The Long Road To Copenhagen


The US says it will never sign Kyoto.

Bangladesh’s representative says that "Keeping Kyoto is non-negotiable".

And the G-77, a loose coalition of 130 developing nations, accuses the US and other developed countries of trying to "fundamentally sabotage" Kyoto. As the Copenhagen meeting approaches, negotiations are stuck in a game of chicken about whether to "tweak, bolster or bury" Kyoto.

The seeds of the current impasse were planted at COP13 in Bali in 2007 and have been nourished in subsequent negotiations. In Bali, the European Union proposed a framework that included global emissions peaking in 10 to 15 years and emissions targets between 20 and 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Discussion in Bali focused on a table in the 2007 IPCC report which said that for a 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2e) target, the industrialised Annex 1 countries would need to reduce emissions by 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and that industrialising nations would need to reduce their emissions growth below "business-as-usual". This, it was thought, might provide a basis for Copenhagen. Notably, the Bali Action Plan also set 2009 as a deadline for finalising a post-Kyoto plan.

The EU proposal was strongly opposed by the United States — and Australia. In a flood of tears and acrimony, the final Bali session continued through the night to produce a compromise that mandated "deep cuts in global emissions", with footnote references to the IPCC report but no specific figures. This 25–40/2020 target has since dropped off the radar in most developed economies — including the EU and Australia — and was never on the screen for the Obama Administration.

The 25–40/2020 target is itself misleading, however, in that the original IPCC report notes that these "emissions reductions … might be underestimated due to missing carbon cycle feedbacks". The sensitivity of the climate to global warming is also expected to increase rapidly, a point made by Australian scientist Professor Will Steffen in his recent report for the Australian Department of Climate Change.

There are two big issues here.

Firstly, most Annex 1 countries won’t go near 40 per cent reductions — which Potsdam Institute Director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber says is a minimum target. The developing nations bloc insists that 40 per cent or more must be on the table, and while the European Union is pushing 30 per cent and Japan 25 per cent, the United States won’t approach either.

Secondly, the Annex 1 countries are now demanding that the large industrialising economies like China, Brazil and India also take on obligatory targets. They argue that these nations represent the fast-growing emissions sector and thus that their release from mandatory action under the Kyoto Protocol is no longer warranted. China’s actual emissions are now roughly the same as the United States in total, but per capita they are only one quarter. India’s per capita emissions are less than one-tenth of Australia’s.

Demands that industrialising nations — whose per capita emissions are so much lower than those of Annex 1 nations — agree to mandated targets have gone down like a lead balloon. Such demands are especially jarring when those making them won’t commit to significant reductions themselves.

Developing nations fear that the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" is being tossed aside. This fear seems well based, with Annex 1 nations including Australia, the USA and the EU now saying that the architecture of Kyoto should be dropped in favour of a new structure in which each country commits to its own, self-regulated national target without binding it to a global treaty.

UN Environment Program chief Achim Steiner sums up the problem: "Those who have the greatest legacy … in terms of carbon emissions in the air — the industrialised world — have to lead and that leadership at the moment seems to be not yet forthcoming which in turn is making developing countries say well if you are not willing to take these steps, then please do not ask us to make major changes in our economies."

Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G-77 is more blunt: "The European Union, Australia, Japan, the rest of the developed countries need to rise up to the challenge rather than race to the bottom with the United States."

As COP15 approaches, the gap between developed and developing countries seems to be getting bigger, with no indication as to how or whether it is likely to be resolved.

And within the G-77 itself, there are significant differences. In raw political terms, what India and China do or don’t do means more than the other 128 developing nations put together, but the differences are nonetheless important.

Some of the most vulnerable nations, grouped as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), want global targets for 2020 as well as 2050, aimed at "well below 1.5 degrees Celsius" because they understand their countries will simply be submerged or unlivable at the 2 degree target of convenience.

The 43 Small Island Developing States — which represent some 20 per cent of the members of the UN General Assembly — have advocated stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations well below 350ppm CO2e. They are now supported in this demand by the least developed countries bloc (LDCs), who are particularly vulnerable to global warming because they lack capacity to adapt.

