Archive for the ‘UN Climate Talks’ Category


Liberals Part 2: Their “Direct Action” is neither

13 January 2013

This is the second part of a series examining the Liberal Party of Australia. Part 1 covers the party’s climate change denial and intention to abolish various existing climate policies. This part examines the climate policies they promise to introduce.

The first question to ask about the Liberal Party’s climate policy is “what is it?” This question is a lot more difficult to answer than you might think. One of the reasons why I have not focused on the Liberals is because although they are aggressive on process, their policies are vague if not contradictory. If they weren’t favored by nearly half of Australian voters, I would say the Liberals are the parliamentary clowns. Nevertheless, I will examine the few details they have provided.

The Liberals propose a set of measures they spin as a “Direct Action Plan”, a frame that has been uncritically adopted by many journalists. While the phrase “direct action” brings to mind images of protestors chained to bulldozers, the content of the Direct Action Plan is rather less exciting, neither particularly direct nor very active.

The plan is mainly articulated in a policy document released before the last election (all quotes below are taken from this document unless otherwise attributed). It is unclear how current this document is: it is nearly three years old so the timeline will obviously need to be condensed to meet the 2020 deadline, and the Liberals have since mentioned various revisions and reinterpretations, some of which I may have missed. Presumably a full updated policy will be released before the next election; in the meantime I have assumed the old document is accurate except where I am aware of later changes.

The plan is supposed to directly cut CO2 emissions 5% below 1990 by 2020, very similar to Labor’s meaningless target (with the positive difference that the Liberals would not use international offsets, a point I will come back to in Part 3). The Liberals also ostensibly support Labor’s conditional target range of 5-25%, though they have not mentioned it for a long time. Indeed, they rubbish their own 5% target. Liberal leader Tony Abbott has described it as “crazy” in the context of China’s increasing emissions. On other occasions Abbott has gone even further (which a leaked list of talking points shows was scripted), claiming the target will not reduce global temperature for 1000 years (missing that the point of climate action is to limit the rise of global temperature). The Liberals can’t have it both ways: is a 5% target insignificant or Liberal policy? Read the rest of this entry ?


Doha climate talks: Gateway to hell?

15 December 2012

The Doha climate talks (COP18) reached an agreement on Saturday night. They’re calling it the “Doha Climate Gateway”. To me it looks like a gateway to probable inaction and climate catastrophe.

Delegates blatantly ignored the urgent warnings being screamed at them from all directions, and put off consideration of ramping up ambition until next year, or the one after that. They agreed an extension of Kyoto with meaninglessly weak 2020 targets and enough carried-over surplus permits to lock in business-as-usual for many countries until at least 2020. They failed to agree a pathway for global emissions or significant finance for poor countries. Meanwhile, our governments still expect us to wait until 2020 for a possible global binding regime. In the showdown between developed countries and small island states in Doha, rich countries won hands down. Ultimately, we all lose.

One of the most depressing parts of humanity’s annual cycle of procrastination on the climate crisis is that after the conference fails to achieve much of significance, 195 government spin machines kick into action to sell the outcome as a step forward. This time the main justification is that Doha “crossed the bridge” to a new regime. Ministers say things like “where would we be if we had failed to agree and the process had collapsed?” While of course I don’t want the climate talks to collapse, I don’t think it has ever been likely and it occurs to me that it would have a bright side: there would no longer be a false sense of security that the climate crisis is being addressed.

The message that progress is being made is seductive to those of us desperate for climate action, but one we must see through. After the high-profile failure of Copenhagen, governments have gone into Cancun, Durban, and Doha conveying low expectations, which in many cases I suspect was a deliberate public relations strategy so that at any hint of incremental progress they could reemerge proclaiming they met or exceeded those expectations. It’s a psychological manipulation technique called “under-promise and over-deliver”. Judging outcomes relative to the expectations governments set for themselves is playing into the hands of the delayers. Instead outcomes must be judged on real-world merit, and in this context the Doha Climate Gateway is worse than nothing.

