Impressions from COP22: Was this the ‘COP of action’?

To many, this year’s UN Conference on Climate Change in Marrakech, was a chance to start turning carbon emissions agreements into tangible actions to combat climate change. In this guest blog post, University of Sheffield PhD student Rachael Treharne shares her insights from COP22, and considers the place of ecosystems in the path to sustainability.

Find out more about the Grantham Centre at COP22

Rachael Treharne
Rachael Treharne

The COP22 UN climate negotiations drew to a close in Marrakech on Friday. Following the huge diplomatic success of the Paris Agreement on climate change, delivered at COP21 last December, COP22 was widely anticipated as a ‘COP of action’. It was hoped that here, discussions would move from negotiations to action for the first time, filling in the detail of the framework created by the Paris Agreement to create a complete set of strategies, rules and guidance.

I’ve been in Marrakech for the past two weeks with BirdLife International, with whom I’m completing an internship supporting their Climate Change Programme. BirdLife is the world’s biggest conservation partnership, supporting and representing 120 national NGOs.

BirdLife have been advocating for a Paris Agreement rule book that safeguards ecosystems, biodiversity and livelihoods, as well as maximising the potential for ambitious emissions reductions. In addition to shaping many of the technical aspects of the agreement, this relates to the overriding goal of the Paris Agreement – to pursue efforts to hold global average temperature increase to 1.5C. In a world that has already warmed by nearly 1?C, this is a remarkable aim. One consequence of the rapidly closing window of opportunity to meet this target is a growing focus on ‘negative emissions’, or future active reduction of atmospheric CO2.

The most high profile proposal for achieving this is BECCS, or Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, which relies on large-scale, afforestation for CO2 drawdown, harvesting for bioenergy, and capture and belowground storage of the resulting emissions. Almost all of the scenarios for keeping to the pre-Paris target of 2?C developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rely to some degree on BECCS.

BECCS is a tempting answer to the enormous social and political challenge of immediate, dramatic emissions reductions. However it is a contentious issue, both at COP22 and in the broader research and policy communities. BECCS is untested at a commercial scale, but if implemented would likely have far-reaching impacts on biodiversity, ecosystems, and food security. The area of productive land for biomass production required to implement BECCS at the scale referenced in the IPCC scenarios ranges from 100 million to almost 3000 million hectares – up to twice the world’s currently cultivated land.

One alternative to BECCS is to promote carbon drawdown in natural sinks such as forests and wetlands. Restoring degraded ecosystems removes CO2 from the atmosphere and locks it away as a carbon stock. The opportunity to exploit this process is limited as there is only so much degraded land available for restoration. Nonetheless, there is huge potential for rapid results on a significant scale. A Stockholm Environment Institute report estimates that carbon drawdown through restoration and other ecosystem based approaches could meet negative emissions needs of more than a third of scenarios consistent with a 1.5?C target, and more than half of 2?C scenarios. Crucially, conserving ecosystems to mitigate climate change can also provide added benefits to people, simultaneously protecting biodiversity, ecosystem services and local livelihoods.

At COP22 many NGOs called strongly for increased investment in ecosystem-based solutions. Together with Rainforest Foundation Norway and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), BirdLife co-convened ‘Sustainable Landscapes: the role of land use and forests in delivering on the Paris Agreement’, an official side event delivered on the Saturday. Moderated by BirdLife Global Climate Change Coordinator Edward Perry, the event outlined the case for ecosystem restoration as an alternative to negative emissions technologies. This was followed by a practical consideration of ‘on the ground’ best practice from Ana Cecilia Conde Alvarez, General Coordinator of Climate Change Adaptation at The Mexican National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, and an insight into the process of local level implementation from Damayanti Buchori and Bonie Dewantara of ZSL Indonesia and Muallimah Gustini from the Indonesian Government. All speakers contributed to a panel discussion, responding to questions and comments from an audience of nearly 150.

Other events and panel discussions also emphasised the role of ecosystem-based approaches in tackling climate change throughout the conference. In response, there has been positive engagement from both civil society and policy makers, who recognise the potential of ecosystem based approaches to deliver rapid, cost-effective and multi-faceted benefits. On Wednesday, I saw several statements from ministers in the so-called ‘high-level’ segment of the COP highlighting the importance of enhancing forests and other natural sinks. In some cases promising commitments were made: countries including Germany and Australia pledged significant funding to support developing countries in delivering mitigation and adaptation through agriculture and forestry.

The extent to which this drive will translate to implementation remains to be seen. A key next step will be to convert the interest of policy makers into concrete targets: several speakers at COP22 stated that more than 100 country pledges to address climate change now reference the role of ecosystems in mitigation and adaption, but only eight go on to outline targets for implementing these approaches. Nonetheless, in the midst of slow progress on many central aspects of the Paris Agreement, it is exciting to see a drive to push forwards solutions which can rapidly tackle atmospheric CO2 as well as protect communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Rachael Treharne is a PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, studying the combined impacts of climate change and pollution on Arctic ecosystems as part of the ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership. She is currently completing an internship at BirdLife International and is co-chair of the University of Sheffield’s Carbon Neutral University network.