21 May 2012

Africa: UN Climate Talks Need Fresh Ambition On Emissions

A week into the U.N. climate negotiations in Bonn - my first as the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) - it has become abundantly clear to me that, at these talks, the devil is in the details.

This is particularly true when it comes to accounting for the reductions countries have pledged to make to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.

According to a recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, total global emissions approached the equivalent of 48 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (GtC02e) in 2010 and are on track to hit 56 GtC02e in 2020.

It also found that annual emissions must be reduced to below 44 GtC02e in 2020, and continue declining steeply thereafter to avoid warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels - to say nothing of the more cautious temperature goal of "well-below 1.5 degrees Celsius" that is supported by over 100 vulnerable countries.

However, even if countries achieve the more ambitious end of their pledges, we would fall short of the scientifically determined mitigation requirement by 6 to 8 GtC02e in 2020, as was noted in the climate agreement reached in Durban last year.

Already, life-altering changes have been observed across our membership as a result of an average global temperature increase of less than 1 degree Celsius, including the loss of islands in parts of Kiribati and the Maldives, as well as more frequent and intense storms, heat waves, droughts and other climate impacts.

In other words, unless the emissions gap is closed in the near-term, the opportunity to avoid further - potentially catastrophic - damage may irrevocably be lost.

In Bonn, AOSIS presented our proposal to close the gap: what we're calling our "Workplan For Survival."

As we show in our submissions, there is abundant evidence demonstrating that deep emissions reductions in line with scientific recommendations can be made quickly and affordably.

For example, most of the pledges from developed countries were first brought forward in 2009. Climate change has since accelerated, but the cost of renewable energy technology has fallen - making more ambitious action readily achievable.

Furthermore, the UNEP report found that increasing the share of renewables in the global energy mix from about 10 percent today to 15 percent by 2020 could trim the equivalent of 4 GtC02e off the emissions gap. Jumping to 20 percent renewables holds the potential to close the gap entirely.

Other measures, such as limiting the subsidies enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry could lead to emissions savings of another 2 to 3 GtC02e.

Finally, developed countries need to come forward with sufficient financial resources so that developing countries can take full advantage of the many opportunities to reduce their own emissions at the level required.


The risk of overshooting the temperature target is made even worse by a failure to establish a common and transparent system to track mitigation efforts.

One difficulty is that countries use different baseline years from which to measure emissions reductions. Some developed countries use 1990 as a starting point; others prefer 2005 as a point of reference.

Developing countries, which have considerably lower historic and per capita emissions, express pledges in a variety of ways - making it difficult to quantify the total impact of the reductions.

While several of these countries have set ambitious targets, in some cases considerably more ambitious than their counterparts in the developed world, a common accounting system would clarify the environmental benefit of the actions.

Further complicating matters are loopholes that allow countries to show progress toward meeting their pledge without actually keeping any emissions out of the atmosphere.

For example, surplus emissions allowances under the Kyoto Protocol could potentially allow countries to increase their emissions over the next five years.

Other offsets enable countries to make progress toward meeting their target on paper by preserving forests and other carbon-sequestering habitats. The programme has the potential to protect biological diversity and limit emissions, but without clear and transparent rules dedicated to environmental integrity it is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the true mitigation impact.

The UNEP report found that applying strict, common sense rules to land use and forestry credits alone has the potential to reduce emissions by 2 to 3 GtC02e.

With time running out to close the emissions gap, it is essential that countries not only increase their mitigation ambition, but also adopt a common set of accounting rules at the upcoming conference in Doha. The stakes are too high to rely on guesswork.

Around the world, companies are required to use transparent and comparable bookkeeping to give shareholders confidence in reported profits. It seems reasonable that we should apply the same standard to managing the climate crisis.

Sai Navoti is lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States.

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