Africa: Climate Conversations - Is Progress On Climate Change an Illusion?


The world is not organised to deal with the climate change problem. Climate change is a global problem, but there is, of course, no global government with the interests of the earth as a whole at heart. Rather, there are sovereign states, the interests and concerns of which are very different.

This difference is recognised in one way by both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCCC states that "developed" and "developing" states have "common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" in dealing with climate change. Under the UNFCCC, it's clear that developed countries "should take the lead in combating climate change" and its effects.

These are very successful treaties - at least in terms of signatories. There are 194 state parties to the UNFCCC. And there are no legally binding limits on emissions for those parties to it (which might help to explain its success).

There are 191 state parties to Kyoto. Parties to that treaty in general agree to reduce their overall emissions either individually or jointly by at least 5 percent below 1990 levels in a first commitment period from 2008 to 2012.

Under Kyoto, only developed states have mitigation targets. Those targets owe less to climate change science than they do to the quality of the negotiating teams of state parties to Kyoto.

Against this background, at Durban last year - at meetings of parties to the UNFCCC and Kyoto (COP 17/CMP 7) - did the planet benefit? What was actually achieved? Was it enough to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the global warming limit adopted by parties to the UNFCCC? And what are the implications for Doha (COP 18/CMP 8) and beyond?


At Durban, state parties to the Kyoto Protocol - with exceptions (Canada, Japan and Russia) - decided on a second commitment period, to begin on 1 January 2013 and end either in 2017 or 2020 (the end date to be determined sometime this year).

Kyoto will cover only about 14 percent or 15 percent of the world's emissions - a figure widely used at Durban.

Durban also launched a "Platform for Enhanced Action," a non-binding agreement "to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force" under the UNFCCC and applicable to all parties - both developed and developing.

Any such protocol, legal instrument or "agreed outcome with legal force" is to be concluded by 2015 - with "pledges" from developed and developing state parties to reduce emissions - and ostensibly to come into effect and be implemented from 2020. These parties would also, of course, need to ratify such an agreement.

Including both developed and developing state parties would represent what Tod Stern, the chief US climate change negotiator, refers to as the end of the "firewall" between the obligations of developed and developing states.

But this "Durban Platform" is simply an agreement to reach agreement - an agreement to agree. Indeed, post-Durban, India's environment minister said that the agreement does not mean that "India has to take binding commitments to reduce its emissions in absolute terms in 2020."

If - if - parties reach agreement and targets commence in 2020, what happens between now and then, in a decade critical for achieving the 2 degrees limit (and the Durban Platform even refers to strengthening this to 1.5 degrees)? Some states will, and some states may, take voluntary action, but verification and other issues need to attend such action.

In 2007 the non-binding Bali "road map" was agreed with a view to a post-2012 agreement. Now there is an agreement - the Durban Platform - which is procedural in nature and aims to work towards a 2015 agreement with a 2020 start date for developed and developing states.

And as time elapses, and with every delay, the ambitions for agreement unsurprisingly increase.

It's the illusion of progress.

And this in a world where, if an agreement was to be concluded between just the world's 5 largest emitters (developed or developing) - between China (producing 29 percent of emissions), the US (16 percent), India (6 percent), Russia (5 percent) and Japan (4 percent) - none of whom have had (or will have) targets under the Kyoto process - such an agreement would cover 60 percent of global emissions (71 percent if the EU is added).

For China, its per capita CO2 emissions increased by 9 percent over the past year, prompting this from the journal Nature:

"For years, China has dismissed concerns about its rising carbon emissions by pointing out that, on a per-capita basis, Chinese citizens still emit far less that their counterparts in the industrialised world. But now that China's per-capita emissions are on par with those of the European Union, that argument will be much harder to make."

Perhaps it's time to consider alternatives to the UNFCCC.


One alternative way forward would be to break the climate change problem up into different pieces, to contemplate a more decentralised arrangement in which particular issues are discussed and negotiated. One academic has said that "since an agreement among the major emitters is unlikely anytime soon, we should seek progress where we can, through whatever means and in any forums that are available."

Two US academics propose a climate change "regime complex" - a loosely coupled set of specific regimes.

They say that efforts to "build an effective, legitimate, and adaptable comprehensive regime are unlikely to succeed," and argue that a climate change regime complex has advantages in terms of adaptability and flexibility - characteristics which are "particularly important in an environment of high uncertainty, such as in the case of climate change where the most demanding international commitments are interdependent yet governments vary widely in their interest and ability to implement such commitments."

