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How business-as-usual is shutting climate out of the Durban negotiations

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The IPCC released an early report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters in time for Durban. Pity they haven't paid attention. Photo: IPCC

The Durban climate negotiations will plod noisily towards 9 December and end with nothing to show for it all, at this rate. A handful of wealthy countries – including notably the United States – are now seeking to move the goalposts. They want to dismantle the rules for developed countries’ emissions reductions, shift the burden to developing countries, and renege on the Bali Roadmap. In the process, they are trying to end the Kyoto Protocol, and even the Convention, and replace it with a weak, ineffective “pledge and review” system that may take years to negotiate. The Durban climate change negotiations are a clash between those who believe that the world deserves and needs a science- and rules-based multilateral climate system to tackle perhaps the greatest challenge to face humanity, and those who are seeking to dismantle the existing one.

The replacement of George W Bush by Barack Obama as US president in 2008 has seen a change in rhetoric on climate change coming from the White House, but no major policy shift regarding the Kyoto Protocol and the development of a successor agreement. The priority has remained to ensure that nothing is agreed that either impinges on the interests of US corporations or harms the economic and geo-strategic position of US imperialism against its rivals.

Climate models project more frequent hot days throughout the 21st century. In many regions, the time between '20-year' (unusually) warm days will decrease. From the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Durban 2011, brings together representatives of the world’s governments, international organizations and civil society”. The UNFCCC says the “discussions will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at COP 16 last December”. The UNFCCC is either misguidedly optimistic, or uses the words “advance” and “balanced” differently from the way we do.

In 2009, CO2 emissions in developing countries grew at 3.3%, primarily due to continued economic growth and increased coal demand, while in developed countries emissions fell sharply by 6.5%, mostly attributable to the decreased use of coal, oil and natural gas as a consequence of the global economic recession and financial crises. Emissions in developed countries in 2009 therewith fell 6.4% below their 1990 level. 1990 is often used as a reference year for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, for example in the 1992 UNFCCC and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This makes sense, as 1990 was the year when UN-steered climate change negotiations started, and when the issue first received prominence on the international political agenda.

All that talk, in the interests of the 99% we hope.

A closer look at the IEA data reveals interesting trends. The five largest CO2 emitters – China, the United States, India, the Russian Federation, and Japan, in the order of emissions – account for about half of the world’s population, emissions, and gross domestic product (GDP); however, the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP as well as per capita are not at all equal across the five. The two largest emitters, China and the United States, together contributed 41% of the world’s emissions in 2009, and both almost have the same share compared to one another. On a per capita level, though, the average American emitted more than three times as much CO2 as the average Chinese citizen.

"Before examining the main trends and implications of the 450 Scenario, it is important to highlight briefly why the scenario is needed. It is because neither the New Policies Scenario, our central scenario, nor the Current Policies Scenario puts us on a future trajectory for greenhouse-gas emissions that is consistent with limiting the increase in global temperature to no more than 2°C, the level climate scientists say is likely to avoid catastrophic climate change. The 450 Scenario illustrates one plausible path to that objective." From International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2011, Chapter 6, Climate change and the 450 Scenario

The Obama administration now insists that there is no pressing need for a post-Kyoto treaty restricting carbon emissions. Jonathan Pershing, US deputy envoy for climate change, declared earlier this week in South Africa: “I’m not sure that the issue of legal form will be resolved here, or needs to be resolved here.” He hailed the voluntary pledges to reduce emissions that were announced at last year’s UN climate change summit in Cancún, Mexico. “To my way of thinking, that’s an enormous way forward in solving the problem,” he said. These remarks underscore Washington’s key role in sabotaging any progress toward a new climate treaty.

This is a step beyond grossly irresponsible. Current levels of warming have already begun triggering major “tipping points” in the Earth’s system – such as Arctic methane releases, Amazon dieback, and the loss of icesheets. 2°C of warming, as proposed by some governments, threatens to tip a cascade of events that will cause warming to spin out of control. We have known since 1986 that warming “beyond 1°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non?linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage”, the effects of which we’re seeing already.*

But rich countries risk climate anarchy. To address this crisis many countries – particularly developing countries – seek an agreement in Durban based on science, on the existing legally binding and multilateral system reflected in the Climate Convention and its Kyoto Protocol, and on the deal agreed by all countries in the Bali Roadmap.

"Energy-related CO2 emissions in the OECD decline by 50% between 2009 and 2035 in the 450 Scenario, to reach 6 Gt, and their share of global emissions falls from 42% in 2009 to 28% in 2035. CO2 emissions in non-OECD countries fall by a much smaller 9% over the Outlook period, to reach 14.3 Gt in 2035, though this is still a substantial 10.0 Gt of CO2 abatement, relative to the NewPolicies Scenario, in 2035." From International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2011, Chapter 6, Climate change and the 450 Scenario

A report released on Monday by the British-based World Development Movement detailed the testimonies of “insiders” at the Copenhagen and Cancún events. The report stated: “The US said they would deny climate finance to Bolivia and Ecuador because they had objected to the Copenhagen accord proposal. The EU’s Connie Hedegaard had also suggested that the small island-state countries could be ‘our best allies because they need finance’.” One official explained that developing country negotiators who come to be regarded by the major powers as a nuisance “are taken out of delegations for one reason or another, or booted upstairs, or suddenly are transferred, or lose their jobs, as a result of external pressures, usually in the form of some kind of bribe (not necessarily money), or exchange.”

Furthermore, a lucrative trade and speculation in carbon credits, centred in London and Frankfurt, has emerged through the European Emissions Trading Scheme. This mechanism was established and developed within the legal framework of the Kyoto Protocol. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe has already badly affected the carbon trade, with the value of credits plunging in recent weeks. A purely voluntary framework for emissions, as urged by Washington, could further undermine the carbon credit market, in which British and European banks have a significant stake. Amid the manoeuvres of the major powers and the financiers of climate gimmicks, the representatives of the world’s smaller, impoverished states-including some whose very existence is threatened by climate change-are sidelined, bullied, and manipulated at the UN summits.

Rather than honour their obligations, many developed countries have now indicated their clear intention to avoid binding obligations to reduce their climate pollution by killing the Kyoto Protocol and replacing it with a weaker ‘pledge and review’ system. At the same time, they are seeking to retain and expand their favored elements of the Kyoto Protocol (i.e. market mechanisms) into a new agreement, and shift their responsibilities onto developing countries.

A ‘pledge and review’ system would mean that the rich countries most responsible for the problem would only reduce their emissions according to political pressures at home, not according to the increasingly dire scientific realities. There would be no internationally binding commitments, no comparability of efforts among developed countries, and no assurance of adequate efforts. The system of common rules and international compliance in the Kyoto Protocol that give meaning to these commitments would be abandoned. Such an approach would effectively deregulate the climate regime, thereby ensuring business as usual and a deregulated approach that could even be written into international law.

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