Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 20 June 2011

Climate Regime on the Brink

At the climate talks in Bonn in the past fortnight, the deadlock over the Kyoto Protocol continued, with a real prospect that the global climate regime will unravel.


The last two weeks have seen the first real negotiations on climate change since the United Nations conference in Cancun last December.

Many issues were discussed at the meetings in Bonn (6-17 June) of four bodies under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  On some issues there was, thankfully, some progress. 

The progress was in the setting up of a Standing Committee on finance (that is expected to oversee and track climate funds for developing countries), a technology transfer mechanism, and an adaptation committee to help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change.

Also discussed was the concern that in taking climate actions, developed countries may cause economic or social harm to poorer countries.  Some developed countries are already preparing unilateral measures to impose charges or taxes on goods and services of developing countries, an issue highlighted at a special workshop in Bonn.

The Europeans came under fire for their new scheme to tax foreign airlines that do not meet greenhouse gases emissions standards. There was also concern over some United States Congress bills that call for an emissions charge on some developing countries’ products. 

In future, such unilateral measures should be discussed before they are designed or implemented, and a forum under the UNFCCC should be set up on the impacts of mitigation actions to provide this kind of preventive diplomacy. This was suggested by many of the developing countries.

Despite good discussions on these issues, however, both the climate situation and the prospects for the global climate regime have become more grim.

Global emissions from the energy sector went up a record 5% last year, according to the International Energy Agency, which painted a doomsday scenario if this trend continues.

Most significantly, the Bonn meetings saw the continuation of the deadlock on the future of the Kyoto Protocol (KP), the legally binding regime that commits developed countries to cut their emissions by certain percentages.

All developed countries except the United States are KP Parties and they are obliged to commit to a second period of emissions reductions after the first period ends in December 2012.  For a smooth transition, the figures for emission cuts for the second period have to be agreed to by this December at the UN climate conference in Durban

But three countries (Japan, Russia, Canada) have announced they will not commit to emissions cuts under the KP in a second period.

The European Union countries, traditionally the strongest members of the KP, have yet to declare conclusively whether they will sign up.  If they do, some others like Norway, Switzerland, possibly New Zealand and Australia may also do so.  

But if they don’t, then the KP will almost surely die out.  In its place will probably be an inferior system of voluntary pledges by both developed and some developing countries.  The outlines of this new system were already ushered in at Cancun.

The inadequacy of such a voluntary system can be seen from the pledges already made by the developed countries.

Instead of cutting their emissions by at least 25-40% below 1990 levels in 2020 as science require (or by more than 40%, as demanded by developing countries), the developed countries will actually increase their emissions by 6% in a bad scenario (based on the lower end of pledges and the use of loopholes) or will only cut by 16% in the good scenario (based on the upper end of pledges and without the use of loopholes). These estimates were made in a report of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) last December.

These pledges, together with targets announced by some developing countries, indicate that the world is moving towards a global temperature increase of between 2.5 to 5 degrees Celsius before the end of this century, according to the report. This is far removed from the 1.5 or 2 degree “safe limit”, and is a recipe for catastrophe.

Recently another report was published showing that the pledges by major developing countries would contain more emission reductions than those of major developed countries.

According to Oxfam, the study it commissioned the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) to do shows that:

  • China’s total emissions reductions could be nearly double those of the US by 2020;

  • The emissions reductions of developing countries could be three times greater than those of the EU by 2020;

  • The emission reductions of China, India, South Africa and Brazil could be slightly greater than the combined efforts of the 7 biggest developed countries – the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia by 2020.  

There is still hope for success in Durban if enough developed countries decide they will go with a second commitment period starting 2013.  And if those developed countries who stay out of the KP also make a comparable effort, under the UNFCCC (of which the US is a Party).

Developing countries meanwhile for the first time are making national targets, and those of the largest countries have been credible, as the SEI report shows.  In future, as they gain more experience and confidence, the developing countries as a whole will be prepared to do even more.

However, it is neither fair nor realistic to expect the developing countries to make the same binding commitments as the developed countries.

Furthermore, to downgrade from the current system with the KP at its centre, to just a voluntary regime in which every country can choose by how much to cut (or raise) their emissions will be a recipe for disaster.

As the Bonn meetings ended last Friday (17 June), the developing countries led by the Group of 77 and China reiterated their strong call that agreement on a second period of the KP be settled this December in Durban.

If that does not take place, we may witness the dismantling of the present regime, even as the events on the ground, such as increased floods, hurricanes and forest fires around the world, indicate that the climate change crisis is already upon us.