UN Climate Summit Moved Goal Post

The Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of climate scientists, recently calculated that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew a whopping 5.9 percent in 2011 (the largest annual jump on record) and total emissions jumped nearly 50 percent since 1990. Unfortunately, a recent agreement forged out of the latest two-week United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) summit in Durban, South Africa, does little to limit warming by 2 degrees celsius (the aim of the multi-year process) and simply punts on creating a new agreement after Kyoto expires at the end of 2012. According to The Economist, the core of the Durban agreement is two-fold: the European Union (E.U.) will start on a second round of emission cuts under the existing Kyoto protocol, even after that expires at the end of next year. China, India, and other developing countries, in turn, will give up their demand for embedding special considerations for developing countries into a new treaty to take shape by 2015 and come into effect by 2020. “Crucially, this will require sacrifices by poor counties as well as rich ones.”

This represents a breakthrough of sorts. The U.S. never signed onto the Kyoto agreement because China, India, and the world’s developing countries weren’t held to the same requirements as developed countries. U.S. officials argued that meeting the emissions cuts in Kyoto would then hurt the economic competitiveness of the U.S. vis-a-vis developing countries. At the same time, countries like India and China long argued that given their economies are developing, they simply can’t give up the opportunity to increase standard of livings for their populations and quench their own development ambitions in favor of emission cuts, which would require huge and expensive investments in new energy technologies. Those arguments, however, are increasingly falling short given China is now the world’s leading source of CO2 emissions, and developing countries account for 58 percent of total emissions. Indeed, The Economist argues, China has since realized it needs to make a major shift and is investing heavily in new clean technologies.

However, India is still deeply worried whether it has the capacity to transform its economy. During the negotiations, it wasn’t a “pushover,” holding out for 36 hours during a marathon 60-hour negotiation session and forcing developed countries to accept a less-rigorous text. As a result, the new deal that will start in 2015 is not “legally binding,” but will be “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.”

While the Kyoto protocol was actually legally binding, there were no provisions to enforce penalties. “Unless penalties for failure are inserted into the successor protocol, or instrument, or outcome—which China and India would almost certainly not allow—it is hard to imagine how it would have greater force.” The Economist adds that the essential toothlessness of the new proposed framework, like Kyoto before it, means that countries will be able to continue to exceed their targets long into the future, like Canada has for years before it just announced it was pulling out of the Kyoto protocol all together. 

The Guardian quotes Keith Allott, head of climate change at WWF-UK, who sums up many environmental groups’ concerns on the non-binding approach: “Governments have salvaged a path forward for negotiations, but we must be under no illusion — the outcome of Durban leaves us with the prospect of being legally bound to a world of 4C warming. This would be catastrophic for people and the natural world.”

In another Guardian article, Bob Ward, Grantham Institute, London School of Economics, argued that “current pledges from countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions were not enough to hold global temperatures to 2C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which scientists say climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.” So even if countries do achieve a more enforceable framework, the targets may still be too low. 

Perhaps on a brighter note, countries may have moved closer on the design of a global “Green Climate Fund,” which is expected to put some actual money behind some of mitigation and adaptation goals. Developed countries will provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries mitigate emissions and also adapt to climate change. However, the U.S. is concerned that this fund will be run by the UN instead of an independent body like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which also receives significant financing from major non-profits and foundations. 

Learn more about the details of the agreement at WRI, an environmental think tank. Also, review what happened last year at the UNFCCC meeting in Mexico.

Image credit: Durban climate change negotiations / Reuters

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