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Durban climate change conference: is it time to forget about 2C of warming?

Tom Levitt

8th November, 2011

Ahead of the latest UN climate conference, Tom Levitt asks if its time we let go of the holy grail of targets and looked at alternatives such as 'carbon clubs'?

After two decades of dithering the 2C goal is already history

Second tier politicians will gather around and agree of the need to tackle the problem of climate change and possibly commit funds for poorer countries for adaptation.

A binding or voluntary agreement on cutting carbon dioxide emissions will remain out of reach though, with the US, China and subsequently others, unwilling to commit to substantial reductions.

As things stand, it’s the most likely outcome from the latest instalment of the annual climate talks taking place later this month in Durban, South Africa. Roll on 2012.

But there is another way. Led by political academics, there is an emerging consensus that it is time to drop idealistic hopes of an all-encompassing and workable global deal.

A decade of failure


The summits in Copenhagen and Cancun continued what a number of observers believe is a forlorn quest to get the major polluting countries to agree a legally binding greenhouse gas emission reduction deal.

‘We’ve been doing the same kind of approach for 20 years now, and it’s going nowhere’, explains Professor Scott Barrett, from the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Simply put, the major polluting countries like the US, Russia and China are unwilling to commit to making the changes to their industries and economies that would be necessary to make a real difference to climate change.

‘We’re expecting the world to do something it is just not ready to do and we’ve already delayed action for two decades,’ says Professor Barrett.

One major factor holding back a new approach is the groundbreaking Kyoto Treaty, which committed countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by around 5 per cent below their 1990 levels by 2013.

With the US refusing to join in the agreement and global emissions on the rise, the Treaty, however well intentioned, is failing in its ultimate goal.

Less industrialised countries in the global south, who are expected to bear the brunt of the worst effects of climate change, are unsurprisingly reluctant to let go of the one binding commitment they have from the major-polluting countries to reduce emissions.

For now the negotiations on an extension to the Kyoto Treaty, which expires at the end of 2012, continue. But hardly anyone expects an agreement to be reached.

‘Kyoto is just too complicated. Countries are wary of agreeing to it in case it has some terrible consequences for national interest down the line,’ says Oliver Tickell, author of Kyoto2.

Dr Heike Schroeder from the Tyndall Centre says Japan, Russia and Canada have already said they will oppose any new deal. While the EU says it is unwilling to agree to a deal without the US, which in turn says it won’t agree to any deal without China.

‘It’s become a game of “passing the buck” with no-one willing to do anything,’ says Dr Schroeder.

Environmental campaign groups have been blamed, in part, for the continued push for a target-driven global deal. 

While accepting the slow progress of negotiations, Friends of the Earth say abandoning the UN process altogether would see, ‘global temperatures rise by five degrees – putting people and wildlife all over the world in grave jeopardy’.

Even sceptical groups like Carbon Trade Watch, while accepting the limitations of Kyoto - no emissions reductions, no sanctions on those failing to reach targets and a carbon market that rewards polluters – say they still want a legally binding deal.

‘Kyoto is based on targets (although weak), which is key for real mitigation,’ says researcher Joanna Cabello. ‘We need a strong legally binding emission reduction targets at source which cannot be bought or sold in any market, and fossil fuels need to be phased-out from our societies.’

The ‘carbon club’ idea

For all the vocal urgency by NGOs and politicians and the clear scientific consensus on man-made climate change, a deal does not appear any closer today than it was two years ago at Copenhagen.

The solution, according to a growing consensus of observers, but which is likely to anger environmental NGOs, is to ditch the UN negotiations, breaking them down into a smaller ‘carbon club’ of the major polluting countries.

What’s more, rather than a top-down global goal to limit warming to 2 degrees, as demanded by climate scientists and campaigners, negotiations should start from what each individual country is willing and able to offer. Be it emission reductions or policies to help spread low-emission investment in developing countries.

‘Negotiations begin with the “carbon club” and focus on policies that countries can reliably implement,’ explains Professor David Victor, a strong advocate, in his book, Global Warming Gridlock.

‘Those policies, which will be offered to other club members as bids, will be contingent. If many countries are willing to adopt strict limits then each nation individually will be wiling to ramp up its own efforts.’

The ultimate goal, says Professor Victor, should be to move away from abstract promises few governments look willing or able to meet. Instead we should look to the example of trade negotiations like World Trade Organisation (WTO) as the model for climate negotiations at Durban and beyond.

‘So far the incentives have favoured speedy negotiations, high-profile summits, and a focus on simplistic emission targets. The result has been the illusion of action but not much impact on the underlying problem.’

There is no reason he suggests why France’s billion-dollar trade deal with China on nuclear reactors couldn’t form part of its carbon club negotiations – given its potential to reduce CO2 emissions. Likewise, Norway’s deal with Indonesia to protect forests could also be part of its bid.

The ‘carbon club’ should also help foster greater collaboration on issues such as R&D into renewables and emission-cutting technologies. The concern from campaigners is that it excludes poorer countries, who may never get compensation or the assistance they need to adapt.

Others like Friends of the Earth argue relying on bilateral agreements would create confusion over tackling climate change, with different baselines, temperature targets and timelines - and a framework vulnerable to short-term political and economic interests.
 
‘Climate change is an international crisis, and it can only be tackled by coordinated international action,’ says campaigns director Craig Bennett.
 But with the slow-plod of current negotiations there may be little choice but to radically change approach.

‘If we keep the UN negotiations as they are organised right now, we’ll see 5 degrees of warming,’ says Professor Victor. ‘Bold goals may make us feel good but environmentalists must start engaging with the political reality.’

The sector-by-sector idea


With literally billions of different sources of carbon dioxide, all closely tied to growth and competiveness, many countries are very reluctant to act. What’s more, they often have very limited control over those CO2 emissions.

As a result, argues Professor Barrett, even the ‘carbon club’ idea is not certain to succeed. He proposes carbon emission reduction deals based on individual sectors.

For example, international aviation is already subject to environmental standards, such as for reducing nitrous oxide emissions. It should also be subject to standards for CO2. Examples include new fuel standards and aircraft designs.

There could be an agreement on cars. There already exists an agreement on design, but there could be an agreement to lower vehicle emissions. An obvious target, says Professor Barrett, would be to favour the electric car. This could be helped by standards for battery design, rapid chargers, and the like. For the iron and steel sectors there could be new global standards requiring the use of low-emission processes.

In all these examples, the new standards would be reinforcing this with trade restrictions. If a country wants access to the world's markets, it must compete on the new level playing field of producing iron and steel with lower emissions.


The more difficult sector would be electricity generation. All new coal-fired power stations could be required to install carbon capture technology from 2020 and existing ones by 2050.

‘I do not believe that trade restrictions could enforce an agreement like this, but an offer to pay for the additional costs of carbon capture and storage would provide an incentive for poorer countries to join such an agreement,’ explains Professor Barrett.

Neither ideas are likely to be taken up in time for the Durban summit later this month, but the consensus against the endless rounds of dead-end diplomacy through the UN is growing.

It may be that ditching ambitions for a legally-binding deal is the best hope we have for negating some of the worst affects of climate change.

Tom Levitt is the deputy editor of the Ecologist

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