Saudi Arabia blocks drive to tighten global warming cap

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Copyright: Flickr/SustainUS

Speed read

  • A move to also consider a 1.5 degree Celsius global warming cap was rejected
  • The axed draft text also called for funding of research on ‘acceptable’ warming
  • Saudi Arabia cited a protocol breach, but others suspect economic self-interest

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[BONN] Saudi Arabia has blocked attempts to negotiate an even tougher global warming target to prevent dangerous climate change — as well as proposals for more research on this — during the latest talks in preparation of the UN’s next major climate summit.

The majority of delegates at last week’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Bonn supported a draft proposal to keep an alternative target on the negotiating table of capping global warming since pre-industrial levels at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The existing target, agreed at the UN’s 2010 Cancun summit, aims to limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, but it also considered lowering that maximum to 1.5 degrees “in the near future”.

“This sends very bad signals and makes it very difficult to get the issue back on the agenda.”

Sven Harmeling, CARE

A pre-negotiation draft agreement from Bonn also called for more funding for scientists to produce the data policymakers need to judge where an acceptable limit for global warming may lie.

But amid profound frustration, Saudi Arabia, the world’s second largest oil producer, refused the text, consigning it and a week of meetings on the subject to the bureaucratic dustbin. The negotiation rules state that all countries must agree for the target to be validated.

“This is highly concerning,” said Sven Harmeling, the climate change advocacy coordinator of aid agency CARE. “This sends very bad signals and makes it very difficult to get the issue back on the agenda.”

Discussions centred on a UN-commissioned scientific review that lays out the facts for assessing what is an acceptable temperature limit. The participants agreed that a world that is on average two degrees warmer will be considerably more hostile to life, with the greatest burden felt by the poorest communities.

For instance, in such a scenario, Africa’s average temperature would increase by more than three degrees Celsius.

The report goes on to say that all efforts must be made to stay as far below this level as possible, a statement that many parties took as an endorsement of a 1.5 degree target.

But in Bonn, Saudi Arabia refused to back the target. The Saudi Arabian delegation said that by endorsing the 1.5 degree target and calling for more science around its feasibility, negotiators implied that the two degree target was inadequate, which breaks negotiation protocols.

Expressing their frustration under condition of anonymity, other delegates rejected this argument, saying the move was based on economic self-interest.

Meeting the two degree target would already require 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground. A more stringent goal would increase this figure, forcing Saudi Arabia to leave much of its oil, which powers the country’s economy, untouched.

Supporters of the 1.5 degree target had hoped that the Bonn conference would end with a firm set of recommendations that could act as an official springboard for the COP 21 talks on tackling climate change in Paris this December. Now they will have to navigate a labyrinth of UN procedure to see how else they can get the issue back on the agenda, Harmeling said.

Observers at the meeting tried to stay upbeat about the negotiations, despite an official call for more research being off the table for now. Pam Pearson, the director of the non-profit International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, said that, while a UNFCCC request to investigate the 1.5 degree scenario would have focused scientific activities, the community is already well aware of the issue and much of the data already exists.