Climate Action: Short-term work for a long-term goal

The Conference of Parties (COP), a yearly meeting of countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will be on its 21st year of negotiations on December. If Paris will be a success, it will be bound by law and no careless action will be left without consequence.

On its 16th year in Cancun, countries agreed to a long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to keep global warming below 2°C based on pre-industrial levels. We have so far warmed by 0.8°C.

However, 5 years after, much has changed. In between and during negotiations, catastrophic events have happened and many countries are now calling for a 1.5°C target. From a simple reduction of GHG emissions, it is also considering a zero-emission target by 2050. The COP has realized it needs and it can be more ambitious.

But does the COP really need to define what it wants to do 35 years from now? And what about climate change impacts? Isn’t it happening too fast that we need to address it now and not far into the future?

While some would say that having long-term goals have only caused countries to slack around, having a long-term goal is important just as much as we need short-term actions. They go hand-in-hand. There can be no one without the other. A long-term goal is important to remind us where we want to go. It serves as our end destination, the dream we have. It reminds us what we are working for and why we are working hard for it. It gives us reason to move forward, amidst short-term failures.

It is in this same way that short-term actions are necessary. Sometimes, a long-term goal may seem too far and may frustrate us. As humans we like to feel little successes, to know we are still on the right track, doing the right thing. It ensures that what we are doing today ultimately leads us to where we want to be.

If the long-term goal is our end destination, short-term ambitions are our road maps to get there.
In terms of the COP, if our long-term goal is to have a carbon-free economy by 2050, we need to have short-term actions that ensure we get there little by little. Therefore, all countries’ commitments, which can be seen through their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), should have in mind this long-term goal. However, targets are currently falling short. Many countries have submitted unambitious targets and by the rate we are going, the world is likely to warm above 2°C.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), if we are to at least have a 50% chance of staying within the 2°C target, countries need to limit carbon emissions to 36 billion tons. However, according to the London School of Economics and Political Science, INDC’s submitted as of July 2015 “would lead to annual global emissions in 2030 of 56.9 to 59.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide…” This is much higher than what the UNEP says our targets should be.
Seeing that our short-term actions do not yet complement our long-term goals, there is now a greater need for a “ratchet mechanism” where commitments are reviewed every so often and new commitments are made. This is where the 5 year cycles come in. Through the 5 year cycles, countries are made to commit more, every few years, towards the long-term goal of a zero carbon economy. And the commitments need to progress, no backsliding. Our short-term actions, therefore, only strengthen over time.
But this also doesn’t mean that setting very low targets today is acceptable. Countries also need to see the urgency of having ambitious commitments as a good foundation for the years to come. Because climate impacts are happening at a very fast pace, we need to be able to adapt just as fast.
Through both a long-term goal and short-term actions we see how sincere the COP is in committing to climate action. Both fuel each other. A long-term goal without short-term action will only be lip service. On the other hand, short-term actions without a long-term goal may lead us off track.
We need a long-term goal to set the direction and short-term actions to ensure we get there. Sure, sometimes we may fail to see the big picture or sometimes we may fail to recognize the importance of what we do now but if we have both, one will always be a reminder of the other. If we have both, there can only be success towards climate action.


This article was originally published at GMA News Online.