UN urges governments to work harder to avoid global catastrophe

Governments of developed countries must work harder to secure a climate pact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, said Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat last Friday, at the end of two weeks of fraught and only slightly productive talks in Bonn between negotiators from 146 countries.

Bonn Climate Change Conference June 2011

“There is a growing realization and acknowledgment that resolving the future of the Kyoto Protocol is essential this year and will require high level political guidance,” Figueres said.

Ambassador Jorge Arguello of Argentina, chairman of the Group of 77 and China (G77) agreed, adding: “The chance to reach a successful outcome in Durban to consolidate and strengthen the climate change framework still depends on the level of political will that Parties can show.”

Durban is the location of the next top level meeting in November/December. The EU and others have now conceded that an all-encompassing agreement on binding carbon emissions is unlikely to be achieved there.

What is the scientific position?

According to Climate Action Tracker, based on current commitments by nations, the world is headed for an approximately 3.2 degrees rise in average temperatures this century.

Dr. Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), said that while developing countries have made credible commitments to address their part of the emissions gap, developed countries’ promises are such that, with the current accounting loopholes on the table, their emissions could actually increase when they should be rapidly declining.

“You can’t negotiate with science,” he said. “You can’t negotiate with the Earth’s natural limits. At the moment, emission reduction pledges take us far over those limits.”

Some progress made

The Kyoto Protocol remains fundamental and critical to success because it “establishes the key rules to quantify and monitor the mitigation efforts of countries” and “contains the market-based mechanisms which allow countries to reach their mitigation levels at cost effective levels,” Figueres said in her concluding remarks to the conference.

“Climate [change talks] are the most important negotiations the world has ever seen, but governments, business and civil society cannot solve it in one meeting,” she added, in response to criticism that progress is too slow.

Some progress was made at Bonn, on technical issues such as designing a scheme for sharing clean energy technologies, on a system for the measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of national emissions, on the financing of a $100 billion-a-year Green Climate Fund to support adaptation and emission reduction efforts in developing countries, as well as in forest protection and carbon markets.

Despite this, developing nations are feeling that they must resign themselves to expect a weaker deal from the developed world.

“This process is dead in the water,” commented Yvo de Boer, former head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the talks. “It’s not going anywhere”.

Pablo Solon, head of Bolivia’s delegation added that “there has been no advance in the substantive issue of pledges for reductions in emissions” by developed nations.

The minimum goal envisaged by developing nations for action by developed nations is for a core group, led by the European Union, to extend the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada, Japan and Russia have all said they will not sign up to a second commitment period, and the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters - China and the US - are not bound by the Protocol. This leaves the European nations as the keystone nations upholding it.

During negotiations, the EU was challenged to sign up to the second period unilaterally, but the European Commission negotiator, Jurgen Lefevere, said renewal of the Kyoto Protocol alone “is not going to cut it”, since it accounts for just eleven percent of world greenhouse gases. “We need a solution for the remaining 89% as well,” he observed.

The problem of transport

There is one big issue on which China and the United States, the world’s two biggest emitters, agree: they both oppose the EU’s scheme to regulate and reduce emissions from air and marine transport (known as “bunker emissions”).

These emissions were excluded from the Kyoto Protocol because countries could not agree on what to do about them.

They are the subject of a UNFCCC working group which made little progress at Bonn, as they are stalled pending the result of a legal case.

Earlier this year, the EU has got fed up with waiting for these sectors to take action on reducing their own emissions and proposed that they be included in the revised EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) from 1 January 2012.

China and four US airlines are challenging this in the courts and the European Court of Justice is to hear the case in July. The Court will probably not issue its judgment before the EU-ETS enters into effect. Until it does, the UNFCCC working group feels it cannot move forward.

Meanwhile, a proposed objective to cut the EU’s transport emissions by 60% by 2050 was considered “too ambitious” by a majority of the EU’s 27 transport ministers, meeting in Luxembourg last week, who want the goal to remain apparitional. They believe it would disadvantage European companies compared with their competitors in Asia or the US.

“In order to maintain the Union’s competitiveness, similar commitments should be sought at international level. Today there is no alternative to fossil fuels [that is] competitive in terms of technology and price,” ministers admitted in a statement.

It is the newer Eastern European members who are the most opposed to a binding 60% target. Others, such as Austria, believe it is achievable and should even be increased.

Soil carbon

Observers at the talks reported that some countries were introducing new market-based proposals such as ‘soil carbon’ markets into the negotiations which were unproven and had delayed the talks.

Michele Maynard, policy and advocacy officer of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), said: “These markets are a false solution that will only fuel the land-grab in Africa and seriously undermine the ability of poor Africans to feed themselves.”

Kate Horner, senior analyst at Friends of the Earth (US) said the US continues blocking progress on the most important issues in negotiations, including how they will meet their pledges to the Green Fund.

“Perhaps the biggest contribution the US government could make to these talks would be to cut the carbon of sending people to negotiations who refuse to negotiate,” she said.

What happens next?

The next major milestone is the 17th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC and the 7th Conference of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, to be held in Durban, South Africa, in November/December 2011.

Before then, there will be a meeting about the Green Fund in Tokyo in July. A ministerial conference is planned for 2 to 3 July in Berlin, and ministers will also meet approximately a month ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in South Africa.

South Africa is also considering a third ministerial consultation this year, and the incoming South African presidency and the current Mexican presidency are planning to engage heads of state and governments on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.

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