Climate summit struggles to overcome targets row

With UN climate talks marred by tensions between poor and rich countries over carbon emissions reduction targets, some are now looking at the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a more solid foundation for a deal.

With the Copenhagen conference now entering its final phase, new texts have been put on the table in an attempt to draw rich and poor countries’ positions closer to one another.

“In these very hours we are balancing between success and failure,” the Danish president of the two-week meeting, Connie Hedegaard, said at the opening of the high-level phase of the talks yesterday night.

The texts, on long-term cooperative action under the 1992 Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, seek to promote discussion on the broader picture of a possible outcome before high-level government officials start arriving. 

“It is now also time to begin to focus on the big picture,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

The texts, he added, are beginning “to capture the framework of what could be agreed at the end of this conference,” describing this as a “sign of an important step-change in the negotiating process”.

A special UN working group on Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA) under the Convention also began work in Copenhagen this week, a step which was welcomed by EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas as a way to “facilitate understanding” among parties.

EU targets ‘fake’ and ‘untransparent’

But as negotiators redouble efforts to find an agreement, Jørgen Knud Henningsen, a former senior EU negotiator to the Kyoto Protocol talks in 1997, says the focus on emissions reductions targets is misleading.

“These targets are not terribly transparent,” Knud Henningsen told EURACTIV in an interview. “Very few people are able to explain how American, Japanese, European or Australian targets compare,” he said, explaining that the EU’s pledge to cut emissions by 20% by 2020 represented more of a stabilisation rather than a genuine reduction in emissions.

Referring to the EU’s 20% pledge, Knud Henningsen was adamant that “these targets are fake”. He said the deindustrialisation of Eastern Europe and the recent recession were the most powerful drivers of EU emissions cuts. “Then you have all those CDM [carbon offset] projects that come on top, which really artificially alter the exact figures of emission reductions.”

“We would be better served if we were to look into specific policies than these targets, which are far too easy to question.”

In October this year, Sandbag, a UK-based campaign group, issued a report stating that the EU’s 20% emissions reduction pledge amounted to no more than “clever accounting” because most of the promised cuts had already taken place following de-industrialisation in post-communist countries.

“By 2010, we will have already achieved a 10% cut against 1990 and half of the remaining effort to meet the 20% target is likely to be met through purchasing permits from overseas, giving a domestic reduction of only 10% over a decade,” the group said (EURACTIV 29/10/09).

‘You cannot force targets down the throat of anybody’

For Knud Henningsen, the former EU climate negotiator, the debate is not only about numbers but also about acceptable policies and measures. In particular, he warned that the issue of binding targets might face an uphill battle in the US Congress, which would need to ratify any international agreement.

This, he said, would require more votes than for passing domestic legislation. “You cannot force targets down the throat of anybody and in order to have the targets coming into force, you need to have the support of a less progressive Senate with 67 votes or a 2/3 majority,” Henningsen pointed out.

Instead, the former EU negotiator calls on delegates and ministers in Copenhagen to sideline the targets discussion and focus more on policies and measures to reach the long-term target of 80% emission reductions by 2050.

“Saying ‘let’s have a common target, let’s have the same cuts in the same amount of time’ is the wrong message,” said Warwick McKibbin, an international economics expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institute

“That violates basic economics, because these economies have different endowments, different growth rates, different structures, different social systems,” he added, noting that domestically it is difficult to ask people to commit to a binding target with unknown costs.

In July this year, the world’s eight largest economies meeting at the G8 in Italy for the first time recognised that the rise in average global temperature should be limited to 2°C. According to scientists, the temperature corresponds to the upper limit if the world is to escape catastrophic climate change. G8 leaders consequently pledged to support a global target to cut emissions by 50% by 2050. Moreover, they supported an ambitious long-term target of 80% or more for industrialised countries.

Rio Convention could unlock talks

According to Henningsen, who witnessed the birth of both previous global climate agreements in Rio and Kyoto, negotiators in Copenhagen should rehabilitate the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) rather than the Kyoto Protocol. Alternatively, he says a totally new global agreement could be put in place but this option is vehemently opposed by developing countries.

“The framework is there,” said Henningsen, underlining that the UNFCCC has been ratified by the US, while the Kyoto Protocol has not. Article 4.2.(a) of the Convention, he explains, already stated that all developed countries should “adopt national policies” to curb their emissions.

“That shows already that the US is in breach of the Convention: so are a lot of others,” he noted. “The world would be better served to go back to that and implement Article 4.2.(a).”

Montreal Protocol: Not a way out 

The EU expert dismissed other ideas, like that of using the Montreal Protocol as a model.

The Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer like chloro-fluorocarbons or hydrofluorocarbons is seen by some as the best-kept secret in the war against climate change.

Kofi Annan describes it as “perhaps the most successful international agreement to date,” and even Yvo de Boer, the UN’s climate chief, sees the Montreal Protocol as a basis for developing a viable burden-sharing mechanism.

Henningsen, however, noted that it addresses only a narrow problem. “It is good to be aware of the Montreal Protocol and where it worked. But Montreal is far from being sufficient to provide the answer to climate change,” he said.

Henningsen was speaking to Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener. 

To read the interview with Henningsen in full, please click here.

As the Copenhagen conference enters its final phase, rich and poor countries are still divided over a new global agreement to fight climate change.

Developing countries are calling on industrialised nations to raise their pledges on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25-40% from 1990 levels by 2020. Predictably, they are also asking for funding to help them adapt to the damaging effects of climate change and embark on a low-carbon development path.

Rich nations such as the United States, on the other hand, are finding it difficult to agree on ambitious mid-term targets for 2020. In the EU case, it is promising up its offer only if other developed nations commit to measures similar to its existing commitment of cutting emissions by 20% by 2020.

On aid to developing countries, progress has been modest. Despite the EU having pledged 7.2 billion euros in immediate funding for poor countries, environment ministers meeting over the weekend were unable to break the deadlock (EURACTIV 11/12/09).

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