Climate in Crisis, and Crisis in Climate Talks

Martin Khor

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.

4 Responses to “Climate in Crisis, and Crisis in Climate Talks”

  1. Aaron Cosbey says:

    I completely agree that the lack of ambition by most developed countries, as embodied in the Copenhagen accord and in the two-year lead up to COP-15, is deplorable, and out of line with what science tells us is necessary.

    But I see no future for the two-track process under the UNFCCC – it’s dangerous denial to suppose this could work. Developed country Parties are not going to commit to strong action under the AWG-KP when the US and the developing countries (who between them account for 70% of global emissions and growing) are not on board. There is no alternative to merging the two tracks if the UNFCCC process is to go anywhere, with meaningful commitments from ALL major emitters.

    Yes, of course, this would have to come with different forms of commitments based on historical responsibility, current contributions and capacity to act. And of course with appropriate financial and other support from rich countries for action in developing countries. But at the end of the day developing country major emitters would have to make some hard commitments.

    But I don’t see how that’s going to happen in the UNFCCC. I used to think the Kyoto model was the only way forward, but I have to admit – the COP-15 process and results made me wonder whether some smaller group of countries couldn’t make better progress without the hindrance of so many obstructionist Parties around the table, many of whom are marginal from an emissions standpoint (and in that group I include developed and developing countries). The Copenhagen Accord is not my idea of “better progress” for all the reasons Martin outlines. And yes, we don’t have time to start from scratch. But we are so far from the ideal scenario in so many ways that it bears considering all possibilities, even the sub-optimal.

  2. This is well written and important to have so clearly stated. However, and this is a big however, it omits mention of the number one polluter of planet earth … the US military. Poisonous pollution from the Pentagon points to another key subject often overlooked when dealing with climate change deniers; climate change gasses are an indicator of the intensity of air and water pollution which are equally significant as destroyers of life. The 1,500 tons of impact vaporized depleted uranium shells used in Iraq are blowing in the wind, as are the unknown combinations of photo reactive chemicals released by the many burn dumps the Pentagon operates world-wide. Add industrial waste practices to these ghastly sources and we see endocrine disrupters, for one; every living cell on the planet is burdened with a dose of estrogen mimic compounds wreaking unknown havoc at costs purposefully excluded from free market price by government policy engineered by backroom lobby parties. I highly recommend wading through the brilliant and friendly writing of Frederick Soddy, nothing can be done about any of this until money is made to hold value over time and allowed to measure all costs. I have been studying entropy and economics since 1968 and wish I had read his works from 1925 sooner, don’t delay, Frederick Soddy is a good guy who knows how justice fits into all this.

  3. At I have briefly discussed some of the details associated with anthropogenic global warming and how good scientists have sold out to political interests.
    I have gone into the analysis of scientific data from esteemed institutions like NOAA, Woods Hole, University of Alabama-Huntsville, the Vostok studies, and NASA in a book titled, “Stealing America’s Future” to be released late in April.
    We have seen major problems in the “science” of anthropogenic global warming, beyond the IPCC scandal. The data is incomplete and flawed.
    1. Our scientists have used statements like “the last 150 years have seen a huge increase in warming and CO2 levels and the last 10 years are the hottest in recorded history.” That is false as they are attempting to establish a climate model of geologic time not based on geologic time. What about the times on this earth that were substantially warmer like the Eocene Epoch? Did man cause that?
    2. Sadly, they have not considered the fact that our magnestophere has declined by 10% in strength in the last 150 years. What does that mean? It means high energy particles and heat more easily penetrate our atmosphere in the high latitudes.
    3. More importantly, the Vostok ice core studies have shown there have been periods where the temperature changes have been inversely proportional to the CO2 levels. That diminishes the importance of CO2 as an important greenhouse gas.
    4. The recent spike in CO2 was measured on the Mauna Loa volcano, an engine of CO2 and CH4.
    While it is important to protect our environment, we have, most definitely, been hoodwinked by the most ardent of the anthropogenic theorists. Yes, anthropogenic warming is definitely an economic issue as opposed to a scientific issue.

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