The climate talks have gone on my entire life, yet despite the negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, the situation has deteriorated at an accelerating rate. Global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 58% since 1990 and 2.6% this year (with most of the recent growth in China), and the Earth is headed for a catastrophic 4-6°C global warming by 2100, plus potentially large feedbacks and post-2100 warming. If we allow anywhere near that level of warming, humanity faces a very uncertain future. To be sure of preserving a habitable climate and avoiding feedbacks that could send climate change spiraling out of our control, we must aim to reduce CO2 to ~350 ppm (limiting warming to ~1°C). That means we must phase out fossil fuels globally as fast as possible. Politically, this has never looked more impossible. Read the rest of this entry ?


Doha climate talks: Dreadful deal on the table

7 December 2012

There are just a few hours to go until the Doha climate talks (COP18) are scheduled to finish (though they are likely to go into overtime). Drafts of the key decisions have been released, and the outlook is very black indeed.

The most important draft text, agreeing a second period of Kyoto, is still filled with brackets and options to be pared down in last-minute negotiations. This may be because the Alliance of Small Island States rightly challenged its pathetic emissions targets for countries it binds, access to offsets for countries it excludes, carryover of surplus permits, and eight-year length – all of which threaten to lock in meaningless action. The EU reportedly sorted out its internal division in talks with Poland on Thursday night, but with the wrong outcome: an agreement to not cancel surplus permits. Reportedly, the specifics of the deal are the surplus permits will be carried over but only tradable with countries in Kyoto. Regardless of trade restrictions, surplus permits will not only sabotage Kyoto but also dilute any post-2020 regime, allowing business-as-usual to continue indefinitely.

(UPDATE 8 December 2012: A revised Kyoto text has been released with the brackets and options removed. It amends the Kyoto Protocol to create a second period, but merely “recognizes” countries “may” provisionally apply the amendment before it is ratified and legally enters into force. It decides Kyoto 2 will drag on until 2020, and the aggregate target is only 18% below 1990 averaged over 2013-2020, albeit with a ministerial roundtable in 2014 where each party “may” raise its ambition toward at least 25-40% below 1990 by 2020. The US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Russia are out. The conditions for Australia, Norway, and Switzerland to increase their pledges will not be binding. The “Australia clause”, which allows creative accounting on land use, remains in effect. On the bright side, if I understand correctly access of Kyoto offsets will be restricted to countries with binding targets. I’m still trying to understand what it means for surplus permits, which I consider make-or-break for the integrity of Kyoto 2, but in any case there has been a whole day’s worth of dispute over that issue since this version of the text was made available.) Read the rest of this entry ?


Doha climate talks: Island states stand up for ambition

5 December 2012

“We have not seen concrete progress on the issues that are important to ensuring the survival of all our members. How many conferences do we have to endure where we go back to our countries and say, ‘next year we will increase ambition to reduce emissions, next year we will see finance, next year we will save the climate’? No more next years.”

Sai Navoti, lead negotiator for Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)

The elephant in the room at the Doha climate talks (COP18) is the cavernous “ambition gap” between the pathetically weak pledges on the table and the rapid emissions cuts urgently required to keep global warming below the 2°C limit agreed by the world’s governments, let alone a truly safe global target.

Last year’s conference in Durban established a process to close the ambition gap, Durban Platform workstream 2, yet in Doha it is being sidelined in favor of competing negotiating streams. The state of those other streams has reached a new low: the Kyoto Protocol is set to lock in meaningless targets for its few remaining participants diluted by endless loopholes, Long-term Cooperative Action has devolved into a system of inadequate voluntary pledges, and Durban Platform workstream 1 will not be implemented until 2020 when it will be far too late. An informal note from the Durban Platform chair suggests Doha’s outcome on ambition could consist entirely of planning future negotiations. Indeed the talks may even be going backwards on ambition, with Russia backing away from its pledge to cut emissions 25% by 2020.

