DOHA: There are only a few big issues to be resolved at these climate change talks in Doha, and the biggest will be the hardest to achieve – not because it can’t be done, but because the countries involved simply won’t. It is a perfect metaphor for all the problems that plague these talks.
New research released in recent days confirms what many people have suspected – that the Kyoto Protocol is buried under such a huge surplus of credits that, by the time it winds up in 2020, may offset all the reductions in emissions achieved. Worse, the excess may even carry over into a new treaty supposed to start from 2020, diluting ambition before it is even started.
It is a flash point in Doha, because developing countries have made extending the Kyoto Protocol a crucial condition for their agreement to work on a new treaty that will be binding on all parties, and which will hopefully play catch up on the task at hand, if it’s not already too late. They have seen a commitment to Kyoto as an act of faith by the developed world. Now they are wondering if it is worth it.
It is now estimated that by the end of 2012, there will be 13 to 14 billion surplus AAUs (Assigned Amount Units) that will be carried over into the next commitment period – around three times the annual emissions of the EU or twice the amount of the US. A further two billion could be created.
This surplus has been long expected. It comes from generous allocations made to the eastern European bloc as one of the many last-minute compromises struck to seal the original Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The so-called “Australia clause” – which allowed Australia a generous allocation for land use – was another such deal, although it is now viewed in a slightly different context.
Negotiators knew there would be a surplus, but presumed it would be rapidly bought up by the likes of the US, which had been one of the principal initiators of the idea of a carbon market in the negotiations on Kyoto. But the US never came to the party, the election of George W. Bush saw to that, and the surpluses were further inflated by the collapse of the east European economies.
The question has been what to do with this surplus. Until a year ago, the EU had pledged that it would fight to have them removed, but has quietly dropped that insistence because it cannot pull Poland – the recalcitrant that has worn climate-spoiling tactics as a badge of honour – into line.
Poland insists on keeping it, and it seems that the rest of the EU has lost the will to fight. Today, Connie Hedegaard, the EU Climate Commissioner, said that at least the credits wouldn’t be traded – meaning other countries can’t buy them to meet their own emissions reduction pledges, the original point of their creation.
But this sidesteps a crucial issue – even if they are not traded, they are still carried over and could allow countries to continue business-as-usual as far as 2034, according to some scenarios highlighted by a new German study – hardly the recipe for a dramatic reduction or an effective treaty to meet the growing scientific call for urgent action to meet the 2°C targets. It means that greater ambition has to be found elsewhere.
The study’s authors, CCAP-Europe and Carbon Watch, said it render the second period of the Kyoto Protocol impotent (and that only impacts the paltry 15 per cent of the world’s emissions, including Australia, which is covered by the Kytoto Protocol). And they said allowing a carry over would dilute any new climate deal called for by the Durban platform. “It could eliminate the chances of avoiding dangerous climate change by overshooting the +2°C limit,” it wrote.
According to some observers, the most vulnerable developing countries that insisted on a second commitment period of Kyoto to fill the gap between the first period that ends in 28 days, and a new treaty in 2020, are now wondering if it is all worthwhile.
“The small island states, the least developed countries, and others are privately starting to say, what is the value of the protocol if it has got weak targets that are locked in for eight years, has got this huge carryover to be used, and has countries like Japan and New Zealand accessing the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) even though they are jumping ship from Kyoto,” said Alden Meyer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and an observer of these talks since they started more than 20 years ago.
“The fact that strong champions of the Kyoto Protocol are starting to question its value because of the games that Poland is playing, shows you how corrosive this is.”
The Australia clause
It’s worth pointing out Australia’s position in this regard. Australia benefits from the hugely generous “Australia clause” that allowed it to increase its emissions (108 per cent target), and benefit from a favourable baseline on land use and clearing. Some view these benefits – judged to be around 80-90 million tonnes – as just more hot air. Others have reframed their position, pointing out that it may have been generous, but not all surpluses are bad, because they can formalise a change of practice.
One of the proposals on the table is to restrict the use of excess credits to only those countries that achieve an actual fall in emissions in the second commitment period from 1990 levels. Australia only just makes it – at 99.5 per cent. Australia’s position – panned in the past – is tolerated because the focus is really on Russia which could have 7 billion permits of its own, and on Poland, because it is neutering the impact of Europe.
Obama’s coming-out climate party?
One of the big questions at this year’s talks has been whether President Obama would hold some sort of “coming out party on climate“ – as one person put it – after his recent election victory? Given the importance he accorded climate in his victory speech, and the assumption that it could be seen as one of his key legacy issues, will there be a major change in tone in America’s negotiating stance?
Well, maybe not quite yet. Obama’s chief negotiator Todd Stern sought to hose down any optimism in his first appearance today. “I don’t now if I would think about this in terms of different tone here,” he said. “We’ve done quite significant things in the first four years of this administration.” Stern then proceeded to list a range of regulatory measures that had been introduced in the absence of a federal carbon price – regulation on transport emissions, on power plants, and on buildings and internal appliances, and the big switch from coal to cheaper shale gas.
All up, Stern said, the US was on track to achieve a 16.5 per cent reduction in emissions just from the policies in place – compared to its stated pledge of cutting emissions by 17 per cent. Surely, then, it wouldn’t take much for the US to increase its ambition?
Nope. And therein lies another of the devilish details that make these negotiations so difficult. There’s numerous ways to skin an emissions target, and each can tell a completely different story. Meyer, for instance, noted that the 16.5 per cent estimate was for CO2 only and did not take into account greenhouse gases. Further, he said, the 17 per cent target was from 2004 levels, and it represented just a 4 per cent cut from 1990 levels, the benchmark for most nations. Still, Meyer remains hopeful that Obama will act. “This is legacy issue for him – it is unfinished business”
Et tu, Brute?
The EU’s Hedegaard went even further, noting that while the EU had decreased emissions by 18 per cent since 1990, the US had actually increased its by 10.8 per cent. The issue around hot air permits sometimes hides the fact that the EU has been successful in decoupling economic growth (small though it has been) from carbon emissions –and it would like to be more ambitious if it could pull other countries along with it.
And Hedegaard noted, there were other measurements of note. The EU’s emissions per capita, she said, now stood at 7.5 tonnes per capita. China, she said, had early caught up with per capita emissions of 7.2. The US was well ahead, with 17.8. Russia stood at more than 12. Perhaps it was time, she suggested, that these nations, as well as rich emerging nations like Qatar, also made pledges of some sort. There are some who think that may be in the wind. The start of the ministerial round tables that it is hosting from Wednesday could be the perfect opportunity.
“We need to be more ambitious,” Hedegaard said. “But what are these countries doing? We will over achieve 2012 reduction target, and we are on track for our binding commitment (of 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020).” The EU is in fact at 18 per cent, which is why it is prepared to move to 30 per cent, but can’t – partly due to Poland, partly because it needs other countries to move first. Doesn’t everyone say that?
Fossils of the Day
One of the fun things at the annual climate change talks has been the awarding of the Fossil of the Day prizes by the environmental NGOs to the countries considered to be doing the most to derail negotiations. This year, it has a decidedly Anglo-Saxon flavour – with Canada nominated on several occasions, along with New Zealand, which wants out of the Kyoto Protocol but wants to keep trading the credits all the same. The NGOs even gave the Kiwis the ultimate insult when they won the first placed fossil today: “All this shows that NZ is becoming more and more like the ‘old’ Australia.” Would the Kiwis take that as a compliment or an insult?
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