After Durban it's back to the trenches

March 26, 2012 | 00:00

After Durban it's back to the trenches

As the dust from Durban settles, the mountain left for world governments to climb to agree a new global climate treaty by 2015 is coming sharply into focus. The generous rhetoric of the UN climate conference last December is rapidly giving way to the defensive language of entrenched positions. China and India appear to see little role for themselves in helping to do what needs to be done to avoid dangerous climate change, the US is pussyfooting, post-Fukushima Japan is helpless and countries like Australia, Russia and Canada show no signs of wanting to step up their pledges. All this leaves international climate policy in a perilous state. Hope rests mostly on initiatives that lie outside the scope of the climate negotiations, reports Sonja van Renssen.

'International climate policy is in a perilous state'

By 28 February, countries all around the world were supposed to submit their first follow-up reports to the last big UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, last December. These reports have to focus on what remains the most pressing issue in global climate policy: how to close the gap between current emission reduction pledges for 2020 and the reduction levels needed to maintain a good chance of keeping global warming to two degrees Celsius. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) last November issued a report showing that this gap (the so-called gigatonne gap) is bigger than it's ever been, growing from 5-9 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent in 2010 to 6-11 gigatonnes in 2011. UNEP also said the gap can still be closed at a cost of US$25-54 per tonne of CO2-equivalent, with the bulk of the extra cuts coming from a faster switch to renewables, more energy efficiency improvements and fuel switching.

In Durban, world governments postponed greater emission cuts to 2020 by agreeing that's when a new global climate treaty would take effect. Yet they also acknowledged the gigatonne gap and agreed to start debating what to do about it. Scientists at Climate Analytics, Ecofys and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) warned policymakers that if current emission reduction pledges are maintained to 2020, emission cuts of 3.8% a year will be necessary until 2050, whereas if emission reductions were on the right 2°C pathway to 2020, then a reduction rate of only 2% a year to 2050 will be necessary. Yet it is the first scenario which seems more likely to come true.

Hard-line language

By mid-March only 19 countries had submitted their views on closing the gigatonne gap to the Bonn-based UN body that manages international climate negotiations, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). The reports make for sobering reading. Gone is the spirit of compromise, of openness, of flexibility trumpeted in South Africa last December. In its place we find a return to the hard-line language of long-held positions.

The best example of a return to the rhetoric of old is China. China was the NGO-darling of the Durban talks, earning praise for its new willingness to engage and apparent openness to taking on internationally binding mitigation commitments as part of a new global climate treaty. This was the key demand of the both the EU and US, that a new treaty must include legally binding emission reduction commitments for all countries, even if their scale is different, in line with the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

China let the world believe it was open to the idea, although some representatives from other countries were sceptical at the time. 'Let me hear that in the negotiating room, let me see that in the negotiating text', Joseph Gilbert, foreign minister of Grenada and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), told reporters. China's charm offensive cracked in the final plenary when it sided with India in speaking out against an apparent blurring of the distinction between developed and developing countries. 'We are doing what we should be doing,' China's lead negotiator Xie Zhenhua told the plenary. 'We are taking actions. We want to see your actions.'

India's environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan made an impassioned accusation that the proposal on the table contravened the sacred principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Exactly these sentiments are echoed in the latest reports by China and India to the UNFCCC, as if the two weeks of talks in Durban and their final compromise text on a new treaty - 'an agreed outcome with legal force' - never happened. China in its one-and-a-half page submission emphasizes the 'historical responsibility' of developed countries to tackle climate change, concluding that: ‘The key to increase the level of ambitions to reduce emissions lies with the developed country parties.’ Developing countries have already undertaken the 'greatest efforts' with 'contributions to mitigation… much greater than those of developed country parties'.

India stresses the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and says the discussion for increased mitigation at global level is one for after 2020. Between now and 2020, it is developed

We'll do what we can but don't expect too much
countries who must increase their emission reduction pledges so that they fall within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s recommended cut of 25-40% relative to 1990 levels, India says. Both China and India are prepared to discuss more action from their side only if financial and technological support from developed countries materializes, they say.

This puts these countries squarely on a collision course with the EU, which in its submission to the UNFCCC says that it wants all countries to participate in closing the ambition gap before 2020. It wants the next global climate agreement to include mitigation commitments from 'in particular' major economies 'taking into account that responsibilities and capabilities are differentiated but evolve over time'. The EU, as in Durban, finds support for its position in the submissions of AOSIS and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), which call for fast action to increase ambitions, in particular from developed countries, but also from developing countries in line with their capabilities and support.