Only the Earth’s most vulnerable countries, the small island states, are exposing the emperor’s lack of clothes. “The science is absolutely clear,” AOSIS said in a recent statement. “If emissions are not lowered immediately, the opportunity to avert the worst impacts of climate change may be irrevocably lost.” AOSIS is calling for Kyoto 2 to end in five, not eight years; for there to be no legal gap between commitment periods; for surplus permits to be severely limited; for access to Kyoto offsets to be restricted to those bound by Kyoto targets; and for more ambitious targets from all parties, especially rich countries. Read the rest of this entry ?


Doha climate talks: my priorities

3 December 2012

This is the third installment of a three-part blog post about the ongoing Doha climate talks (COP18). Part 1 recaps the history of the negotiations up to 2011; Part 2 covers this year’s battlelines; and this part outlines my opinion on what should happen in Doha and why it matters.

Most analysts treat Doha as relatively unimportant; they are wrong. Some Australian commentators treat Kyoto 2 as mainly a bargaining chip to get a global regime; they are also wrong. We need to start cutting global emissions now, we need binding targets, and in accordance with the principle of CBDR we need to start by cutting the developed world’s emissions, which means an ambitious Kyoto 2. Doha is crucial because it will decide Kyoto targets for willing rich countries for the next five or eight years. At worst those targets will be locked in until 2020; at best they will become the default pathway with a review process that keeps open the possibility of ramping up ambition later. As the negotiations currently stand, Kyoto 2 is shaping up to lock in meaningless action by Australia and inaction from the EU, further diluted by offsets and surplus permits and land-use creative accounting and who knows what other loopholes. And as for it acting as a bargaining chip, developing countries will not be impressed by unambitious Kyoto 2 targets.

Given the pathetically low ambition of current pledges, the likely outcome of Doha is extremely bad, but there is a glimmer of hope. Durban launched a process which could rescue the climate talks: the workplan on ambition. I agree with the AOSIS position that ambition must be the utmost priority. If all countries agree to raise their ambition in Doha, they should be able to sell that at home.

So far in Doha, ambition has been the most neglected element of the conference. Developed countries tend to prioritize the vision component of ADP. An unnamed European source complained to the Responding to Climate Change news website about AOSIS’s “unwillingness to sacrifice short-term ambition for the long-term common goals of securing a new legal treaty”. In reality, it is extremely misguided to focus on the mirage of a possible future agreement to be implemented when it’s too late. Meanwhile, developing countries other than AOSIS tend to prioritize Kyoto 2 and LCA. While I agree those two tracks should be properly completed, their outcomes will be inadequate without sufficient ambition, so the ambition component of ADP is vital.

So my priorities for Doha are, in the following order:

  1. Increasing countries’ pledges through the ambition component of ADP before Kyoto 2 targets are decided, ideally by enough to close the gap to <1.5°C
  2. A binding and enforceable five-year Kyoto 2 that covers as many countries as possible, does not lock in low ambition, and is not sabotaged by loopholes like dubious offset mechanisms, surplus permits, and the Australia clause
  3. Completion of the LCA mandate, including a shared vision that global emissions will peak soon and clear commitments on climate finance
  4. If possible bringing forward the implementation date of the vision component of ADP … and a distant
  5. Planning negotiations for the vision component of ADP

Delegates must not forget why these talks exist in the first place: to cut emissions fast enough to avoid dangerous climate change.


Doha climate talks: battlelines

3 December 2012

This is the second installment of a three-part blog post about the ongoing Doha climate talks (COP18). Part 1 recaps the history of the negotiations up to 2011; this part covers this year’s battlelines; and Part 3 outlines my opinion on what should happen in Doha and why it matters.


After governments had loudly proclaimed the Durban Platform as progress, interim negotiations held in Bonn, Germany in May showed countries have very different visions of what it is supposed to produce.

On the ambition workplan (in my opinion the most promising result of Durban), AOSIS and the LDCs rightly advocated urgent action to close the ambition gap before Kyoto 2 targets are set in Doha, and the EU argued global emissions should peak before 2020, but the US argued for any avenue other than a higher target for itself under the UNFCCC, Australia emphasized international emissions trading mechanisms, and India saw the workplan as relating to after 2020, claiming it must wait for the IPCC AR5. India’s position is blatantly obtuse, because the workplan’s reason for existence is clearly to raise ambition now and we don’t need another report to tell us current pledges are utterly inadequate. Small island states took the lead by pledging to cut their emissions by a collective 45% by 2030.

