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T-shirts and the role of science at the UNFCCC

A young doctor is summoned to attend the sick daughter of a wealthy landlord. On arrival he is confronted by a large white sheet with a hole in it through which, he is told, he can examine ‘the required bodily segment’.

Scientific research can feel a lot like this enduring scene from Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children: focus has to be narrow and specific to gain new insight.

One of the benefits of coming together in organisations like Future Earth is to combine many hole-in-the-sheet views to gain a broader viewpoint for reviewing progress and setting research priorities. And it is a strength of the coordinated scientific efforts that support the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I attended my first UNFCCC meeting in June at the ‘intersessional’ Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) meeting in Bonn. In the side meetings, observers expressed concern about delegates’ efforts to highlight knowledge gaps and uncertainties in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees.

The report lays out the differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees of global warming, and is the culmination of 3 years’ work drawing from over 6,000 studies. It has been intensely scrutinised and reviewed, and country delegates at last year’s Conference of the Parties (COP-24) meeting were able to directly question the report’s lead scientists in a special plenary session. But the weak adoption text agreed at the Bonn meeting, to put forward for decision at COP-25 in December, means the Special Report will now be excluded from further formal negotiations.

An IPCC observer attending a side meeting for research organisations described the situation as ‘hard to watch’, and ‘a human historic moment on how we deal with the science’. Some delegates felt moved to wear T-shirts on the final day stating ‘Science is not Negotiable’.

The Bonn meeting also struggled to make progress on agreeing the rules for trading carbon credits internationally under Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. This would allow countries to meet part of their domestic goals for cutting emissions of greenhouse gases through ‘market-mechanisms’. The difficulties were partly due to differences in opinion, but also the technical complexity of it.

There were some positives, including agreement under the ‘Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture’ that agriculture is a foundation of human existence and very vulnerable to climate change impacts. An inspiring Technical Expert Meeting on Adaptation heard national perspectives on how to improve the effectiveness of projects using climate finance for adaptation.

The burden of achieving sufficient reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change now rests more heavily on stakeholders attending COP-25 in Chile. At the close of the SBSTA meeting the in-coming president, Carolina Schmidt, Minister of the Environment in Chile, outlined her priorities for the 2-13 December meeting as both a ‘citizen COP’ and a ‘blue [ocean] COP’. She stressed the importance of civil society pressure for change, and bringing new and influential actors to the table, particularly the private sector.

“People are becoming more conscious of the effects of climate change,” she told observer groups in Bonn. “When we see different countries coming out of the Paris Agreement we have to use citizen force to bring actors to the table: this includes local governments and the private sector. We are all going to suffer from climate change, it’s not one against another, we have to work urgently together.”

She stressed the need for delegates to bring more ambitious targets for mitigation, adaptation and implementation to COP-25, and for science to inform innovation and adaptation measures. She hopes COP-25 will see the completion of the Article 6 rule book, more ambitious finance, an integrated loss and damage mechanism, and include ocean contributions in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for emissions reporting under the Paris Agreement.

At COP-25 Future Earth will be launching a new 10 Climate Insights report to highlight what our research community sees as the most important, recent, societally-relevant research findings. The aim is to keep the science perspective in view to inform and provoke response among delegates. Also, Future Earth’s Global Carbon Project will release its annual assessment of the changes in the Earth’s sources and sinks of carbon dioxide in its Global Carbon Budget.

COP-25 offers opportunities to highlight innovative mitigation and adaptation science and to engage with the range of in-country stakeholders present at the meeting in Latin America, for example by jointly hosting side meetings.

Ahead of COP-25 there is a series of UN meetings to drive forward action on climate and the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. These include the review of the Sustainable Development Goal SDG13 in July, regional climate weeks in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Asia and the Pacific in August and September, and a Climate Action Summit convened by the UN Secretary-General on 23 September.

We have to move on from the frustrations at SBSTA to find new ways to secure our future. Yes the planet’s diagnosis has its uncertainties – that is the nature of science – but urgent ‘treatment’, underpinned by the best research, is what our planet needs. And that means continuing to bring research perspectives together to spur everyone into action.

Sophie Hebden is the liaison between Future Earth and the European Space Agency climate office, working to maximise the use of ESA’s climate datasets and further the aims of Future Earth.