What will the atmosphere notice of the Durban agreements?

The Durban climate change summit delivered a series of decisions [unfccc.int]. The package is a quite complicated “balancing act” between the interests of various countries (see the WRI and World Bank‘s evaluations of Durban). The most important results were the establishment of a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol [unfcc.int, PDF], the agreement on the governance structure of the Green Climate Fund [unfccc.int, PDF], the establishment of a process to discuss the current pledges for 2020 [unfccc.int, PDF] and the start of negotiations for a legally binding agreement for all countries [unfccc.int, PDF] for the period after 2020 (see the WRI’s analysis of the wording “legally binding”). Politically this has been interpreted as a success, even a “breakthrough” by some in terms of the fact that countries agreed to negotiate a new legally binding agreement for all. What is more important however is how these decisions are going to affect climate change, and more specifically if these decisions will help to keep global temperature increase since 1850 below the 2 or 1.5° Celsius that countries already agreed last year in Cancun as the limit to avoid dangerous impacts of climate change.

As laid out in the recent UNEP Bridging the Gap report, current country pledges to reduce their GHG emissions by 2020 are insufficient to keeping global temperature increase below 2° Celsius. Global emissions levels by 2020 should not be higher than around 44 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2 equivalent, while the collective result of the current pledges will lead to emissions of 50-55 GtCO2 equivalent, depending on how countries stick to the minimum or the high-end of their pledges, and also what rules for land-use change and surplus emission allowances from the Kyoto Protocol are taken into account. A significant gap cannot be compensated after 2020, because that would require extremely costly — and thus unrealistic — draconic measures. This means long-term temperature increase likely between 2.5 and 5°, rather than 2°.

The Durban decisions have not changed anything in the pledges. The decision to extend the Kyoto Protocol with a second period has left reduction targets for developed countries and the length of the period (till 2017 or 2020) open. This needs to be decided in 2013. The US will of course stay away from committment as they have done so far. Japan, Russia and Canada will not participate (with Canada even announcing it will officially leave the Kyoto Protocol). Australia and New Zealand’s participation are unsure. So the European Union (EU)’s 27 members states and a few other countries — covering not more than 12-15% of global emissions — will likely be the only ones subscribing to the second commitment period, with their current low-end pledges that they will implement anyway. Decisions on accounting rules for land-use change and Kyoto surplus emission allowances have been postponed, making it more likely that countries can adopt their own rules rather than commonly agreed ones. Result: developed country 2020 emissions will likely be the low-end of current pledges, unless further pledge discussions in the coming years will lead to the strengthening of ambition — an unlikely outcome given the economically difficult times.

Developing country pledges for 2020 have also not been affected by the Durban decisions, since these countries will only be required to participate in a new agreement after 2020. The availability of financial support from developed countries will determine if they will reach the high end of their pledges. This is connected to the famous $100 billion-by-2020 that was pledged by developed countries in Cancun last year. No progress has been achieved in Durban on generating new sources of finance to get to this amount — remember, the decision on the Green Climate Fund in Durban was just on governance issues. So the collective effect of the developing country pledges for 2020 is unlikely to reach their maximum potential, unless — as for the developed countries — the process to further discuss ambition levels will lead to more ambitious pledges. Since developing countries have agreed to be part of a new agreement, with legally binding obligations, after 2020, it is not very likely they will raise their ambition before 2020.

The overall result is that — unless something changes fundamentally — we probably will end up with 2020 global emission levels closer to 55 GtCO2 equivalent than to 50 Gt, meaning that we would be on a global trajectory towards 3-4 or even 5° C.

Negotiations for emissions reductions in the period after 2020 are of course necessary and the fact that it was agreed to finalise those negotiations by 2015 at the latest is essential for countries to implement policies in time. However, there is no guarantee that these negotiations will be successfully completed in time. The grumbling from developing countries about the Durban decisions (see the Third World Network PDF bulletin and the relevant Scientific American article) does not bode well. And as a reminder: the Kyoto Protocol contains a clause that the emission reductions for the period after 2012 should be agreed by 2007, something that has yet to happen.

