Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 31 May 2010

Dire scientists' warning as climate talks resume

As the global climate talks resume today, an article by prominent scientists has warned that the pledges made under the Copenhagen Accord are “paltry” and will increase rather than decrease emissions.


 As the UN Climate Change Convention resumes its meetings today, a new article by prominent scientists has warned that recent pledges made by countries under the Copenhagen Accord are

amazingly unambitious and could lead to a 20% emissions increase by 2020.

It will be the first time since last December's contentious Copenhagen conference that the parties will engage in serious substantive talks.

In April, the Chair of the working group on long-term cooperative action, Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe of Zimbabwe was asked to produce a new text to facilitate discussions. 

She was asked to draw on the previous Chair's draft and other reports arising from Copenhagen, as well as the controversial Copenhagen Accord (arising from a meeting of some political leaders) and other new proposals to be submitted.

The new paper has come out.  It uses the previous report as a base, and incorporates all the elements of the Copenhagen Accord as new options, thus “marrying” the controversial Accord with the mainstream documents.  This should satisfy the proponents of the Accord, especially the United States.

But the new paper did not include elements from the most prominent of the new proposals, that of Bolivia which hosted a People's Climate Summit in April, and whose views are very different from the Accord.  In some key areas, such as the amount of funds to assist developing countries fight climate change, the views of the G77 and China are missing..

We can thus expect countries to ask that their missing points and paragraphs be put in.  The Chair has said she is amenable to hearing the views and changing her draft.

The Kyoto Protocol (KP) working group will also be meeting. The big issue is whether the KP will survive. Almost all the developed countries that are KP members have indicated they want to abandon it.

They have been very reluctant to have the KP working group make progress on their commitments on an aggregate emission reduction of developed countries, and on their individual targets.

There is a deadlock in the KP process, with developing countries insisting that the KP must stay alive, with a second commitment period starting in 2013, while  most if not all Annex I parties in the KP are already preparing to jump ship to the Copenhagen Accord vessel.

Under the Accord, unlike the KP, there is no aggregate reduction commitment for developed countries as a whole, and there is no legally binding commitment for each country.  Moreover, the developed countries do not have to give targets that are adequate to keep the world's temperature within a 1.5 or even 2 degrees rise.

This “voluntary pledge” system of the Accord is opposite to the KP approach. The Accord allows the developed countries to do as they like, and is thus a “Great Escape” for them, as one delegate put it.

The devastating effects of a voluntary regime like the Copenhagen Accord have been highlighted in a recent article in the scientific journal, Nature, written by Joeri Rogelj, Malte Meinshausen and other scientists from Potsdam Institute, Climate Analytics and Ecofys in Germany.

Entitled “Copenhagen Accord pledges are paltry”, the article concludes that the present emission-reduction pledges made under the Accord will lead to a world with global emissions of 47.9 gigatonnes to 53.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (GtCO2-eq) per year by 2020.  This is 10 to 20 per cent higher than today's levels. 

And if nations proceed on the basis of the few pledges they have made for 2050, the Copenhagen Accord will almost certainly miss its own 2 degrees centigrade goal (to limit the mean global temperature increase to 2 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels).   The scientists estimate there is more than a 50% chance the warming will exceed 3 degrees by 2100.

According to scientific estimates, an increase above 2 degrees (new evidence indicates 1.5 degrees is actually the required threshold) will cause immense damage, while a 3 degree temperature rise will be catastrophic for life on Earth.

No wonder the article says: “It is amazing how unambitious these pledges are.”  This is quite a strong criticism in a scientific journal, but even then it is an understatement.

What is most shocking is the articles' findings on the pledges of developed countries. Not only were their pledges inadequate, these countries can also benefit from “loopholes” such as the use of “surplus allowances” (earned by some countries especially Russia for emitting less than their allocated share in recent years) and accounting rules in land-use.

These loopholes allow the countries to emit an estimated 12 to 13 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents on top of their pledged amounts.

In their pessimistic projection, the scientists estimate that the developed countries in 2020 would emit 19.9 gigatonnes, or 6.5% above their 1990 emissions.

This compares with the 25-40% reduction that developed countries should undertake, according to the most cited scientific estimate, and with the cut of 40% that developing countries are asking them to do.

This level also exceeds projections of what would happen in developed countries if they take no additional action by 2020, according to the article.  “In other words, in the worst case the Copenhagen Accord pledges could permit emission allowances to exceed our business-as-usual projections.”

Even in the optimistic scenario, where the developed countries would not use surplus allowances and would meet the high end of the range in their pledges, they would emit 15.7 gigatonnes in 2020, or 15.6% below 1990 levels.         

Both the pessimistic and optimistic numbers (6.5% increase and 15.6% decrease) miss the 25-40% target and “illustrates the massive deficiency of the Copenhagen Accord,” says the article.

It also estimates that after including the developing countries' emissions, the global emissions in 2020 could be 47.9 to 53.6 gigatonnes.

A 48 gigatonne level in 2020 “is not on track, it is equivalent to racing towards a cliff and hoping to stop just before it,” say the scientists, who indicate that any 2020 level beyond 44 gigatonne is dangerous.

The prospects for limiting global warming to 2 degrees are in “dire peril” and the Copenhagen Accord is not the global agreement that is required, the scientists conclude.

This is a sombre article that should be in the backdrop of the climate talks these two weeks.