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.