Climate Change Conference in Durban 2011

posted on 2011-12-15

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The Durban conference ended on Sunday with a last-ditch deal whereby developed and developing countries will for the first time work on an agreement that should be legally binding on all parties. The new agreement should be written by 2015 and come into force after 2020.

The UN and most of the countries think the achieved deal is a success, but getting an agreement that all countries sign up to will be very complicated. David Symons, director of environmental consultancy WSP said that many political agreements put off the difficult actions for the next regime and that appears to be the reality for the Durban platform. Furthermore, no one should underestimate the difficulty of arriving at a legal agreement between the developed and developing countries, let alone one that for the first time includes China, India, Europe and America.

Jonathan Grant of consultancy PwC said the scale of the task was immense, as G20 countries would need to cut their carbon intensity (the amount of CO2 released as a proportion of energy produced) by 5% a year to 2050. France's vast nuclear power programme of the 1980s delivered a 4% per year cut for 10 years, he said, while the closure of dirty East German factories after reunification delivered 3% a year, and the UK's "dash for gas" to replace coal-fired power stations in the 1990s only produced cuts of 3% a year for a decade.

The timetable is significant, particularly in relation to the US electoral cycle. Striking a deal at Durban was crucial, because by next year's conference there could be another president, and none of the Republican candidates would have signed up to the Durban platform.

Any new agreement will come down to targets how far each country will have to cut its emissions. The motivation to increase ambitions could come from several sources, said Michael Jacobs of the London School of Economics. He said that by 2015 the world's young people in particular can be expected to demand greater action as the evidence of future damage becomes clear. He also cites the ambition of China's next five-year plan, due in 2015, and demands from investors for stronger, clearer policies as important.

Grant suggests Britons will have a simpler motivation: He said that if energy bills continue to rise as they have, people will eventually start to manage their demand much more efficiently than now. People are left a bit cold by the climate negotiations but energy bills impact them directly.

The magic number is two, which implies a temperature rise of 2C above pre-industrial level that is estimated to be the limit beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible. In order to have even a 50:50 chance of staying within that limit, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculates that emissions must peak by 2020 at the latest and fall rapidly thereafter. Carbon output must be roughly halved by mid-century, compared with 1990.

One key issue is historic emissions, because industrialised countries started burning fossil fuels earlier and so bear responsibility for most of the CO2 already in the atmosphere. Balancing that, some countries have worked harder to reduce emissions than others. For example, the EU has, while China has invested heavily in renewable energy in recent years, and Japan has one of the most energy-efficient economies on the planet, so they will all want credit for these actions. Then there are the differing capabilities of each country. For instance, those with large forests provide a valuable service in absorbing carbon and want this to be taken into account, while others' geographical or economic circumstances afford less opportunity to use low-carbon power. Japan is having pledged to phase out nuclear power, it will be hard-pressed to find enough renewable alternatives.

Just how difficult it will be to resolve these issues was apparent in Durban. India's environment minister made an impassioned speech in the final hours in which she insisted that equity, including developing countries' economic capabilities, large populations still to be lifted out of poverty and low responsibility for historic emissions that must be the foundation of the negotiations. She said that equity is the centerpiece and it cannot be sifted.

The International Energy Agency estimates that by 2020 China's emissions per head will be equal to or higher than the EU's. That will make it difficult for China to base its argument for easier targets on its large population. The vast quantities of carbon being poured into the atmosphere also mean historic emissions are less relevant. By the 2030s total emissions from developing countries in the past century could be greater than the total emissions from developed countries, apart from the US. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA, said that these are big changes for China, because these figures make a very significant difference.
Money will also be an important factor. Developing countries have been promised $100bn a year by 2020 from rich countries and the private sector, in order to help them move to a green economy and cope with the effects of climate change. But it is unclear where this massive amount would come from.

But at least in Durban countries showed they can, sometimes, amid high emotions and frayed tempers, still work together.

(Resource: The Guardian, 12 December 2011)