Is there no hope then for any positive development in the period till 2020? Well, actually there is some hope, but my hope lies mostly outside the UNFCCC negotiations. If the costs of solar and wind energy keep coming down as they have in the past couple of years (see this New Scientist article) and if governments [cta.int] and business [youtube.com] can be convinced that green growth strategy is more beneficial than continuing on the fossil-fuel-climate-change-causing pathway, we could see more clean energy investments and more ambitious policies to reduce GHG emissions. The big question however is if this comes in time for the narrow window we still have to keep on track to a 2°C warmer world.

So Durban might have been a giant step for international negotiations, but it is only a minor one for the global atmosphere.

The other side of Durban: Green Growth

There are in fact two conferences going on in Durban: one is about the official UN negotiations on further international agreements on climate change. The other is a huge gathering of people exploring and showcasing things that are happening on the ground around the world. A theme that is attracting a lot of attention is Green Growth.

It is important to integrate climate change into the main policies on development, economic growth and job creation, as discussed in chapter 4 of Controlling Climate Change (see book contents section to download). For most nations these central economic issues are far more important than dealing with climate change. By starting from the development and economic growth side the question then is how these economic goals can be achieved, while also creating an economy that has low greenhouse gas emissions, is less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and is efficient with its water, energy and other resources. This is green growth, and it’s necessary to confront climate change.

This idea replaces the traditional thinking of seeing climate change action as a threat to economic growth into a new paradigm in which climate change, environment and resource efficiency become fully integrated in economic policy as a way to secure future economic growth. This would avoid environmental and climate disasters and scarcity of water, energy or other resources damaging growth and development.. Many countries, but also cities, are beginning to apply this new thinking. In Durban there are many events where countries present their green growth or low carbon emissions development plans.

Some examples: China was showcasing its low carbon cities and provinces programme under which strategic plans are developed for 5 provinces and 8 cities to shift the economies of these cities and provinces to a low carbon trajectory. Korea has adopted a formal green growth strategy, personally overseen by the President. It also established a Global Green Growth Institute that is charged with assisting developing countries to do the same. Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru are developing low emissions development plans with assistance from various institutes and South Africa. This is an interesting example of South-South collaboration, made possible by the fact that South Africa did start developing its own plan years ago and has now issued a South African national climate change response strategy. In Africa also Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya and Rwanda are developing such plans. Follow this link to the Open Energy Info site to see an overview.

The official negotiations are in fact still based on the old paradigm (action in climate change is bad for the economy), which leads to an attitude of “you first”, “only if you act too” or to attempts to be exempted from action. The new paradigm is getting more and more support- particularly at the national level, but has not yet reached a critical mass to significantly influence the official negotiations. The hope is that the belief in and experience with Green Growth will increase and that at some point (which could be years away unfortunately) it will begin to dominate the thinking. At that moment it could lead to a very different negotiation dynamic. If Green Growth is beneficial to countries, they all want it and will seek cooperation to speed it up. That could really make a big difference.

What will the Durban summit deliver

From November 28 till December 9 COP 17, the annual Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC is taking place in Durban, South Africa. This is the meeting where further decisions could be made on actions to control climate change in the period after 2012 (when the reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol expire).

As covered in Chapter 12 of my book, negotiations have been ongoing since 2007 and have not yet resulted in a global agreement. Is Durban going to change this?

In at the Copenhagen COP 15 meeting in 2009 many countries, both developed and developing, made voluntary pledges to reduce or limit the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and to provide financial support to developing countries to allow them to make a major contribution – the so called ‘Copenhagen Accord’. In 2010 at the COP 16 in Cancun these pledges were formally acknowledged in a unanimous decision by all Parties. Parties also agreed that global temperatures should not increase more than 2°C above the pre-industrial level. The major differences about a binding treaty were however not resolved.