Most of these groups are not keen on carbon offsetting schemes that transfer pollution reduction responsibilities from the high per capita emitters to underdeveloped nations, because they rightly judge that such schemes become a substitute for hardcore cuts in domestic emissions among the Annex 1 nations. Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have embraced Australia’s International Carbon Forest Initiative, which provides technical assistance to set up forest carbon marketing schemes as a precursor to introducing Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD).

But REDD provides no benefits to the poorest states who have hardly any industrial emissions, limited agricultural emissions and no forests: Pacific island states such as Tuvalu and Kiribati worry that the end result will be Australia and others simply off-loading their responsibilities to others as the Rudd Government’s proposed ETS legislation explicitly does.

The carbon trading and financial transfers systems — established at Kyoto at the insistence of the US delegation led by Al Gore — and including the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), worry many because they act like the sale of indulgences by the medieval church, absolving the purchasers for their immoral actions. But the Europe/USA bloc have put carbon trading at the core of their emissions reduction strategies, while the two largest emitters of carbon outside the developed world, China and India, are the main beneficiaries of CDM financing.

Yet the US Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that emissions trading had failed to accomplish its basic objective and that CDM "additionality" (which involves demonstrating that a project would not proceed otherwise) was impossible to prove: "carbon offsets involve fundamental trade-offs and may not be a reliable long-term approach to climate change mitigation." In other words, there are a lot of snouts in the trough.

The GAO report goes to the heart of the matter: carbon offsets and long-term emission reduction strategies may simply be incompatible. If further evidence is required, consider that now the definition of technologies to be covered by the CDM is under discussion, with Australia pushing to include so-called "clean coal" carbon storage and sequestration and "efficient" coal-fired power stations. Other nations like Japan have tried to promote nuclear power as a "clean" technology as a way of diverting funds to prop up their failing nuclear industry.

Money and technology sharing and transfer will be key components of any deal between the big polluters with their historic carbon debt and the underdeveloped nations. Any agreement will depend on how much will be paid to help those without the material capacity to adapt to global warming and build new, low-emission economies.

Here again the negotiations are bogged down. The Kyoto signatories agreed that developed countries would provide "new and additional" funds to assist "developing countries … particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting the costs of adaptation to those adverse effects," but little has materialised.

Then there is the cost of mitigation, of providing funding to allow developing nations to build clean-energy economies and avoid the high-emission technologies that we have constructed. Lord Stern says it could cost possibly $2 trillion annually to put a new system of renewable energy in place around the world. Perhaps half of that sum will need to be spent in the developing world.

Yet the current discussion does not approach figures of this magnitude. In September, Oxfam proposed a starting annual mitigation budget of $US50 billion annually; Gordon Brown has suggested the climate financing package could cost US$100 billion a year; and the World Bank thinks US$400 billion annually by 2030.

An August 2009 report reviewing the UNFCCC’s 2007 assessment of the additional annual investment needed by 2030 to cover the costs of adaptation to climate change found that the estimate of $27–66 billion per year for developing countries was too low — by a factor of two of three. If ecosystem protection is added to adaptation programs, adaptation could add up to $US300 billion a year globally.

Australia is yet to commit to funding clean technology to help the poorer countries adapt to climate change and has joined other developed nations in demanding that developing nations itemise their proposed adaptation actions before discussions of climate aid take place.

Developing countries have refused to play along. They can rightly point to recent practices such as Australia’s $150 million International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative, where much of the money was never seen by the intended recipient nations. Instead it flows to the World Bank and other NGOs, leadership programs and research — or is spent domestically in Australia.

Australia’s per capita emissions are 22 tonnes CO2e per person. In India, Vietnam and Nepal, the figure is less than two tonnes. The developing world has a right to raise living standards and the industrialised world has a moral duty to support that endeavour. Stringent emission targets are necessary to ensure that we have a world fit for all people to live in. A financing commitment at Copenhagen to allow for the sustainable development of the world’s poorest nations is essential.

We will have to pay a good deal to make this happen. The world spent trillions on the global financial crisis, little of which was directed to climate-friendly projects. If developed nations cry poor at Copenhagen, we will know that global capital has decided that saving the banks is more important than saving the planet.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.