Early Sunday morning over 190 of the world’s countries signed on to a new climate agreement at the 17th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa. The summit was supposed to end on Friday, but marathon negotiations pushed government officials to burn the midnight oil for about 36 extra hours. The final agreement was better than many expected out of the two week summit, but still very far from what science says is necessary to ensure the world does not suffer catastrophic climate change.
While the UN hailed the agreement as making good on the pledge to “save tomorrow today,” and a “historic breakthrough to save the planet”, some NGOs saw the agreement as another disappointment in a long-string of disappointments on mitigating global climate change.
“This empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change,” said Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth.
Most NGOs, however, were more circumspect. “This deal is a lot better than no deal,” said Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK chief policy advisor.
What was decided?
Kentish Flats wind power in the UK. Scientists say we need rapid deployment of clean energy sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, to bring down emissions. Photo by: Phil Hollman.
The deal was not so much an agreement, but a ‘roadmap’ for a future agreement. According to the final two page draft, a legally-binding agreement must be hammered out by 2015 that would include greenhouse gas emissions cuts for every nation. The cuts will begin to go into effect no later than 2020. The Durban negotiations also saved the Kyoto Protocol with the EU and a few other developed countries signing up for a second commitment period.
The biggest success out of Durban was garnering a commitment from the world’s largest polluters—the U.S., China, and India—to agree to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, for the first time the upcoming agreement will include 100 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the biggest drawback to the draft is the timeline: the vast majority of the world’s nations won’t have to legally begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions until 2020, while recent science has shown that the emissions need to peak before 2020 and decline rapidly thereafter if nations are to have any chance of keeping their pledge of holding temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. In addition, there remains a significant gap between current emission pledges made at Copenhagen two years ago (that lack the force of law) and what is required to keep the climate from seriously over-heating.
Durban also approved a Green Climate Fund that will raise $100 billion a year by 2020 for the world’s poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations. However, a decision on how the money will be raised will be decided at a later date, leaving another portion of the agreement unsettled. A proposal to raise funds through a tax on shipping or aviation was not approved, largely due to opposition from the U.S.
Few major decisions were made on the UN’s deforestation program, Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation (REDD). REDD proposes to pay developing countries to preserve forests through carbon payments. However, a lack of progress has again stalled widespread implementation of the program for another few years, meaning forests will likely continue to fall at staggering rates.
One of the most notable shifts at Durban from previous meetings was an alliance between like-minded poor and rich nations. Forty-two nations with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and 49 nations with the Least Developed Countries (LDC) formed an alliance with the EU to apply constant pressure on long-time hold-outs like the US, China, Canada, and India to approve the Durban roadmap. Without the alliance between the EU, the AOSIS, and the LDC, it’s safe the say the deal in Durban would have been significantly watered down.
Loopholes and lackluster ambition
However, many onlookers fear the document that was finally signed already has too many holes. Last-minute negotiations focused on the nitty-gritty language over the legal constraints of future emissions cuts. India opposed strong language, and in the end more timid legal language was agreed on.
Castle Gate coal-fired power plant in Utah. Nearly half of the US’s electricity is from coal, the most carbon intensive energy. China and India have also come to depend heavily on coal power. Photo by: David Jolley.
“If that loophole is exploited it could be a disaster,” Kumi Naidoo, executive director for Greenpeace International, said. India and China believe they should not be legally committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions until developed nations do more. While their argument has moral force and history on its side, the alliance of the EU, AOSIS, and LDC argued forcefully that all nations must begin cutting emissions soon if there is to be any chance of mitigating climate change.
“The challenge is that we begin the talks from the lowest common denominator of every party’s aspirations,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate program for Environmental Defense Fund. “For this effort to be successful, countries need to be ambitious in their commitments and to refuse to use these negotiations as just another stalling tool.”
A number of nations have been accused of stalling action on climate change at the meeting, including the U.S., China, and India. Meanwhile Canada was slammed for all-but-confirming it was pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol after the Summit was finished. Canada is the world’s only nation to have signed onto the Kyoto Protocol and not kept its emissions pledges.
Falling behind reality
The largest criticism of the Durban agreement was that it is not nearly a strong enough reaction to the growing realities of climate change. The UN has reported that concentration of greenhouse gases have hit a new high in the atmosphere, and emissions levels for last year beat worse-case-scenarios. Recent research argues that waiting a decade to cut emissions will basically ensure that temperatures rise over 2 degrees Celsius. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA), not known as alarmist, recently announced that the world had five years to slash emissions or face dangerous climate change. Still, nations like the U.S. insisted on a slow path to the next treaty.
Young boy in the Turkana tribe. Living in northern Kenya the tribe is buffeted by drought and food scarcity. Scientists say this will only worsen with climate change. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
“[Governments] by no means responded adequately to the mounting threat of climate change. The decisions adopted here fall well short of what is needed. It’s high time governments stopped catering to the needs of corporate polluters, and started acting to protect people,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We are on a path to 3-3.5 degree Celsius increase if we don’t make aggressive cuts by 2020. And there is nothing to suggest this deal will alter that.”
