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UN climate process primed for final tilt at global emissions deal

By Ed King

Talks to develop the framework of a global climate change deal set to be agreed in 2015 start today at the World Conference Centre in Bonn.

The last attempt at a universal treaty crumbled at the 2009 Copenhagen UN summit, in a febrile atmosphere of distrust and anger.

In 2011 countries agreed the Durban Platform, which set the 2015 target to build a ‘legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force’ to combat rising greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2012 governments agreed the Doha Gateway, a series of weak deals allowing a hobbled Kyoto Protocol to limp on, and pushing a number of negotiation pathways into one room.

New climate finance contributions were limited to a few countries, while further emission reduction pledges were virtually non-existent.

The 195 parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are in Bonn for a week of talks (Pic: UN)

The clock is ticking. In 2014 UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will host a summit of leaders to drive political will, and in 2015 governments are expected to arrive in Paris to tie up loose ends and sign a deal.

Meanwhile a recent Carbon Tracker report revealed governments and business are still focused on a future based on fossil fuels – making tackling the issue an urgent requirement.

This year governments are expected to ‘conceptualise’ a treaty. This week’s discussion in Bonn will offer clues as to how they are doing.

Political background

The arrival of John Kerry as US Secretary of State has breathed new life into climate diplomacy.

He has discussed the issue with representatives from China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the EU. What this really means will become clear this week, but it’s a marked change from the USA’s previous stance.

China’s consumption of coal appears unabated, but it is rolling out seven pilot emission trading schemes (ETS), and expects to implement a nationwide scheme by 2020.

A report from the Australian Climate Commission published today says China is now driving the low carbon economy, closely followed by the USA. Between them they generate 37% of global emissions.

The EU’s leadership role at the talks looks increasingly perilous after its Parliament voted against moves to reform its own ETS.

Moves to increase its emissions reduction target are being blocked by some member states, notably Poland. This needs to be solved ahead of the Kyoto Protocol ambition review in 2014.

The strain is beginning to tell on the world’s 49-strong Least Developed Countries (LDC), who are also some of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change.

Reports suggest they are considering offering their own small emission targets – some have also set up their own adaptation funds given the lack of support from richer nations.

In Latin America Ecuador is pushing its Yasuni proposals to richer nations – the idea is countries hold back on developing rich areas of rainforest in return for bilateral funding.

This year could also see OPEC agree a small carbon tax on oil that could help fund the UN’s Green Climate Fund, set to be operational at the start of 2014.

Responsibility

The commitments of developed and developing nations to tackle climate change have traditionally been separated within the UN Climate Convention by a ‘firewall’, with richer states required to take the burden of emission cuts and financial contributions.

This fundamental debate over equity is likely to be a key battle ground during talks on the 2015 deal.

Wealthier nations have clearly not delivered on either level, but since the Convention’s inception in 1992 the status of many countries has changed – especially in Asia.

RTCC understands countries will be pushed to talk more about how they see the principles of the convention, and how this can incorporate major emerging economies such as China, India, Mexico and Korea.

The EU is pushing a Spectrum of Commitments approach. Here a nation’s capacity to cut emissions or contribute financially could be measured by criteria such as GDP, Human Development Index, or emissions per capita.

“We want to draw action in a modern way which is commensurate with what we have got to achieve to stay below 2C,” an EU source told RTCC. “Everyone has to do something, and we want to codify that in the 2020 agreement.”

This could prove hard for the USA or major emerging economies to accept, as it would require them to accept emission targets and make substantial financial contributions, something neither side has been able to do at a significant level.

If President Obama cannot get a gun law through Congress after an incident as horrific as Newtown, how on earth could he get a climate deal?

An NGO observer told RTCC they expected the US to “play a cool diplomatic hand and do nothing”, and India and China to “give up the existing firewall as slow as it is humanly possible”.

But watch the LDC group and Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). They are small and economically weak, but have leverage over larger emerging economies through forums like the G77, currently chaired by Fiji.

Finance

It is still unclear what was achieved in the Doha Gateway from a climate finance perspective, bar a few pledges and some fuzzy text.

The EU claims to be leading, but in reality Germany, the UK, France, Denmark and Sweden are the only countries making significant efforts. How long can that last?

It needs to get its act together and explain how it can ramp up to $100 billion by 2020, which may also mean generating a better story on private finance.

There is a huge question on US public finance contributions – Washington is also pushing private sector sources – recently hosting a donor’s meeting at the State Department.

Negotiators from richer states know they need to arrive in Warsaw for the 19th Conference of the Parties with an offer on the table for poorer nations.

Compensation

This could be the trump card for developing nations if no ambitious emission or financial contributions emerge.

They want to see action before 2020, when any deal is set to come into effect. For some of the low lying island states a lock-in of the current ‘business as usual’ for the next seven years could see them disappear under the Pacific.

Proposals for a loss and damage mechanism were discussed at the UN talks in Doha, and included as part of the set of agreements as the summit concluded.

AOSIS and the LDC group are likely to push hard for a mechanism of this type if they suspect the talks’ trajectory could condemn them to suffer an increase in extreme weather events.

It’s a thought that fills many negotiators and government officials from the Global North with dread, as it could land them with a giant clean-up bill – potentially far larger than mitigation costs.

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