Stalemated climate talks restart as earth cooks more

The annual climate summit begins in Doha with 194 governments locked in the rich versus poor country debate, while greenhouse gases that are warming the earth reach record levels.

There is no sign of any serious commitment to arrest these emissions or of any significant financing to help poor countries move to a greener development path.

The November 26-December 7 summit comes just weeks before the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – so far the only near-global legal agreement to combat climate change. Under the protocol, developed countries were supposed to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by around five per cent between 2008 and 2012, compared to 1990. Now the second commitment period looms, with Canada walking out of the protocol while Russia, Japan and New Zealand refuse to commit to any cuts during the second period. The United States of America, the world’s second highest GHG emitter, remains outside the protocol.

The US and some other rich countries insist they will not sign any legally enforceable GHG emission reduction treaty unless all countries – rich and poor – do so. Their main targets are China and India, now the world’s largest and third largest emitters, though most of the extra GHG in the atmosphere – mainly carbon dioxide – has been put there by rich countries. India and China point out that even now, their emissions per head are far lower than in the US, and that they have already made voluntary pledges to move towards a greener development path. That does not satisfy most rich country governments, and the stalemate continues. India’s cabinet reiterated last week that the country would not sign any legally enforceable GHG emission control pledge. The prognosis for the Doha negotiations is not good.

It has worsened in recent years because poor countries suspect rich countries are not keeping promises to give them $30 billion between 2010 and 2012 to move towards a greener development path, but are using creative accounting instead to say they have done so. A Green Climate Fund has been set up to provide long-term finance for this purpose, but it has no significant amount in its kitty yet. Rich countries say they cannot pay more, due to the on-going global economic slowdown. There is no sign that they will come even close to keeping their pledge of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020. International NGO Oxfam says, “Now, just as the finance needs to ramp up, instead it looks set to fall in 2013.”

These arguments have been repeated during and between the summits of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for nearly two decades, and the bickering seems set to worsen in Doha. Developing countries – which negotiate at climate talks under the umbrella of G77 and China – are seeking the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and stronger emission reduction commitments from developed countries. On the other hand, many rich countries say the protocol has run its course and want to start negotiating for a treaty that will impose legal obligations on all countries after 2020. At the last climate summit in Durban, South Africa, it was decided that these new negotiations would be completed by 2015, but there is no sign that the deadline will be met. Many developing countries “fear that the developed countries are refusing to live up to their commitments to cut emissions and instead are preparing the ground for passing the burden onto the developing countries,” says Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre.

Yvo de Boer, special global adviser, KPMG Climate Change and Sustainability and former executive secretary of the UNFCCC, wrote recently, “Many of the differences between countries revolve around the idea that industrialized countries got rich on the back of emitting greenhouse gases so they should act first, and developing countries should be allowed to develop before being called upon to limit their own emissions. The lack of commitment from much of the industrialized world to accept this burden has contributed to a certain obstructiveness among developing countries.”

While this debate is set to continue over the next two weeks and beyond, the World Meteorological Organization has pointed out that “between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping long-lived gases.” Since the start of the industrial era in 1750, about 375 billion tonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, primarily from fossil fuel combustion, according to WMO’s 2011 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.

“These billions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will remain there for centuries, causing our planet to warm further and impacting on all aspects of life on earth,” says WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Future emissions will only compound the situation.”

The US has seen a summer of record drought followed by Superstorm Sandy, while other countries have seen more cyclones and floods. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that climate change would lead to more frequent and more severe droughts, floods and storms. This has also been a record year for the melting of the Greenland ice cap. Sea levels are already rising – another effect of climate change – and worsening storm effects.

Scientists say emissions have to fall by 25-40% by 2020 if climate change is not to turn catastrophic for human civilization. All governments have agreed to limit average global warming to two degrees Celsius, but current pledges fall around 40% short of doing so, according to the UN Environment Programme. Its latest report says annual global emissions have shot up from 40 billion tonnes in 2000 to the 50 billion tonnes now and is projected to rise to 58 billion tonnes in 2020 if there is no action.

This needs to be brought down to 44 billion tonnes in 2020, to stay within the two-degree limit. But even if countries fulfil the best of their emission-reduction pledges, the 2020 level will be 52 billion tonnes.  The current situation will lead the world to a disastrous four-degree warming, a recent World Bank report has warned.

Given the situation, the global climate regime is at a crossroads, and its direction may be decided at Doha, says Meena Raman of the Third World Network.

Many scientists and environmental activists have questioned the search for an elusive global treaty to combat climate change. They think it will make more sense to have stronger national actions and regional agreements. But de Boer wrote that a global treaty is important to give a boost to those actions, and “businesses and investors will know that the direction of travel is not going to change regardless of day-to-day events. Only then will they have the clarity and security they need to make the long-term technology investments that can tackle climate change.”

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