The top 5 carbon and climate stories in 2016

Temperature and carbon dioxide levels hit record highs this year, underscoring the magnitude of the climate crisis. At the same time, landmark global deals on reducing emissions from the aviation and refrigeration sectors offer some hope.

stop climate change please
Stop climate change. The Paris Agreement has set the direction for the way ahead, and the world's policies, technology and finance must now follow. Image: Joe Brusky, CC BY-NC 2.0

Where climate action was concerned, 2016 started off positively as the hope and optimism from the December 2015 signing of the Paris Agreement carried through into the new year. But things rapidly deteriorated, as monthly temperature records toppled, setting up 2016 to be the hottest year on record, and climate change was linked to scary phenomena such as an anthrax outbreak in North Russia. 

There were, however, hopeful moments in the year. There was the milestone Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which sets a timetable for countries to phase down the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), powerful greenhouse gases found in refrigerators and airconditioners. And there was a commitment by the aviation sector to permanently cap its emissions at 2020 levels. 

The year ended on a note of uncertainty with the election of Donald “climate change is bullshit” Trump as the next President of the United States of America.

Here are the top five carbon and climate stories of 2016.

1. Hottest year on record—again.

From the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to the UK Met Office, experts unanimously predicted that 2016 will be the hottest year ever, a record previously set by 2015. However, scientists will only be able to confirm whether 2016 was record-breaking early next year.

Analysts attributed the high temperatures partly to the lingering effects of El Niño, the weather phenomenon that brings unusually hot and dry weather, particularly to developing countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. El Niño will no longer be in effect next year, so 2017 may not be as warm as this year, predicted the UK Met Office.

Australian scientists, meanwhile, warned in November that new records for global temperature highs could become the new normal for the planet as early as 2025 if the world continues with “business as usual” activities such as burning fossil fuels.

It wasn’t just the mercury that hit record highs this year. So did atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. In June, scientists said that 2016 would be the first year where an iconic carbon dioxide recording station in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, would register concentrations above 400 parts per million (ppm) all year round.

This is in excess of the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide agreed by experts, which is 350 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels are unlikely to drop below this critical threshold in our lifetimes, said scientists

2. Paris agreement enters into force faster than expected

The Paris Agreement officially entered into force on November 4, less than a year after it was adopted in the French capital. To take effect, it needed 55 parties representing 55 per cent of global emissions to ratify the treaty—that is, to formally consent to be bound by the agreement. This threshold was crossed on October 6. 

Small island states such as the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Samoa, which are especially vulnerable to climate change, were among the first to ratify the agreement in April, while other major emitters such as the United States, China, and India did so in September and October. Australia, which ratified the deal on November 9, is among the latest to do so.

The speed with which the agreement took effect is unprecedented in the recent history of international agreements. In fact, it was so fast that much of the groundwork for implementing the treaty, such as deciding on a framework for measuring and reporting emissions reductions, has yet to be ironed out at the UN climate change agency’s annual meetings.

But as Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), noted, “entry into force bodes well for the urgent, accelerated implementation of climate action that is now needed to realise a better, more secure world”.

Countries that have yet to ratify the deal include Russia, Qatar, Turkey, Nigeria and the Philippines, although last month Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte agreed to sign the treaty he had previously dubbed “crazy”.

3. Plans to cool the climate take flight

The global community in October signed two more deals that plug emissions gaps not addressed by the Paris Agreement—one to reduce emissions from the aviation sector, and another to phase down the use of HFCs, chemical refrigerants more than a thousand times more capable of causing global warming than carbon dioxide.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), at its 39th congress in Montreal, Canada on October 6, saw governments, businesses and civil society agree on a deal to cap aviation emissions worldwide at 2020 levels. Airlines will have to purchase carbon credits to offset any emissions that exceed this limit. Compliance with this scheme will be voluntary from 2021 to 2027, after which it will be mandatory.