On the platform for a future global agreement, AOSIS, the LDCs, and the EU advocated urgent negotiation of a new protocol (the LDCs also advocated decisions be made by a three-quarters majority instead of consensus), while the US and Australia foresaw a period of brainstorming, and India said the promised “agreed outcome with legal force” could include non-binding decisions. Developing nations defended the sharp distinction between responsibilities of rich and poor, repeating their longtime demand that rich countries cut emissions 25-40% by 2020 (based on the IPCC AR4), while the EU argued for a spectrum of commitments based on evolving responsibilities. Read the rest of this entry ?


Doha climate talks: history

3 December 2012

Representatives are gathering in Doha, Qatar for the second week of the 18th Conference of Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – global climate talks to us laypeople. As the world’s highest per capita emitter, Qatar seems a strange place to hold a climate conference, but that is where it is. Here’s what you need to know about Doha.

I apologize for the length and complexity of the following. The climate talks are highly technical and difficult to understand without a large volume of background knowledge – sometimes I think governments are trying to bore their citizens into being unconcerned about climate change. But as tedious as the details can seem, ultimately they will determine the extent of future climate change, so it is important to know how they fit together.

I have split this blog post into three parts which I am publishing on the same day: this one recaps the history of the negotiations up to 2011; the second covers this year’s battlelines; and the third outlines my opinion on what should happen in Doha and why it matters. If you are broadly familiar with the background you may choose to skip or skim the first and/or second parts. I intend to post further commentary and updates over the coming days.

Fossil fuels formed from fossilized plants, so they contain carbon which has been out of circulation for millions of years. Yet humans are digging up that fossil carbon and burning it in the space of a few centuries. When you burn carbon you get carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping “greenhouse gas”. This, among other human activities, now far outweighs natural influences on climate, causing global warming which poses an urgent threat to human civilization. If we want to be sure of preserving a stable, habitable climate, avoiding tipping points, humanity must leave the vast majority of the planet’s fossil carbon in the ground. We must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to cut emissions to near-zero. The extent of future climate change will depend on decisions made in this decade.

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit resulted in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to prevent “dangerous human interference with the climate”. It also established the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR): rich countries are responsible for the majority of carbon already in the atmosphere, and the per capita emissions of poor countries are relatively low. That obliges rich countries to cut emissions first and fastest, and help poor countries follow in their footsteps. Parties to the Convention have met annually since 1995. Read the rest of this entry ?


Why are international negotiations failing?

24 June 2012

There is not much to say about the recent Rio+20 conference. This time, nobody is even pretending anything of significance has been achieved. Two decades after the original conference that was supposed to save the world, countries reaffirmed the commitments they made in 1992 and agreed to agree on some goals in the future. The US lobbied to remove anything of substance from the text. Delegates could not even agree on the seemingly no-brainer proposal to end the $1 trillion spent globally on fossil fuel subsidies (despite a petition signed by over 1 million people calling on them to do so).

Instead of talking about Rio+20 I want to ask: why are these negotiations failing?

Some commentators argue the reason nothing is being achieved is because of the current economic crisis, but this explanation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the last 20 years there have been economic ups and downs, but international negotiations have dragged on pointlessly throughout it all. In that time, far from the negotiators’ constant claims that they were making progress, the situation has in fact deteriorated at an accelerating rate. The economic crisis is just the most recent excuse not to act.

It is not that there is a shortage of money, but that money is going to the wrong priorities. Governments are able to find the money for fossil fuel subsidies. They can find money for tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich. And it didn’t take them decades to find trillions of dollars to bail out banks.

Other commentators argue the problem is conflicting national interests. But that explanation is not sufficient either, because at the end of the day we are all in the same boat. The real problem is the positions of too many governments are determined by big business. In particular, the fossil fuel industry has spent decades funding misinformation to discredit the science of global warming and lobbying to neuter any policy intended to address it.

