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What’s at stake in Copenhagen

Tamra Gilbertson and Oscar Reyes set out the crucial debates at Copenhagen

December 7, 2009
12 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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The stated aim of the United Nations Climate Change Conference is to achieve a global agreement that would avert dangerous climate change – setting legally binding greenhouse gas reductions for industrialised countries. Along with establishing financial and technological measures to help the Majority World achieve more sustainable development. But there is no chance of these aims being met within the current framework for an agreement.

This is partly because industrialised countries are promising far fewer reductions and far less money than is required. But the problem runs deeper than this. The Copenhagen negotiating texts include proposals to expand carbon markets, which would delay such actions and encourage the outsourcing of pollution from North to South. Carbon markets redefine the problem of climate change to fit the business-as-usual assumptions of neoliberal economics.

Kyoto is dead, long live Kyoto

Climate change was primarily caused by the industrialised countries, which grew wealthy by exploiting natural resources including fossil fuels at the expense of the Majority World. The UNFCCC goes some way to acknowledge this in its reference to countries common but differentiated responsibilities in tackling climate change. It suggests that industrialised countries should take a lead in tackling climate change at home, while transferring money and technology to help Southern countries along cleaner development paths.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was an exercise in avoiding these responsibilities. It saw the industrialised countries agree to the first legally binding ’emissions reduction’ targets, but at the same time – at the instigation of the USA – it introduced carbon markets that allowed them to outsource these reductions to countries in the Global South. Since then, greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries (excluding the former Soviet bloc) have risen by almost 13 per cent. The world economy has become more carbon intensive.

Current debates focus on whether or not to abandon the Kyoto Protocol – which remains in force after its first commitment period ends in 2012. The main proposals for Copenhagen attempt to strip away the concept that industrialised countries are responsible, while expanding the market mechanisms that are the hallmark of Kyoto. The legal form of proposals to defend Kyoto is ultimately less important than the underlying political demand that industrialised countries take responsibility by committing to strong, legally binding targets – which should also mean questioning the carbon markets that undermine them.

From Bali to Copenhagen

There are currently two main tracks within the climate negotiations. An Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex 1 Countries under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) was established in December 2005. This was later joined by a parallel negotiations track, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), which takes the Bali Action Plan (BAP) of December 2007 as its starting point.

The AWG-LCA set a deadline of December 2009 to reach agreement on five key areas:

  • Shared vision: a broad statement of overall aims, including a long-term goal for emissions reductions that is consistent with the latest scientific assessments;
  • Mitigation: legally binding ‘commitments’ from industrialised nations, and nationally appropriate mitigation ‘actions’ (NAMAs) from developing nations. This includes discussions on how to prevent further deforestation;
  • Adaptation: cooperative measures to help countries that are exposed to greater risks of drought, desertification, floods, water shortages, disease and other negative impacts of climate change;
  • Technology transfer: cooperative measures to help the development and spread of affordable, environmentally sounds technologies;
  • Finance and investment: agree a means to pay for all of the above.

    Shared vision: the limits of science

    What would it take to tackle climate change? The UN climate talks aim to agree to a “shared vision” on when global greenhouse gas emissions should peak, how high their levels should be allowed to rise and, most contentiously, who should make what cuts and when they should make them by.

    There is no clear scientific consensus on what these targets should be, although it is often claimed that stabilising the climate at 2°C above pre-industrial levels is a realistic goal. It is then suggested that this would require Annex 1 countries to cut their emissions by 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and around 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

    These numbers need to be treated with considerable caution. Read the small print and it becomes clearer that a 25-50 per cent cut would give only a 50 per cent chance of meeting the 2°C target, and this number holds only if emissions were to peak in 2015. There is significant recent evidence that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on which these figures are based understated the extent of ‘slow feedback’ mechanisms and other complex, non-linear impacts.

    In an alternative formulation, it has been argued that 1.5°C is a safer goal – a target supported by the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This gets translated as a target for returning the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million (ppm) – down from a current level of 387 ppm.

    But assumptions about ‘stabilisation’ have been questioned by more recent scientific studies, which instead calculate in relation to actual volumes of pollution. Scientist James Hansen estimates that 750 million tonnes of CO2 could be emitted between 2000 and 2050 to limit warming to 1.5°C. Between 2000 and 2009, however, there were around 330 million tonnes of CO2.

    One thing remains uncontested, though: the pledges made by Annex 1 countries to date fall a long way short of any of these targets.

    However, the scientific basis for such numbers takes us only so far. The key questions at stake in Copenhagen are political and economic concerns about who should take responsibility for tackling the climate problem and how that will be done. As Third World Network points out, ‘with less than 20 per cent of the population, developed countries have produced more than 70 per cent of historical emissions since 1850.’

    Mitigation: the numbers game

    Annex 1 countries were supposed to present legally binding emissions reduction commitments by June 2009. Offers are now on the table after much delay, but these tend to leave many questions unanswered: Does the target represent an internationally binding commitment? Will the reductions be made domestically at source or does the figure include offsets? Is the target date set so far in the future that no one will be held accountable? And, most typically, have baselines or forestry figures been manipulated to present a more ambitious sounding commitment than is actually on offer?

    The EU presents a typical example. It proposes a 20 per cent cut in emissions by 2020, rising to 30 per cent in the context of a global agreement. Yet this also includes a significant quantity of ‘offsets’ – 50 per cent, officially, but the unofficial numbers are far higher once provisions to ‘bank’ surplus permits from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) are taken into account. The 30 per cent figure is also evasive – with an extra 5 per cent achieved as offsets, and up to 3 per cent achieved by shifting the goal posts to include and use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) in the statistics. More generally, the EU figures are flattered by a 1990 baseline, because emissions reduced vastly in Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

    The US will come to Copenhagen with a provisional target of a 17 per cent reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. This represents just a four per cent reduction on 1990 levels. It is further based on a domestic ‘cap and trade’ carbon market that would allow 100 per cent of these ‘reductions’ to be achieved overseas through project-based offsets. There is also significant doubt about its legal status, with the US promoting a ‘pledge and review’ system that would leave it without obligations under international law.

