuel vehicles. They have overtaken the UK Government, which has set itself a target date of 2040. In order to drive change that may not happen otherwise a target date of 2030 would be far more effective and ambitious.
By setting out this new biofuel ambition in the Clean Growth Strategy and separate publications, the Government seems committed to it. But perhaps greater support for electric vehicles could reduce or even remove the need for potentially harmful biofuels.