The UN Climate COP’s are not succeeding in solving the longterm problem of overshooting our Paris climate commitments. This episode focuses on the emerging voices that are defining the overshoot agenda.
View here on Youtube: https://youtu.be/5gm2jmNbhVU
Transcript / Article text
Almost as soon as I arrived in Egypt for the second week of COP27, the first thing I heard was that efforts were being made within the negotiations to weaken the language around limiting mean global warming to 1.5ºC. I heard Professor Katharine Hayhoe making the case for not altering the language on one of the live web streams, so when we met I asked her why the 1.5 boundary cannot be adjusted:
‘There’s been a lot of discussion about exactly that all week, because we’re getting closer and closer to the threshold that’s needed to reduce emissions to a level that can ensure that we meet that goal. And as many businesses and organisations say, just signed a statement to this effect, it is a limit, not a goal, we don’t want to go beyond it, we want to be below it.’
Katharine went on to say that if we change the limit to 2ºC then we are demonstrably reducing our will to do everything we can to halt greenhouse gas emissions. The framing of the narrative is complex and there are forces influencing, in a nuanced way, how we talk about it and what we should do about it.
Overshoot is the new narrative
I first heard the term overshoot in Cambridge, UK,in 2018 when the American Environmentalist, Rafe Pomerance, explained:
“Well, what’s overshoot? Overshoot means that the [climate] model is telling you you can’t keep it at 1.5ºC. You can limit the system to 1.7ºC or 1.8ºC and then you come down because of your massive carbon removal… You go past the limit and then you come down.
So, an exceedance of 1.5 is not seen as an exceedance. It’s called overshoot. The idea is, well we can overshoot but we’re still at 1.5ºC, or we appear to be, or it’s okay.
Well, another way to say it is that we’re exceeding 1.5ºC, we’re at 1.8ºC, then we can bring it down, but they kind of left the impression that overshoot is part of the strategy… it’s the language, this is a language problem.”
I would argue that overshoot is more than a language problem. It is also a social, political and scientific problem. At COP27 this became very apparent with the emergence into plain sight of the Overshoot Commission, an offshoot of the Paris Peace Forum instigated by current President Pascal Lamy.
Lamy set out in a couple of presentations while the COP was running, to outline why at the end of his life he was choosing the overshoot problem as a legacy project. Lamy has previously held such prestigious career positions as EU trade Commissioner and Secretary General of the World Trade Organisation. Considering the top down perspectives that these roles engender, Lamy strangely had very little awareness of the urgency of the climate problem when he was at the peak of his career.
In one panel discussion Lamy stated, “It wasn’t that urgent when I was twenty years younger. It is becoming extremely urgent and this is why I have accepted to spend time with people we’ve gathered and who a priori share this view that we have to relook at that.”
It is not news that emissions are still rising and the COP process has not been able to change our increasingly dangerous trajectory. Emissions reduction, or mitigation, has been at the core of scientific advice since the 1980’s and becoming much more mainstream in the 1990’s with the Rio Earth Summit in ’92, COP1 in Berlin in ’95, and Kyoto protocol accepted in ’97, and so on into the new century. Despite this, the world has not changed course.
This ignorance with regard to scientific warnings has led us to the calamitous global climate chaos we are already experiencing at 1.1ºC. It is no longer a future issue, it is a now issue. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2022 makes it clear that there is “no credible pathway to 1.5ºC” unless there is a “rapid transformation of societies”.
Everybody agrees with what the solution is but no one is contemplating mitigation. Even Lamy stated at the beginning of the Overshoot Commission discussion on the French Pavilion, “Mitigation of course remains the number one avenue and there is no discussion about this.” Surely this is exactly the discussion we should be having?
Overshoot means mass death
It is critical that we focus on whether we can achieve a rapid transformation of our societies to drastically reduce emissions. At 1.1ºC we are already seeing mass suffering and destruction. 1.5ºC is still looking far too dangerous for humanity and for global ecology in general. Going up over 2ºC, I am told by glaciologists, is another planet where irreversible feedbacks are triggered that amplify climate chaos. This is the land of overshoot.
This point was more eloquently made by Katharine Hayhoe when she stated,
“If we scientists are to set a target, our target will be zero. The reason it is not zero is because there’s no magic switch to turn everything off. We also know, and the science is clear, that every bit of warming matters.”
An additional frequent voice at the COP’s is Bangladeshi climate scientist, Dr Saleemul Huq. Saleem was in a brighter mood with the progress being made by Loss and Damage at this COP, that resulted in a funding mechanism being agreed. This was an unforeseen outcome. However, Loss and Damage is exactly what overshoot commits us to on a much greater global scale. The two are intrinsically linked. Saleem pushed back hard against changing the language of the 1.5ºC goal:
“So the ability of the global community to stay below 1.5, which we’ve all promised to do collectively in the Paris Agreement, becomes more and more difficult by the day and there is an attempt by some countries to try and give up on the goal. We certainly do not want to do that. The vulnerable developing countries want to stick to the goal, we all agreed to do it.”