    Canada suggests that it will cut 20 per cent of its emissions compared to 2006 levels by 2020 – although its emissions have actually risen by 26 per cent compared to 1990 levels. Australia pledges a 25 per cent cut by 2020, but its emissions (excluding deforestation) rose by 30 per cent between 1990 and 2007. New Zealand also uses a loophole on forestry and agriculture to mask the fact that its greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 22 per cent between 1990 and 2007. It now claims it will be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050, although it is actually only promising a 50 per cent reduction in emissions between now and then.

    As with all Annex 1 commitments – no real account is taken of ‘outsourced emissions’. The globalisation of trade has resulted in massive increases in international aviation and shipping, which are excluded from these figures. Another major gap involves ‘outsourced emissions’ – greenhouse gases resulting from industrial production for export. These are estimated to account for up to a quarter of emissions from China, for example, or up to 50 per cent of the increase in its emissions from 2002 to 2005.

    Mitigation: carbon markets as avoiding responsibility

    There are numerous proposals on the table in Copenhagen concerning how to ‘scale up’ carbon offsets. These include the revision and expansion of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), possible new offsets arising from measures aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) as well as new forms of ‘sectoral crediting’.

    Sectoral credits would introduce new offsets as part of what are called Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) in the climate policy jargon. Sectoral crediting refers to selling emissions reductions credits from an entire sector, for example cement, within a country. This represents a potentially large new source of offsets. For example, OECD/IEA estimates suggest that sectoral crediting in the electricity sector in China could produce over three times the offsets currently generated by Chinese CDM projects involving power generation.

    Many variants are currently under discussion, all of which are ‘baseline and credit’schemes (like CDM). A future scenario is imagined for a whole industry – for example, an increase in emissions of 50 per cent. It is then controversially assumed that Southern countries would make some efficiency savings without incurring a cost. Any deviations from the baseline over and above these ‘free’ savings are called ’emissions reductions’ and would be awarded credits. This repeats many of the same problems as the CDM, only on a larger scale – selling impossible-to-verify stories about the future of whole economic sectors.

    Some variations of the baseline involve ‘intensity’ targets. If a country can claim to produce every tonne of steel in a slightly less dirty way, credits can be generated – even if it is producing far more steel, and so actually increasing its emissions. Mixing absolute and ‘intensity’ targets allows increases to be counted as reductions.

    Finance: playing poker with the climate

    Although debates on finance are a key part of the Copenhagen discussion, money on the table is proving elusive.

    The EU hit the headlines, for example, by projecting that global climate finance for mitigation and adaptation should reach EUR100 billion per year – a coup for the spin doctors, since the EU had actually failed to announce any firm commitments. In fact, the EU estimates its own share of this finance as between EUR2 and EUR15 billion per year – most of which is likely to come from carbon market auction revenues. The other Annex 1 countries, from the USA to Canada and Australia, are similarly evasive.

    The money question is not simply about numbers, but concerns a broader attempt to redefine the financial obligations implied in the UNFCCC.

    The EU’s proposal, however, hacks away at this ‘obligation’ by assuming that some of it will, in fact, be unnecessary – with private companies in the South expected to foot a share of the bill. A second slice is assumed to come from carbon trading, with offsets (and sectoral crediting) now counted not only as equivalent to domestic emissions reductions, but also treated as meeting the financial burden. In other words, they have been counted twice. Only after these sources are taken into account is public finance even considered.

    The nature of that potential spending is also questionable. One example is the USA and Japan leading a charge to channel a significant proportion of this money through the World Bank’s Clean Investment Funds (CIF). This is an exercise in giving with one hand to take with the other: the USA and Japan are the Bank’s largest shareholders, and can exert considerable influence as a result. The CIFs disperse a large proportion of this money in the form of conditional loans, and this continues the Bank’s practice of lending significant sums to fossil fuel projects.

    Adaptation

    ‘Adaptation’ refers to the fact that, irrespective of any action taken now, human-induced climate change will already have severe impacts, from rising sea levels to melting glaciers and desertification.

    The key debates on adaptation in Copenhagen concern finance and technology. On finance, there is a significant risk that pledged money would simply recycle other Official Development Assistance (ODA). In fact, the EU has sought the removal of negotiating text that would require such funds to be ‘additional to’ and ‘separate from’ ODA targets.

    Delivery of this money may also be a problem, with a recent study finding that less than $0.9 billion of the $18 billion pledged to existing adaptation funds by industrialised countries had actually been delivered.

    Here again, though, what is at stake is not simply how much money is pledged, but how it is spent and who is ‘managing’ the funds. For example, adaptation could yet becomes a byword for the spread of genetically engineered crops, while funding to redress the spread of disease as a result of climate change thus putting the power and money in the hands of pharmaceutical corporations.

    Technology

    More remains at stake in the technology discussion. In particular, proposals for the creation of a ‘Global Technology Pool for Climate Change’ would seek to ensure that green technology could be shared without private patent protections. Such proposals are supported by Brazil, India, China and other G77 countries – while being opposed most vehemently by corporate lobbyists, arguing to protect the restrictive system of Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) currently policed, globally, by the World Trade Organisation.

    Carbon Trading – how it works and why it fails by Tamra Gilbertson and Oscar Reyes can be downloaded here

    This article is republished from Climate Chronicle

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    Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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