Don't expect too much

China and India's call on developed countries to step up their emission reductions will almost certainly go unheeded. The US in its UNFCCC submission calls for governments to 'respect the integrity of parties' nationally derived targets and actions and limitations inherent in taking economically sound mitigation policies at a national level'. In other words, we'll do what we can but don't expect too much.

At a post-Durban debate in Brussels in mid-March, organised by the French think tank Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), Dale Eppler, Counsellor for Energy, Environment, Science and Technology at the US Mission to the EU said the US was on track to its 17% emission reduction below 2005 levels by 2020, even in the absence of federal climate legislation. A more ambitious target from the US is not on the cards, he said, though he added optimistically: 'At least we're at a point where we can talk about it now. Durban has made it possible for us to engage much more fully because the roadmap foresees legally binding commitments for all.'

Japan meanwhile finds itself stuck with a pre-Fukushima pledge for a post-Fukushima energy mix. 'It's beyond our imagination to raise [our pledge] from 25% to 30% or more', said Jun Arima, Director General at the Japan External Trade Organization in London and Special Advisor for Global Environment Affairs at the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry, at the same debate in Brussels. Without nuclear power, even the 25% target becomes 'very challenging', he added. It could cost over US$1000 per tonne of CO2 to meet it. If Japan replaced all nuclear capacity with fossil fuels, CO2 emissions would increase by 18% instead of coming down by 25% by 2020. Arima said he has 'a serious doubt' that Japan can meet its 25% target.

In response to a question over whether and how Japan would continue to provide certainty to business in the form of long-term targets, Arima responded that Japan's 80% reduction by 2050 goal would stay in place. In addition, the country will continue with feed-in tariffs for example, he added. Arima said his government hoped to turn the earthquake disaster into an opportunity to rebuild in a smarter, greener way - Japan reaped the rewards of starting from scratch with its reconstruction after the Second World War. Post-Fukushima Japan and Energiewende Germany could provide valuable examples of two OECD countries overhauling their energy systems to showcase low-carbon growth.

No rush to increase ambition is expected from Australia, New Zealand and Russia either, and Canada even stepped out of the Kyoto Protocol after Durban. This leaves the EU as the only major player likely to come under pressure to adopt a higher emission reduction target for 2020 - because it is the only player with a realistic chance of doing so.

The EU has long offered to move from a 20% to 30% cut if other countries make comparable efforts. In its own UNFCCC submission, the EU says countries with ranges should 'consider their possibilities for

'Durban has made it possible for us to engage in some kind of top-down [approach] ... but bottom-up cannot be underestimated'
moving to the top of their range'. But although environment ministers reconfirmed the 30% offer at a meeting in Brussels on 9 March, at the same meeting Poland again rejected the European Commission's low-carbon 2050 roadmap and dismissed a higher target for 2020. Poland is one of several EU member states for which the economic crisis rules out greater climate ambitions.

Top-down approach

Nevertheless, many EU policymakers and experts continue to insist that Durban was a success. They believe that the weak low-carbon signal that Durban ignited can be kept alive and strengthened even. Delia Villagrasa, Senior Advisor at the European Climate Foundation, a not-for-profit group in Brussels, says the discussions on increased ambition are only just beginning. 'People are trying to position themselves', says Villagrasa. 'They are trying to bring back many of the things they think they lost in Durban.'

Mark Kenber, CEO of The Climate Group, another not-for-profit organisation, agrees that in their formal UNFCCC submissions it looks like countries are reverting to their original positions, or pulling back even. But in reality the picture is mixed, he says, with many still investing in climate policy at national level, from China in clean energy to India in its very successful new energy efficiency certificate trading scheme.

According to Kenfer, Durban delivered on two fronts. Countries agreed that they would all have to play a part in future mitigation efforts and they agreed that a bottom-up approach alone is insufficient to tackle climate change. At the time, Michael Jacobs, Visiting Professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate and Environment at the London School of Economics, said: '[Durban] has replaced pledge and review by the goal of a legal treaty to be agreed by 2015 and ensured for the first time that developing countries acknowledge they will be legally bound to act on emissions in future.'

At the debate in Brussels in mid-March however, US, Japanese and EU representatives were wary of placing too much emphasis on the new top-down approach. Eppler from the US said: 'Durban has made it possible for us to engage in some kind of top-down [approach] ... but bottom-up cannot be underestimated.' Eleven of the US's 50 states are already engaged in climate action, he said, plus lots of cities. This is why the US is on track to meet its 2020 target.

Top-down is necessary, echoed Arima from Japan: 'But we also need to consider... ability. Governments need to be accountable to their own people.' A senior European Commission official told the debaters that the only place where a top-down approach has really been tried is in the EU - where there is qualified majority voting rather than a requirement for unanimous approval. At world level it is 'unthinkable', he said. 'Even the Kyoto Protocol, if you really look at it, was nothing more than a bottom-up approach... it did not set a global emissions trajectory. Rather it was the sum of individual pledges.'