It is tempting to conclude that governments are incompetent at solving problems, but that’s what big business wants us to think. On the contrary, governments are powerless because they have surrendered too much power to big business. Our politics is not democratic government by the people, for the people, but undemocratic government by the corporations, for the corporations. For example, in the US political donations have reached astronomical amounts, and who wins or loses elections is largely determined by who can raise the most money. Business lobbyists have privileged access to the political system, and are using it to block regulations (and remove existing ones) intended to protect the environment, in the name of reducing the size of government.

Of course, these are generalizations; corporate power doesn’t explain everything. The belief in unlimited economic growth runs even deeper, through all traditional political ideologies. We need to change the way we think to recognize the economy is part of the environment and stands or falls along with it. Nevertheless, in today’s world big business is the main political force standing in the way of action on the environment.

We need to reverse the trend toward small government – not to infringe upon the rights of ordinary people, but to enforce the responsibilities of businesses. I’m not advocating authoritarian state socialism (which is just as growth-oriented as capitalism), but a better democracy: greater political equality. We need to find ways to reduce and counter the influence of money in politics. I don’t have a magic bullet solution, but first we must understand and expose the problem.


Durban Part 4: Conclusion

4 February 2012

Also see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17).

Grenada said in an opening statement: “AOSIS will not and cannot accept a deal here in Durban that does not provide a means to bring in more ambitious legally-binding commitments for Annex I Parties well before 2020.” But the final outcome looks to me like it has exactly the same fatal flaw. Delegates did not agree any new emissions cuts, let alone binding ones.

The headline result of COP17 is a non-binding agreement to agree in four years on unknown actions in an unknown framework with unknown legal force, with no indication of how it will apply differently to rich and poor, to be implemented when it will be too late to preserve a safe climate. The product of Kyoto negotiations is a non-binding agreement to agree in 12 months on a possibly voluntary commitment period of unknown length, covering an unknown set of countries expected to total less than 15% of global emissions, with unknown but apparently politics-based emissions targets and unknown but likely fraudulent accounting for those in it, and benefits without responsibilities for those outside it. And the outcome of LCA negotiations is a non-binding agreement that doesn’t do much except administrate existing voluntary pledges, open the door to further dubious offsets, and establish a fund without any money in it.

Probably the best part of the whole package is the Durban Platform’s workplan to raise ambition, and it’s far from certain to lead anywhere. Read the rest of this entry ?


Durban Part 3: The outcome

3 February 2012

Also see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17).

After the conclusion of the Durban climate talks, EU negotiator Connie Hedegaard proclaimed that “the European Union’s strategy worked”. But did it?

Durban Platform

Legal form – binding or not?

Let’s look at the text of the agreements from COP17, beginning with the central Durban Platform. After all the haggling described in Part 2, the final wording of paragraph 2 “decides to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”. This has been widely interpreted as an agreement that all countries must accept legally binding emissions targets.

But what exactly is “an agreed outcome with legal force”? According to an European lawyer on the scene, it means effectively “a legally binding agreement”. But according to another analysis, the third option appears to allow for a UNFCCC agreement that is not one of the Convention’s recognized types of legally binding instruments (protocols, annexes, and amendments). A third analysis points out that the text does not specify the amount of legal force the outcome will have, or whether all countries will be equally bound, or even whether it will include emissions targets. Finally, the Durban Platform is itself non-binding.

Timeline – a decade of delay

What about the timeline for this nebulous future agreement? Paragraphs 3-4 decide negotiations on the Durban Platform will begin “as a matter of urgency in the first half of 2012”, and conclude “as early as possible but no later than 2015”, and that it will “come into effect and be implemented from 2020”.

On the bright side, the EU succeeded in setting a 2015 deadline for agreement with negotiations beginning almost immediately, thwarting the attempts by the US and BASIC to delay even the negotiations until 2015. Yet the US succeeded in delaying legally binding action until 2020, in spite of AOSIS initially refusing to support such a move. Ultimately everyone loses, because humanity cannot afford to wait another decade for serious action. We need rapid emissions cuts starting now, preferably yesterday. Read the rest of this entry ?