Smog chokes Chinese, Indian capitals as climate talks begin

The capitals of the world's two most populous nations, China and India, were blanketed in hazardous, choking smog on Monday as climate change talks began in Paris, where leaders of both countries are among the participants.
Channel NewsAsia 30 Nov 15;

BEIJING/NEW DELHI: The capitals of the world's two most populous nations, China and India, were blanketed in hazardous, choking smog on Monday as climate change talks began in Paris, where leaders of both countries are among the participants.

China's capital Beijing maintained an "orange" pollution alert, the second-highest level, on Monday, closing highways, halting or suspending construction and prompting a warning to residents to stay indoors.

The choking pollution was caused by the "unfavourable" weather, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said on Sunday. Emissions in northern China soar over winter as urban heating systems are switched on and low wind speeds have meant that polluted air has not been dispersed.

In New Delhi, the U.S. embassy's monitoring station recorded an air quality index of 372, which puts air pollution levels well into "hazardous" territory. A thick smog blanketed the city and visibility was down to about 200 yards (metres).

Air quality in the city of 16 million is usually bad in winter, when coal fires are lit by the poor to ward off the cold. Traffic fumes, too, are trapped over the city by a temperature inversion and the lack of wind.

However, the government has not raised any alarm over the current air quality and no advisories have been issued to the public. Thirty thousand runners took part in a half marathon at the weekend, when pollution levels were just as high.

In Beijing, a city of 22.5 million, the air quality index in some parts of the city soared to 500, its highest possible level. At levels higher than 300, residents are encouraged to remain indoors, according to government guidelines.

The hazardous air underscores the challenge facing the government as it battles pollution caused by the coal-burning power industry and will raise questions about its ability to clean up its economy at the talks in Paris.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are both in Paris and both were scheduled to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday to give momentum to the two-week negotiations.


Modi sought to highlight India's green credentials in an article for the Financial Times on Monday, writing: "The instinct of our culture is to take a sustainable path to development. When a child is born, we plant a tree."

But at Connaught Place, a city centre landmark in New Delhi, people chided the government for failing to minimise the risks to their health from air pollution.

"The pollution level is so high it's just unbelievable," said Aisha, a 19-year-old student.

For Beijing's residents, the poor air makes breathing hard.

"This sort of weather, you can see that all of Beijing has been completely enveloped in smog... and for every breath, getting up every morning, your throat will feel particularly uncomfortable," said Zhang Heng, a 26-year-old architect.

The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau said on Sunday that it had requested factories to limit or suspend output and had also stopped construction work throughout the city.

The ministry said the number of cities affected by heavy pollution had reached 23, stretching across 530,000 square km, an area the size of Spain, but a cold front beginning on Wednesday would see the situation improve.

State-run Xinhua news agency said more than 200 expressway toll gates in east China's Shandong province were closed on Monday due to smog. The province issued a yellow alert.

China launched a "war on pollution" last year following a spate of smog outbreaks in Beijing and surrounding regions.

China has vowed to slash coal consumption and close down polluting industrial capacity, but environmental officials admit that the country is unlikely to meet state air quality standards until at least 2030.

Reducing coal use and promoting cleaner forms of energy are set to play a crucial role in China's pledges to bring its climate warming greenhouse gas emissions to a peak by around 2030.

(Reporting by David Stanway, Kathy Chen and Adam Rose in Beijing, and; Douglas Busvine and Alex Richardson in New Delhi; Editing by Josephine Mason and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

- Reuters

China raises alarm over rising seas amid climate talks
A new Chinese government report raises alarm over rising sea levels caused by climate change which could potentially threaten the country's developed eastern coast, according to state media and the New York Times.
Channel NewsAsia 30 Nov 15;

SHANGHAI: A new Chinese government report raises alarm over rising sea levels caused by climate change which could potentially threaten the country's developed eastern coast, according to state media and the New York Times.

The release of the official report, now in its third edition, came shortly before the UN Conference of Parties (COP21) summit, which began on Monday (Nov 30) with the aim of striking a global deal limiting dangerous climate change.

China is the world's second biggest economy but also its largest polluter, estimated to have released between nine and 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2013.

Beijing pledged last year to peak carbon dioxide output by "around 2030" - suggesting at least another decade of growing emissions.