ICAO estimates that this deal could result in the industry offsetting between 449 million and 596 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2035, and would cost the sector between US$5.3 billion and US$23.9 billion to do so. However, some observers have expressed concern that the scheme will not be enough to achieve global emissions reduction goals.

Nine days later, global leaders met in the capital of Rwanda to ink the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which sets a timetable for countries to phase down the production and use of HFCs

HFCs were developed to replace their predecessor, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) when the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987 to ban the former because they deplete the ozone layer. But HFCs are also a massive threat to the climate, and advocates have called for them to be replaced with natural refrigerants such as ammonia. 

The Kigali Amendment, which unlike the Paris Agreement is legally binding, requires countries to replace HFCs with more sustainable alternatives. Among other actions, it prohibits countries that have ratified the deal from selling the raw materials to make HFCs to those that have not. 

Rich territories such as the USA and European Union must reduce their HFC use to specific targets by 2019; others such as China, Brazil, and all African nations must do this by 2024, while some of the world’s hottest nations including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and India, have until 2028 to do so.

Environmental experts have noted that the Kigali Amendment could be “the single largest real contribution the world has made so far” towards keeping the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

4. President-elect Donald “climate change is bullshit” Trump

The election of Donald Trump as the next US president in November shocked and alarmed the world for many reasons, among them his view that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive, and that it is “bullshit”.

On his campaign trail, the president-elect, has, among other things, threatened to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, stop all payments to the UN climate change fund and invigorate the US coal industry.

Since his election, members of his team have indicated that the administration will cut back funding to NASA’s earth science division on the grounds that the agency’s climate research is “politicised”. He also appointed known climate denier Scott Pruitt to lead the transition team for the US Environment Protection Agency. Pruitt has not only questioned whether climate change is real, he has also sued the EPA at least 13 times.

Pruitt is not the only climate denier in Trump’s new administration. His nominated heads of the Department of Health and Human Services, Transport department, and Department of Interior have all expressed scepticism about the issue.

While Trump’s election cast a heavy pall over November’s UNFCCC meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, experts have noted that it could motivate other governments, businesses and activists to step up their efforts to fight climate change. Some have suggested that China and the EU should sidestep the US and form the world’s most powerful climate bloc, while others have noted that federal inaction would mean that cities and states in the US need to do more.

But as with most of his policy, Trump is unpredictable. He has also told media that he has an “open mind” on the issue, and will “study a lot of the things that happened on it and … look at it very carefully”.

However, the actions of his transition team have people worried. In December, the US Energy Department rejected a request from Trump’s team for the names of employees who have worked on climate change. Meanwhile, scientists have begun “frantically” copying US climate data off government servers, afraid that the president-elect will try to alter or remove federal data once he assumes office. 

5. Climate change continues to take lives

Climate change-related disasters such as floods and natural disasters continued to ravage countries and communities globally; they also had an impact on human health.

The death toll from natural disasters continued to mount this year. One of the deadliest natural disasters of 2016 was Hurricane Matthew, which struck Haiti, the south-eastern United States and other countries in the region in late September. The storm caused at least 1,600 deaths in Haiti, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, as well as some US$10 billion in damages.

Elsewhere, Cyclone Roanu struck Bangladesh in May, killing at least 25 people. In June, floods in Central Europe killed 18 people while landslides and flash floods in Indonesia killed 64. In August, floods in north India took at least 300 lives, and forced some 200,000 residents of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states into relief camps.

Natural disasters aside, climate change was also linked to an increase in food, water, and vector-borne diseases such as Zika Virus; an outbreak of the anthrax virus in north Russia that left at least one child dead; and the occurrence of “thunderstorm asthma” in the Australian state of Victoria.

The latter refers to respiratory distress caused by exposure to high volumes of pollen, which spiked suddenly due to severe storms in the region. Scientists noted that climate change could be partly to blame for the increase in frequency and intensity of storms, as well as the greater potency of pollen.

This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 12 categories.

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