Others refer to an incremental 'building blocks' approach.

Both approaches could involve, for example, addressing the issue of climate change displacement through a treaty, the focus of which would be adaptation.

Perhaps momentum favours a "bottom-up" outcome. Perhaps, at some point post-Durban, post-Doha, we will see a shift away from a top-down, "Kyoto-style" architecture for international climate action, to a more bottom-up approach.

Eric Posner and David Weisbach (of the University of Chicago Law School) talk about "the futility of addressing poverty, past injustices and climate change in a single negotiation (which is what the UNFCCC and Kyoto seek to do). ... No principle of justice requires that these problems be addressed simultaneously or multilaterally."

There are, however, problems with even these approaches, and the aviation industry provides a good example.

The Kyoto Protocol states that the aviation emissions problem should be dealt with by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN body responsible for international aviation. But ICAO has for years made no progress at all.

The EU - weary of delay - this year included all international flights landing at or taking off from a European destination in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The result? The US, China and India (and it takes a lot to bring these states together on a climate change matter) called on the EU to exclude non-EU carriers from the scheme, with the support of ICAO. The inclusion of aviation in the EU emissions scheme was challenged in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a challenge which was unsuccessful.

The US House of Representatives passed legislation that would make it unlawful for US airlines to comply with the EU law. If such legislation passes the Senate (which is unlikely), airlines would be unable to fly to and from Europe without breaking either a federal US law or a EU law.

It's not possible to make this up. And all of this against a background (based on IPCC calculations) where aviation's growing contribution to total emissions, estimated at 3 percent, could actually be as high as 8 percent.

Again, then, there are problems with sectoral as well as global approaches to addressing the climate change problem as the example of international aviation reveals.


Other problems related to (or with implications for) climate change afflict the planet: the acidification of the oceans, loss of rainforests, desertification, the growth of megacities, and famine, for example.

All of these global problems have one underlying cause: each becomes more difficult and then impossible to solve 'with ever more people,' as David Attenborough has noted.

Laurence Smith of the University of California, Los Angeles, in his book The World in 2050, asks that, if you could 'play God' and do the 'ethically fair' thing (and ethics are at the heart of the international climate change regime) and suddenly convert the developing world's level of consumption to that enjoyed by the developed world, would you?

For Smith, such a world would be frightening: an eleven-fold increase in consumption, as if the world's population had increased to 72 billion.

Smith then supposes, perhaps more relevantly, that such a transformation happens over the next 40 years. If estimates of a global population of 9.2 billion by 2050 are correct, Smith writes, "then the natural world must step up to provide enough stuff to support the equivalent of 105 billion people today."

Such a world, it has been said is "wholly unsustainable - and yet it is the end goal implicit in nearly all prevailing policy."

Growing global population amplifies a range of other threats, and they are all related to climate change: resource scarcity, for example, and the energy crisis. And energy of course goes to the heart of the climate change problem.

As Michael Klare, the author of the book Resource Wars, notes , "Here's one simple fact without which our deepening energy crisis makes no sense: the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the staggering needs of older industrial powers like the United States along with the voracious thirst of rising powers like China, global energy must grow substantially every year."


Each year the International Energy Agency (IEA) publishes its World Energy Outlook. At its US launch just as the Durban talks were beginning in late 2011, the IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol, said that the door to limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees "is closing forever."

It should be noted here that, even with a rise of less than 2 degrees, impacts can be significant and that, beyond 2 degrees - now the most likely scenario - possibilities for societal and ecosystem adaptation rapidly decline.

Birol asked, "what happens if governments do not change their policies as of 2011?" He answered his own question by saying that he sees "the chances to go to two degrees or 450ppm fading away." He described the scenario as "a horror movie."

Like the IEA's chief economist, and like the UN Environment Programme director Achim Steiner, I see nothing in the Durban outcome (and I suspect it's unlikely that I'll see anything from Doha) that will prevent warming above 2 degrees.

What Durban produced, as Fred Pearce, a British environmental writer and author, has noted, was "an agreement to agree on emissions cuts to begin in 2020, preceded by a voluntary period where nations do what they will. ... That is the bottom line for the planet."

Governments of all kinds, of all hues, developed and developing, do know what needs to be done to address the planet's climate change problem. They just can't - or don't want to - do it. Or they just don't like the answers.

David Hodgkinson, a lawyer, leads an international project team which is drafting a treaty to address the problem of climate change displacement.

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