For I am responsible, like you for the mandate that was given to show commitment to reaching an agreement for the aim of keeping to the 2°C target… because global warming above that level could seriously affect the balance of our planet.

François Hollande, President of France, at the Paris Climate Conference

“It sometimes seems that countries of the UN can unite on nothing…but today, nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. The human race has joined in a common cause.”

Kumi Naidoo – former IED, Green Peace International

Climate Literacy

Climate Science is a seemingly complex area,  and underlies any understanding of the functioning of the earth’s climate system as well as the effects of natural and human activity on the climate. Climate awareness is now imperative as the earth’s average surface temperature has risen progressively since records began to be taken in the 19th century.  The rise is primarily due to the effects on the planet of continuous emissions into the environment of greenhouse gases (GHGs), including carbon dioxide and other pollutants. The consequences of global warming are myriad, and include rising sea levels due to melting polar ice caps, and increases in the frequency and severity of global weather incidents. The changes occasioned by global warming have led to the global Climate Change discourse.

Global response to Climate Change - The UN Framework (Since 1997)

The pace for global climate change counteraction has been set by the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention gave rise to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (KP) at its third Conference of Parties (COP), and both treaties aim to stabilise global GHG concentrations to a level that limits anthropogenic (human-induced) effects on the world’s climate system. While the UNFCCC merely encouraged nations to work towards reducing climate change effects, KP actually commits industrialised nations to begin this work.

KP for its first commitment period bound 37 industrialised countries and the European Community to emissions reduction targets that would on average reduce GHG emissions by 5% from 1990 levels over a 5-year period (2008 – 2012). The second commitment period of 2013- 2020 was for reduction of emissions by at least 18% below 1990 levels.

KP did not sideline developing countries as its mechanisms provide for financial commitments towards supply of technology. For instance, the Adaptation Fund is a project by KP parties to finance climate change adaptation projects in developing countries that are also parties to KP. Furthermore, in attaining emissions reduction targets, the industrialised countries can, through KP’s Clean Development Mechanism, receive credits for GHG abatement efforts occurring offshore, e.g. in a developing country. Also, emissions trading between countries is provided for, whereby countries with excess capacity can sell emissions units to countries not meeting their Kyoto targets.

Where We Are Today – The Paris Agreement (COP 21)

By 2010, and in continuing towards any likelihood of limiting global warming, COP 16 in Cancun committed to a goal of limiting global average temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and also agreed to consider a 1.5°C maximum in the near future. Establishment of a Green Climate Fund was also agreed, which would finance activities in developing countries. A year later in Durban, COP 17 decided that a universal legal agreement on climate change needed to be adopted no later than 2015.

COP 21 reached a landmark agreement in Paris on 12 December 2015, establishing a new treaty that, among other things, ends the strict differentiation between developed and developing nations by establishing a common framework for all countries to put forward best efforts (i.e. nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) towards addressing climate change. For the first time, all parties will report regularly on their emissions and other implementation efforts, as well as undergo international review. The $100 billion a year by 2020 funding for developing countries is also extended up to 2025, with commitment towards a higher goal for the period after 2025. The Paris Agreement becomes legally binding once ratified by at least 55 countries representing up to 55% of global GHG emissions. Ratification is to take place between 22 April 2016 and 21 April 2017. Kumi Naidoo, formerly of Green Peace International, said on what he thought of the agreement: “It sometimes seems that countries of the UN can unite on nothing…but today, nearly 200 countries have come together and agreed a deal. The human race has joined in a common cause.”

Back to the Basics – Understanding the Science

The far-reaching effects of global warming are well known to include increased weather disasters and food insecurity, among other consequences. Climate change must therefore be stalled, and then a reversal must take place if a sustainable future will be guaranteed for future generations. In 2007, the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, described climate change as “the defining challenge of our age”. There is a need to enhance climate literacy, towards engendering a better understanding of the climate system so that we can be better equipped to effectively diminish the effects of climate change.

This background introduces our series on Climate Change Literacy. The series will cover matters such as an overview of the climate system; natural vs anthropogenic impacts on the climate system; taxation and fiscal policy impacts, and the effects of climate change on human life, among other subject areas.