Nevertheless, there is a broad consensus that some kind of international-level agreement is needed to overcome the gigatonne gap. 'At the moment it seems unlikely that we will have enough raising of ambition in the short term to close the emissions gap', admits Kenber from The Climate Group. Greater reductions will come later, he believes, at higher prices.

Plenty of scope for action

Raising targets is not the only way of addressing the gap. Other options include:

  • tackling emissions from international aviation and shipping (currently excluded from the Kyoto protocol and international climate action)
  • tackling non-CO2 gases such as methane, fluorinated gases (an ozone-friendly replacement for CFCs in fridges) and black carbon (soot)
  • promoting the development and take-up of low-carbon technologies
  • encouraging the adoption of global product efficiency standards
  • accelerating reduced emissions from forest degradation and deforestation (called REDD+)

Prospects for these measures are mixed. There is a fierce political fight going on about the EU's inclusion of international flights in its emission trading scheme (ETS) from this year. Maritime emissions look set to go the same way, as the EU threatens to regulate these next. But global proposals for both sectors have been under development since 1997 and concrete results remain elusive.

There is plenty of scope for action on non-CO2 gases, and policymakers and experts believe this is a promising avenue outside the UNFCCC. However, Villagrasa of the European Climate Foundation warns: 'What's dangerous is thinking that it buys us time. We cannot afford to wait for the carbon solution by acting now on methane or f-gases. We really need to work in parallel to avoid a high carbon lock-in.'

Japan puts forward several alternative ideas in its UNFCCC submission, such as setting targets to increase the penetration of best available technologies and sharing globally applied efficiency standards for specific products. Japan is developing its own bilateral carbon offset scheme where it exports Japanese technology in return for carbon credits. But there is increasing doubt about the extra emission reductions this project can deliver.

The UN-regulated international carbon market meanwhile is suffering from a lack of demand for carbon credits. This is ultimately due to the weak mitigation pledges. Project developers have a hard time finding carbon reduction projects and are moving into consultancy, advising developing country governments on devising low-carbon roadmaps for example. The new market mechanisms that world governments agreed to develop in Durban will go nowhere until there are stronger emission reduction targets.

Empty promises

And there is another problem looming over international climate policy, namely the surplus of emission allowances under the Kyoto Protocol, the so-called AAU's (Assigned Amount Units). In a report released in Durban, NGO CDM Watch calculated that the surplus of emission allowances under the Kyoto protocol could cancel up to nearly three-quarters of the emission reductions pledged by developed countries in this framework to 2020. In fact, when tallied up, current loopholes could wipe out the effects of these pledges altogether, the campaigners said.

The AAUs issue will have to be resolved by the next UN climate conference at the end of this year in Doha, Qatar, when the EU and a few others will formally sign up to a second commitment period under Kyoto. With the current AAU surplus, these commitments are empty promises. The biggest AAU stores

'I don't think it's necessarily a complete trade-off between economic growth and moving forward on climate change. It can't be'
are held by Russia, Ukraine, and eastern European countries such as Poland. No solution was found in Durban and the EU remains divided internally. At their last meeting on 9 March, EU environment ministers could not agree a way out. They did say 'carry-over and use... applies only to parties which take on a QUELRO [a quantified emissions limitation and reduction objective, or to put it simply, an emission reduction target] under the second commitment period'. This would exclude Russia. So far most observers assume that Russia will keep its AAUs regardless of whether it adopts new targets, as long as it does not formally leave Kyoto. The EU's new words on this are unlikely to go unchallenged.

Clearly Durban has left international climate policy in a highly uncertain state. What is certain is that the developed vs. developing country discussion will resurface many times over the next few years as the international climate talks struggle to adjust to the realities of a world that is different from fifteen years ago. Developing countries have done a lot, EU policymakers say, but they will need to do more. The IPCC agrees and says they need to deliver a 15-30% emission below business-as-usual by 2020. Countries such as China still fear a growth constraint from action on climate change. The developed world could stimulate developing countries in their reduction efforts by delivering the finance and technology it has promised.

According to Kenber of the Climate Group, climate talks need to move away from a discussion over who pays to one about low-carbon growth opportunities: 'Green growth is a way of dealing with climate change.' Companies are already moving from climate targets to broader resource productivity strategies and governments need to do the same, he says.
Eppler of IFRI agrees: 'I don't think it's necessarily a complete trade-off between economic growth and moving forward on climate change. It can't be.'

For the next episode of the international climate story, tune in to Bonn in May when world governments will meet to hold their first debate on closing the gigatonne gap.


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