One of the three crises covered in this blog is the ecological crisis. And in this sphere, climate change has emerged as perhaps the most serious of the ecological issues, because of its systemic threat to the global environment and to the survival of humanity itself.
The seriousness of the climate crisis has been accepted worldwide in recent years. There are the skeptics and the industries who are fighting this acceptance, and they have recently given some serious blows to the credibility of some climate scientists and the way climate science is conducted. But despite Climate-Gate and the uncovering of some Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) errors, such as the melting of Himalayan glaciers, much of climate science remains intact.
The bigger crisis is in the state of the global climate negotiations. The Copenhagen Climate Conference ended in disarray, and there is now a fork in the road in the global climate talks. There is competition between the multilateral process involving all countries striving to come to a global agreement on how to share the burdens and efforts of addressing climate change; and the route of a small group of self-selected countries drawing up a plan among themselves, and then trying to impose it on the rest of the world.
In Copenhagen, a Copenhagen Accord arising from an exclusive meeting of 26 political leaders was not adopted by the UN Convention on Climate Change, but only “taken note of.” Since then, there has been a campaign by the Danish Prime Minister and the UN Secretary General to get countries to “associate” themselves with the Accord.
A deadline was given in the Accord for developed countries to fill up their national emission reduction commitments in Appendix I while developing countries were asked to submit their mitigation actions to fill up an Appendix II.
The Accord is controversial because it arose from a meeting of only a few countries, which was not on the official Conference agenda, while the Convention has over 190 member states.
Moreover the Accord threatens to displace the legitimate multilateral process mandated to follow up from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 2007 Bali Conference. The reports of its two working groups on the Kyoto Protocol and on Long-term Cooperative Action are supposed to be the basis for negotiations this year towards a final agreement. The reports contain the drafts of texts (including options in areas where there is not yet consensus) for the final agreements. They were adopted by all countries in Copenhagen, unlike the Accord that was not adopted. .
The battle is not just on which of the texts are to be used. Behind the different texts are competing approaches to tackling the climate change crisis.
The model agreed to in Bali was to set a binding overall target for developed countries to cut their collective emissions. This was initially set at 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 compared to the 1990 level.
Each developed country would then have to have a binding national target and these targets would all add up to the aggregate target.
The United States, which is not a member of the Kyoto Protocol, would also have an agreed national target, which has to be “comparable” to the efforts of other developed countries.
The binding nature of the emission targets imposes an international discipline on the developed countries, that turns their goals into legal commitments.
The developing countries, which had only a small role in emissions of the past, would not have
binding emission targets. They would have to take mitigation actions that are supported by financial and technology transfers from the developed countries, and both the actions and the support would be measured and verified.
The Copenhagen Accord counters this understanding because the developed countries no longer have to make any binding commitments. Each country merely submits the emission reduction it is willing to undertake. There is also no longer an “aggregate target”.
There is no requirement that the individual pledges have to add up to a credible overall goal. In the last two years’ climate talks, the developing countries were demanding that the aggregate reduction commitment should be at least 40% by 2020 compared to 1990.
When it became clear in October that the developed countries were preparing to dump the Kyoto Protocol and its binding obligations, the developing countries had cried “Foul”. China had even accused them of plotting a Great Escape from their obligations.
Alas, the Copenhagen Accord enables this Great Escape. Critics of the Accord predicted that the unilateral and now voluntary goals submitted by the developed countries could be far below what is required by science, or the need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 degrees above the pre-industrial level.
These fears have now been proven to be justified. The pledges of some of the developed countries are so low that the overall reduction is only 13 to 19 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990, according to a paper by the World Resources Institute (WRI), using data the countries submitted to the UNFCCC.
The range is due to most countries stating that they would take on a more ambitious target only if other countries make a comparable effort. The United States, the biggest emitter, has given a low goal, that its 2020 emissions would be 17% below the 2005 level, which is only 5% below the 1990 level. Thus, other countries have lowered or are likely to lower their own targets.
The best example is Canada, which has now said it would take on a similar figure as the US, 17% below the 2005 level by 2020. But this turns out to be 19% above (not below) the 1990 level, because Canadian emissions have grown by a lot between 1990 and 2005.
The European Union has repeated its previous offer that by 2020 its member states would reduce their emissions collectively by 30% if others have a similar goal. but by only 20% otherwise. With the low ambition of the US, the EU is likely to take the lower figure.
Thus the individual targets set by the developed countries are likely to add up to nearer 13 per cent than 19 per cent.
Even if the high end of the pledges (19%) is realized, this does not meet the 25-40 per cent reduction that the IPCC indicated is necessary to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 parts per million (ppm) or below. This is also the conclusion of the WRI paper., which warns that the pledges made will “certainly fall very short of goals to reduce concentrations below that level (450 ppm).”
The 450 ppm concentration level is usually associated with a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius. The need for the temperature rise to stay below 2 degrees is also recognized by the Accord. Thus the pledges made by the developed countries do not even meet the Accord’s own standard.
Another report last week, by the scientific Ecofys network, assessed the pledges made by both developed and developing countries so far, and concluded that they add up to a level of emissions in 2020 that would be in line with a global temperature rise of over 3 degrees.
A temperature rise of 2 degrees would be damaging enough to the environment and to economic activity. A rise of over 3 degrees would spell disaster in terms of sea level rise, glacial melting, flooding, agricultural productivity and human life in general.
Yet another research team, organized by the US group Sustainability Institute, concluded that the pledges in the Accord are in line with a global temperature rise of 3.9 degrees Celsius.
A four degree rise would be not only disastrous but catastrophic.
The Accord and its voluntary and bottom-up approach will thus not bring about the required results, from this preliminary assessment.
In recent days, many developing countries, including the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, China and India) as well as the Alliance of Small Island States, have called for the speedy resumption of the negotiations under the UNFCCC and its two working groups.
This is a clear indication they do not want the climate talks to shift out from the UNFCCC to an exclusive venue such as the G20.
The road map agreed to in Bali, which includes binding targets for developed countries based on the needed aggregate goal and national goals that are comparable, should be followed. The Copenhagen Accord should help in this process, and not divert from it.
Otherwise valuable time will be used up in all kinds of wrangling, and we cannot afford to lose more time as the climate situation gets worse each day.