As Rafe Pomerance stated, overshoot is definitely “a language problem” but this is because the language defines the international agreements, even when they are non-binding. We definitely need tighter language, as well as a tougher approach to implementing what is in the agreements.
The language has consequences
The language of climate science is clear, we need a rapid transformation of our societies. When I spoke to Blessing Manale from the South African Climate Commission, he outlined South Africa’s plans to decarbonise away from 85% coal dependency. South Africa is a nation with a wide range of social and political issues, not least regarding poverty but the plan is sincere and ambitious. It seeks to tackle the bulk of the emissions in the near-term whilst managing the social problems like re-skilling and relocating workers where necessary over a longer period.
South Africa is also a nation on the frontlines of the climate emergency. Droughts, cyclones and floods are becoming more intense. When I spoke to Blessing Manale, he said,
“…one of the things we presented was our study on the Kwazulu-Natal floods. We are seeing that they are going to be continuing. We are anticipating more drought and we have now even got a commissioner appointed by the President for the agricultural sector because… we are not expecting things to get better.… some of the cyclones will be changing… we will no more be shielded by Madagascar in South Africa. We are anticipating in 3 or 4 years that Port Saint Johns, some of the beaches on the East coast, will start to be hit.”
I asked Blessing what he thought about the efforts to change the goals set out in the Paris Agreement around 1.5ºC. He was emphatic that we must keep 1.5ºC alive and not give up before we have even started:
“Once you start saying that we might overshoot the target people are going to say, well we have lost it anyway. We don’t want to go back to the days where the target keeps on moving. We are very far from Kyoto… anything outside the science that is influenced by nationalistic economic interests or ideology would not help society and [future] generations.
So we will continue to say, let’s keep the target alive and work towards it and where we miss it we cannot blank it. We have to be able to explain to our conscience that it happened as a result of external forces that we could not account for…”
Prescribed action on Overshoot
Taking the required action is now urgent, even by Pascal Lamy’s judgement. But what is the required action? What does transformation of society actually mean? Everyone seems to be saying it means mitigation, hard and fast, however, what if we miss it anyway?
This is where the Overshoot Commission step in. The commission is preparing a report to be delivered in 2023 that it hopes will catch the attention of the most powerful in society and persuade them to consider a new suite of research proposals. We don’t know what they are yet but we do have a flavour. In Lamy’s own words going beyond mitigation, “.. we have to relook at the three other ones which is adaptation, carbon removal and geoengineering/solar radiation modification.” He goes on:
“This commission has as a purpose to table new recommendations given that what happens between 1.5ºC and 2ºC is quite dramatic, new proposals to better handle adaptation, move up carbon removal, and look at the science and governance part of geoengineering, so that … we believe, we should leave no stone unturned. That is the purpose of the commission.”
The Commission has many former world leaders and eminent diplomats among its advisory board. Short serving Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell was on stage with Lamy when he introduced the Commission at the COP. The objective appears to be to use people of influence to make the recommendations put forward by the commission carry more weight, in a scenario where advancing climate engineering is deemed necessary.
The executive secretary of the commission is Dr Jesse Reynolds, a global expert in geoengineering governance. In the audience at the event were many prominent people within the geoengineering space. These are overt clues as to the direction that the group is moving in.
With regard to moving beyond the research stage, to possible deployment of climate engineering interventions, I asked Arizona State University Law Professor Dan Bodansky which organisations he thought would be involved in the processes of governance:
“…the only existing institution that can address it is the Security Council because the Security Council actually does have decision making authority… So, to the extent we may need climate interventions in the countries thinking about going ahead, then I think that the UN General Assembly and Security Council would be the forums where you would try to use it.”
This is perhaps why we urgently need a far wider discussion around what transformation of our societies actually means. Public opinion has moved a great deal on the climate emergency issue and if clear Marshall Plan-style proposals were presented to the public, we might find that the majority of people are prepared to attempt a much greater collective emissions reduction effort. The problem here is that we are still not seeing these plans and the forum for discussion are vague.
The Overshoot Commission is right to take on the problem but the bias does appear to be more in technological research rather than the elusive collective strategy of radical emissions reduction.
The road ahead
COP27 appears to have brought the concept of overshoot into the wider public discourse but this discussion must be expanded further. Should the people who admit that they did not notice the warnings being issued by scientists whilst they were serving in the highest offices, be leaving us their geoengineering proposals as a their departing legacy?
Whatever we hope for the new year, one thing we can be sure of in 2023 is that adaptation, resilience and geoengineering are going to be part of the wider environmental discussion. It is vitally important that the public are part of it too.