The government report said the sea levels off China's coast have risen 2.9 millimetres annually from 1980 to 2012, according to an article posted on a government-backed website, while glaciers shrank just over 10 percent since the 1970s.

Temperatures are rising at the rate of 1.5 degrees Celsius every 100 years and could jump a further 1.3 to 5.0 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, said the China Climate Change website, which operates under the state planner.

The New York Times said the report, which was compiled under the authority of the Ministry of Science and Technology, spells out "sombre scenarios" including threats to infrastructure from increased rainfall and melting permafrost, among the possible fallout from climate change.

"Climate change will make the urban conurbations along the coast the regions most affected by climate change nationwide," it cited the report as saying. "Some cities may even face risks of massive disasters that are hard to forecast."

The report, called "The Third National Climate Change Assessment Report", cites projections that the sea off eastern China could rise between 40 to 60 centimetres by the end of the century compared to 20th century averages, the newspaper said.

A separate study by US-based research group Climate Central predicted that China would be the country hit hardest by rising sea levels if global temperatures rose by four degrees Celsius.

It estimated some 145 million people live in Chinese cities and coastal areas that would eventually become ocean were warming to be that high.

- AFP/ec

What the Paris climate meeting must achieve

In 1992, more than 150 nations agreed at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro to take steps to stabilise greenhouse gases at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” — United Nations-speak for global warming.

Many follow-up meetings have been held since then, with little to show for them. Emissions of greenhouse gases have steadily risen, as have atmospheric temperatures, while the consequences of unchecked warming — persistent droughts, melting glaciers and ice caps, dying corals, a slow but inexorable sea level rise — have become ever more pronounced.

Starting yesterday, in Paris, the signatories to the Rio treaty (now 196), will try once again to fashion an international climate change agreement that might actually slow, then reduce, emissions and prevent the world from tipping over into full-scale catastrophe late in this century. As with other climate meetings, notably Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009, Paris is being advertised as a watershed event — “our last hope”, in the words of Mr Fatih Birol, the new director of the International Energy Agency. As President Francois Hollande of France put it recently: “We are duty-bound to succeed.”

Paris will almost certainly not produce an ironclad, planet-saving agreement in two weeks. But it can succeed in an important way that earlier meetings have not — by fostering collective responsibility, a strong sense among countries large and small, rich and poor, that all must play a role in finding a global solution to a global problem.

Kyoto failed because it imposed emissions reduction targets only on developed countries, giving developing nations such as China, India and Brazil a free pass. Copenhagen attracted wider participation, but it broke up in disarray, in part because of continuing friction between the industrialised nations and the developing countries.

The organisers of the Paris conference have learnt a lot from past mistakes. Instead of pursuing a top-down agreement with mandated targets, they have asked each country to submit a national plan that lays out how and by how much they plan to reduce emissions in the years ahead. So far, more than 170 countries, accounting for more than 90 per cent of global emissions, have submitted pledges, and more may emerge in Paris.

Will these pledges be enough to ward off the worst consequences of global warming? No. Scientists generally agree that global warming must not exceed 2°C from preindustrial levels. Various studies say that even if countries that have made pledges were to follow through on them, the world will heat up by 3.5°C by the end of this century. That would still be much too high, and it would be guaranteed to make life miserable for future generations, especially in poor, low-lying countries. But it would at least put the world on a safer trajectory; under most business-as-usual models, temperature increases could reach 4.5°C or higher.

Eventually, of course, all nations will have to improve on their pledges, especially big emitters such as China, India and the US. If the Paris meeting is to be a genuine turning point, negotiators must make sure that the national pledges are the floor, not the ceiling, of ambition, by establishing a framework requiring stronger climate commitments at regular intervals — say, every five years. This should be accompanied by a plan for monitoring and reporting each country’s performance. Earlier meetings have done poorly on this score.

Other important items dot the agenda. One is how rich nations can help poorer ones achieve their targets. Another is stopping the destruction of tropical forests, which play a huge role in storing carbon and absorbing emissions. The meeting also seeks to enlist investors, corporations, states and cities in the cause. Mr Michael Bloomberg, who made reducing emissions a priority as mayor of New York, will join the mayor of Paris in co-hosting a gathering of local officials from around the world.

The test of success for this much-anticipated summit meeting is whether it produces not only stronger commitments but also a shared sense of urgency at all levels to meet them.

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