Current trends

Two recent reports give a dire picture of where we are going. The UNEP Bridging the Gap assessment evaluated what the current pledges from countries will deliver in terms of global emission levels, in comparison to what is needed to stay on track to a 2°C target. Chapter 3 of my book discusses this issue of deep emission reductions in the short term, needed for limiting long-term temperature increase. The findings are very worrying: in the most optimistic case assuming all countries deliver the high ends of their pledges, global reductions will only be about half of what they should be, putting the world on track to about 3°C of warming. And in case countries only achieve the low end of their pledges – and that is where we seem to be heading – we are on track to warming of about 5°C, not 2°C, with very serious consequences.

The 2011 World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency says it differently: “2010 emissions were at an all time high” and “the door to 2°C is closing” if there are no strong additional actions taken before 2017, because current policies put us on track to 6°C warming and even with some additional action to at least 3.5°C. The WEO also points out that every dollar not invested in clean technology before 2020 will cost 4 times as much if it needs to be done after 2020. That is the price of building high-carbon energy infrastructure first that would have to be scrapped later.

Durban action

So the stakes are high for Durban. The Kyoto Protocol says that reductions for the period after 2012 would have to be agreed by 2007, in order to have sufficient time to implement policies and influence investments. That did not happen. And now it is 2011, with 2020 around the corner. You might expect that countries are now talking about how they all can strengthen their actions under the Kyoto Protocol: rich countries going to deeper reduction targets and developing countries accepting binding commitments to take actions to limit the growth of their emissions. But no, developing countries refuse to make binding commitments now and insist that only rich countries should do that, the US refuses to join the Kyoto Protocol (that they rejected from the start), Japan, Russia and Canada refuse to participate in the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol unless all big emitters (including the major emerging economies in the developing world) join. Only the European Union and a few small countries seem willing to enter into a new Kyoto Protocol phase, but only if all others accept that in 2015 a new binding treaty for all will be agreed. The US and Canada have already publicly announced they will not do that.

What will this mean for the necessary strengthening of country emission reductions? Indeed, that will not happen. Countries are keeping each other prisoner and global emissions will continue to rise. There may be some token decision at the end of the Durban meeting to continue the negotiations towards a new treaty, but that is very unlikely to deliver any short term strengthening of actions.

It is not all gloom and doom though. It is not impossible that agreement will be reached on governance and structure of the new Green Climate Fund, which will be a useful step. Some of the Cancun decisions, such as on monitoring progress by countries, might be operationalised. Some progress might also be made in organising a network of technology centres to assist developing countries in adopting clean technologies. And there are very encouraging discussions in the corridors in Durban about country efforts to realise a transition to a green and low carbon economy. More about that in the next report.

Free book and chapter downloads now available

Confused about the current climate debate? Studying sustainable energy, transportation, land-use or climate change policy? Needing a concise overview of how to bring climate change under control? Here is a useful resource for you.

It is my pleasure to announce that Cambridge University Press has agreed to allow free PDF downloads of my book “Controlling Climate Change” (2010) via my official book website. Please go to www.controllingclimatechange.net and let your friends know as well.

A review of the book, from the British Royal Meteorological Society’s “Weather” journal: ”I can summarize this book in one word: excellent. It ought to be required reading for anyone interested in understanding what humanity can do to limit climate change.” (December 2010)

How is the EU doing on its climate and energy policy targets?

You may be confused about the EU’s internal policy targets on energy and climate change. What are these targets exactly? What about raising the 20% emission reduction target for 2020 to 30%? Is the EU meeting also its energy efficiency targets? And what about the long term target of 80-95% reduction of emissions?

A very good explanation can be found on the European Climate Foundation website, where a video has been made explaining short- and long-term energy policy objectives.

Digital download to come soon

I have been cleared by the Cambridge University Press to allow free download of the full book in PDF format. Until then, you can find excerpts on Amazon.

If you like the book, please consider purchasing a hard- or soft-cover! Also, I would be honoured if this book would be recommended reading in any meteorological or climate science class.

Return soon to download the full text!