The effects of climate change are now being felt far-and-wide. This year saw the Arctic’s sea ice hit its lowest volume on record and its second lowest extent. Ice shelves in the Canadian Arctic have halved in the last six years. With wider recognition of the impacts of climate change on severe weather, this year was also notable for an unusually large number of extreme weather events. A devastating drought set the stage for a famine in East Africa that killed tens-of-thousands of people. Massive flooding was seen in Asia and the Americas, with Thailand suffering its worst natural disaster in its history. The U.S. also saw its most-expensive year of extreme weather with a record 12 billion dollar disasters, including an extended drought and heatwave in Texas.
“We can’t keep coming back to these annual talks to agree deals that fall so far short of what the science, rather than the politics, requires. Every December the mismatch grows between what the world is committing to and what nations should be delivering. In the current vernacular, we’re kicking the climate can down the road,” said Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK chief policy advisor.
(12/06/2011) New research announced at the 17th UN Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa finds that under current pledges for reducing emissions the global temperature will rise by 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) from historic levels, reports the AFP. This is nearly double world nations’ pledge to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The report flies in the face of recent arguments by the U.S. and others at Durban that current pledges are adequate through 2020.
(12/05/2011) A new methodology to tease out how much current climate change is linked to human activities has added to the consensus that behind global warming is us. The study, published in Nature Geoscience found that humans have caused at least three-quarters (74 percent) of current warming, while also determining that warming has actually been slowed down by atmospheric aerosols, including some pollutants, which reflect sunlight back into space.
(12/04/2011) Total carbon emissions for the first time hit 10 billion metric tons (36.7 billion tons of CO2) in 2010, according to new analysis published by the Global Carbon Project (GCP) in Nature Climate Change. In the past two decades (since the reference year for the Kyoto Protocol: 1990), emissions have risen an astounding 49 percent. Released as officials from 190 countries meet in Durban, South Africa for the 17th UN Summit on Climate Change to discuss the future of international efforts on climate change, the study is just the latest to argue a growing urgency for slashing emissions in the face of rising extreme weather incidents and vanishing polar sea ice, among other impacts.
(12/01/2011) Purchasing a full page ad in the Canadian paper the Globe and Mail, a group of African leaders and NGOs is calling on Canada to return to the fold on climate change. Canada has recently all-but-confirmed that after the ongoing 17th UN Summit on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, it will withdraw entirely from the Kyoto Treaty. The country has missed its targets by a long-shot, in part due to the exploitation of its tar sands for oil, and is increasingly viewed at climate conferences as intractable and obstructive. In the eyes of those concerned about climate change, Canada has gone from hero to villain. Yet notable African activists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are pushing back.
(11/30/2011) A new report from civil and environmental organizations highlights the top 20 banks that spend the most money on coal, the world’s most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Released as officials from around the world meet for the 17th UN Summit on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, the report investigated the funding practices of 93 major private banks, finding that the top five funders of big coal are (in order): JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Barclay’s.
(11/30/2011) As officials meet at the 17th UN Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, the world continues to heat up. The UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced that they expect 2011 to be the warmest La Niña year since record keeping began in 1850. The opposite of El Nino, a La Niña event causes general cooling in global temperatures.
(11/29/2011) In opening the 17th UN Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa yesterday, Jacob Zuma, president of the host country said that delegates must remember what is at stake.
(11/28/2011) The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hit a new record in 2010, according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which found that warming from greenhouse gases rose 29 percent from 1990 to 2010. The announcement was made just a few days prior to officials meet at the 17th Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, where expectations are low for a strong, binding agreement with a number of wealthy nations stating they expect no new agreement to take affect until 2020.
(11/24/2011) Recent arctic sea ice loss is ‘unprecedented’ over the past 1,450 years, concludes a reconstruction of ice records published in the journal Nature.
(11/13/2011) Not known for alarmism and sometimes criticized for being too optimistic, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that without bold action in the next five years the world will lock itself into high-emissions energy sources that will push climate change beyond the 2 degrees Celsius considered relatively ‘safe’ by many scientists and officials.
(11/06/2011) Global greenhouse gas emissions last year exceeded worst-case scenario predictions from just four years before, according to the US Department of Energy (DOE). A rise of 6 percent (564 million additional tons) over 2009 levels was largely driven by three nations: the US, India, and China. Emissions from burning coal jumped 8 percent overall. The new data, supported by a similar report from International Energy Agency (IEA), make it even more difficult for nations to make good on a previous pledge to hold back the world from warming over 2 degrees Celsius.
(11/02/2011) Unprecedented flooding in Thailand, torrential rains pummeling El Salvador, long-term and beyond-extreme drought in Texas, killer snowstorm in the eastern US—and that’s just the last month or so. Extreme weather worldwide appears to be both increasing in frequency and intensity, and a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) connects the dots between wilder weather patterns and global climate change.
(10/31/2011) Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Halloween this year is not the ghouls and goblins taking to the streets, but a baby born somewhere in the world. It’s not the baby’s or the parent’s fault, of course, but this child will become a part of an artificial, but still important, milestone: according to the UN, the Earth’s seventh billionth person will be born today. That’s seven billion people who require, in the very least, freshwater, food, shelter, medicine, and education. In some parts of the world, they will also have a car, an iPod, a suburban house and yard, pets, computers, a lawn-mower, a microwave, and perhaps a swimming pool. Though rarely addressed directly in policy (and more often than not avoided in polite conversations), the issue of overpopulation is central to environmentally sustainability and human welfare.