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November 18, 2010

International Relations|Climate Change

Climate for Cancun

By Nitin Desai


About ten days from today the parties to the UN climate convention will have another bash at hammering out an agreement to avert what they all agree is one of the gravest threats that the world faces in the decades ahead.  Is there any chance that they will do better there than at Copenhagen about a year go?

The elements of an international agreement needed to address the threat of climate change are basically as follows:

  • The acceptable limit for the likely temperature increase.
  • The implied time profile of global carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions.
  • The distribution of allowable global emissions between countries.
  • The commitments to programmes and policies that contain emissions to the agreed level.
  • The mechanisms that would allow flexibility in fulfilling commitments.
  • The mechanisms that would support adaptation actions.
  • The financial and technology transfer arrangements for compensating countries which take on more than their fair share of obligations.

The Copenhagen Accord includes a commitment to the goal of containing the likely average global temperature increase to 2C.  The time profile of global emissions needed to meet this goal is not uniquely defined as what matters are cumulative emissions.  A path where emission reductions are low initially but accelerate later may have the same cumulative impact over decades as a path that paces the emission reductions more evenly.  Be that as it may, a rough summary of the results of a variety of modeling studies is that

  • Global emissions must peak sometime between 2015 and 2021.
  • Global emissions in 2020 should be  approximately 40.0 to 48.3 Gt CO2 eq/yr.
  • By 2050 global emissions should decrease by 48 to 72% relative to 2000.

Moving from these global goals to national action is the core of the negotiating agenda and we are nowhere near agreement on this.  The pledges and commitments associated with the Copenhagen Accord add up to emissions of 48.8 to 51.2  Gt CO2 eq/yr  in 2020 and in the words of a UNEP brief “there is low confidence that the two degree limit will be met .  The US pledge is a little up in the air as the bill to give effect to it has not been passed. The main plus point is that the process has led to the announcement of goals for emission containment in the form of carbon intensity reductions by countries like China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Mexico. There are a whole slew of issues like the legal form of the commitments and the monitoring, reporting and verification requirements that complicate the negotiations even further.

The central issue is that of equity in the sharing of scarce environmental space.  Unfortunately there is no agreed interpretation of fairness. The UNFCCC recognises the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”, the historical culpability of industrial countries who account for the bulk of the increase in ambient GHGs since the industrial revolution and the primacy of development for developing countries.  But all this needs to be spelt out in terms of emission goals for countries. One concept under discussion in seminars if not in the negotiations is  convergence to equal per capita emissions by a target date, say 2050, at a level consistent with containing emissions to ensure a 50% chance of keeping the average global temperature increase to 2C.  India has already offered that it would ensure that its per capita emissions never exceed the average for the developed countries, so that any action by them to reduce their emissions very substantially would act as a brake on India’s emission growth.  Another concept that has received some attention lately is that of carbon budgeting where the available room for carbon emissions, given agreed goals on temperature increase risks, would be shared as a stock on the basis of population.  A more contentious proposal would do this but also take account of cumulative use from past emissions.

Announced goals for emission reduction or containment are just aspirations and what matters is the translation of these into action.  In the next decade the main source of reductions will be energy efficiency and carbon sequestration through forest protection and reforestation.  On forestry the negotiations seem to be making good progress and there is also some real money in sight from Norway and others.  If this is pursued separately and if an agreement on energy efficiency is stitched together at Cancun as part of some advance action even before a full agreement is reached then we may well be back on the two-degree track.

Flexibility mechanisms that allow companies and countries to “buy compliance” by financing carbon saving actions by others are an attempt that purists frown upon and Pareto optimizing economists love.  At present the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is the main such avenue and its future beyond 2012 is in doubt because of the failure to agree on the next phase of commitments under the protocol.  But the carbon market in a broader sense may still survive as long as there is some quantitative compliance obligation, even if it is nationally determined, that can be met by buying carbon credits.

On adaptation, financing of mitigation actions by developing countries and technology transfer, the Copenhagen Accord signaled some advance.  But the subsequent process, including the High Level Panel set up by the UN Secretary General have not brought us any closer to agreement.

The prospects for closure at Cancun are not at all bright and everyone assumes that the game will go on at least for another year if not more.  The world has become a victim of the normal framework of reciprocal concessions that dominates international negotiations and the “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed” rule. A mind set that starts from the ethical premise that national interest trumps all other considerations can never deliver an effective environmental agreement. We need a sovereignty bargains in which each state surrenders some autonomy of action in order to acquire some influence on the policies of other states.

In the final analysis the worst risks of climate change can only be avoided by the acceptance that we are in one life boat and that steering it to safety requires that those who are most able put in a greater effort and those who are less able do what they can to avoid destabilizing the boat.

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