FSM and Sweden Host Side-Event on Tipping Points at COP14 in Poland
Poznan, Poland (FSM Permanent Mission to the UN): December 17, 2008 - The mood of the evening was one of optimism, despite the focus on "tipping points" as they are called in the world of climate negotiations. The delegations of the Federated States of Micronesia and Sweden hosted the side-event titled "The Value of Fast-track mitigation: More Innovation, Fewer Tipping Points!" on December 9 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 14, held this year from December 1-12, 2008 in Poznan, Poland. Mr. Andrew Yatilman, Director of the Office of Environment and Emergency Management for the Federated States of Micronesia, made opening remarks. He called upon a number of experts on tipping points and solutions, and fast-action strategies for mitigation. With introductions made by Mr. Durwood Zaelke, President and founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, this COP side-event provided an informative overview of options for early mitigation and the avoidance of tipping points in climate change.
Dr. Hermann Held of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research in Germany defined the "tipping element" as something for which an additional amount of global warming could make a significant difference in forcing an abrupt response of a system or in causing a delayed response. The significance of this idea is that a small increase in warming could make a huge difference in certain sub-continental scale regions, as each tipping point has its own threshold in temperature rise. The preeminent and most sensitive global tipping points are 1) Arctic sea ice loss, 2) the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and 3) the effects of black carbon on these areas and the Tibetan Plateau. The first two events are occurring at a much faster rate than Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models have predicted. The latest IPCC report relied heavily on climate models that were simple and conservative and vastly underestimated the sea level rise that will in turn affect Small Island States such as the islands and atolls of Micronesia. Dr. Held proceeded to explain that even if we froze CO2 concentrations at their current levels and removed cooling emissions from aerosols, we already "committed" ourselves to a certain amount of warming; one-third to one-fourth of CO2 would remain in the atmosphere, while the rest would be removed by natural processes.
The next part of the presentation handed us some better news for mitigation options to rising atmospheric CO2 emissions. Black carbon is a major contributor to climate forcing, as it acts to absorb heat from above and contributes to warming when it is washed out into snow and ice. It changes reflectivity and speeds the melting of ice and snow, and thus, is particularly problematic at high altitudes and latitudes. Black carbon can be 2-3 times as effective in its warming capacity, and its effect on albedo could be 25% of our observed global warming. This is particularly troubling when considered in terms of its contribution to warming on the Tibetan Plateau, which is host to the headwaters of every major river in Asia, potentially leading to climate-induced famine on one billion people. However, the beneficial side of black carbon is that we can reduce its effects through improved transport and improved cook stoves. The essential message on black carbon is that it only remains in the atmosphere for 1-4 weeks, as opposed to CO2 which has potential to linger for centuries. Therefore, we can achieve instantaneous cooling by reducing black carbon on a local and regional level.
The next speaker was Mr. Marco Gonzalez, Executive Secretary of the Ozone Secretariat at the United Nations Environment Program. He emphasized the importance of learning from the success of the Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol. It is also important to note that the Montreal Protocol contributed to reductions in emissions of CO2 equivalents, which would have accumulated to twice their current level by now, had it not been for the implementation of this treaty. In 2007, a decision was made under the Kyoto Protocol to currently accelerate the phase-out of another greenhouse gas, the HCFC, which was produced as a substitute to CFCs, but which has been found to harbor global warming potential.
Ms. Ashley King, Co-director of the Secretariat of the Methane to Markets Partnership spoke next about the capture and destruction of methane as a "quick-fix" of sorts. Methane is a relatively short-lived gas with an atmospheric lifetime of about twelve years, but responsible for approximately 18% of total radiative climate forcing. She estimated that it is currently the second most important GHG, contributing to one-third of CO2 global emissions. It is projected to increase by 23% due to growth in the developing world by 2020. It is derived primarily from oil and gas, followed by sourcing from landfills, wastewater, and finally agricultural sources. The good news about methane is that there are opportunities to achieve reductions quickly with great co-benefits in improved air quality. Methane reductions have widespread benefits, as its capture can reduce VOC exposures and decrease mortality rates. It can also be used a source of clean energy. If countries can make it available for local energy purposes, it can be used to strengthen energy security, which they can also do cheaply as long as there is no official price on carbon.
Lastly, Dr. Peter Read, Honorary Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand, began by pointing out that under the Montreal Protocol, there was never a price assigned to reducing CFCs which are pollutants, whereas we have decided to control CO2 (not a pollutant) with a price. Dr Read, the lead author on the Land Use/Land Use Change in Forestry section of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, turned our attention toward a practice that raises the soil organic carbon and productivity through biochar soil amendment. Biochar is long-lived ground-up charcoal made from pyrholizing biotic waste materials and treating them with organic waste (such as mulch heaps and sewage ponds) to produce long-lived fertilizer for soils. It is a low-technology alternative for emissions reductions that can enrich soils while putting CO2 back into permanent storage in the earth. Carbon content in these soils can be up to seven times as high as the carbon content of surrounding soils. This process can make soil nitrogen more available to plants for uptake and also reduce emissions of nitrous oxides and reduce soil depletion. This technology is scalable and thus has a context in developing countries.
Mr. Yatilman concluded the evening by reconfirming FSM's commitment to the UNFCCC process and the Kyoto Protocol. He reiterated that the future and livelihood of small island people depends upon the success of these two conventions. He acknowledged the frustration that is encountered by many SIDS and LDCs while trying to generate the political will that is necessary in order to move parties forward on these negotiations. He cautioned that we need to learn more and educate others about tipping points and about potential fast-action mitigation strategies. This way, countries can start to make progress while working to amass political will for the crucial negotiations at next year's COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark.