UN climate talks make little progress

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After a week of intensive talks, ministers have not yet made a breakthrough in negotiations for a post-Kyoto climate change deal currently taking place in Poland, despite some progress on tackling deforestation.

Uncertainty over the recession, the change of US administration and the adoption of an EU energy and climate package this week is weighing heavily on the talks. 

Sources close to the negotiations at the December 1-12 summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) expect parties will not be able agree a negotiating text before the very end of the conference, during the night of December 12-13 (EURACTIV 01/12/08).

The head of the US delegation to the Pozna? climate talks, Harlan Watson, said on Monday that any outcome in Copenhagen next year may not be the final stage in the process but a step forward in fighting climate change. “It may not be the final ‘final’, but something we really believe will move the ball forward,” Watson told a press conference in Pozna?, referring to a possible outcome in Copenhagen next December.

“A suitable aspiration and a great achievement in Copenhagen would be agreement on the principles for negotiation, not a text,” Robert Stavins, professor of business and government at Harvard University, told Reuters.

However, some experts are still confident that some progress is possible in specific areas. Countries could agree on funding to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change and set up a scheme to pay tropical countries to protect forests.

Struggling to reach consensus on deforestation

Nearly a third of the world’s land is covered by forests. The degradation and deforestation of wooded areas is responsible for around 20% of global carbon emissions, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

According to the UN, annual investment of $17-30bn could halve deforestation levels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10%. 

EU environment ministers last week endorsed a European Commission proposal to establish a ‘Global Forest Carbon Mechanism’, which would initially be publicly funded to reward developing countries for emission cuts achieved by reducing deforestation, the Commission said (EURACTIV 20/10/08).

Speaking to EURACTIV, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas underlined that part of the bloc’s contribution to such a global mechanism could come from the revenues governments receive from auctioning emission allowances under the EU ETS.

Broadly, the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation initiative – known as REDD – proposes to extend existing carbon trading mechanisms whereby polluters in the developed world would buy credits to offset their carbon emissions that include forests in the developing world, rewarding conservation and sustainable use. 

But the “forest offsetting” mechanism sparked criticism among developing countries in Pozna?.

Brazil, home of the largest area of tropical woodland on the planet, has ruled out letting developed countries offset their greenhouse gas emissions by helping to save the Amazon rainforest. Earlier last week, Brazil set itself an ambitious target of reducing its deforestation by 70% over the next 10 years. But the Brasilia government favours a public funding scheme, rather than allowing countries and companies to compensate for excess carbon emissions by funding tropical forest conservation. 

Representatives of Latin American indigenous communities in Pozna? have opposed a carbon market approach, as they fear the scheme will trigger a damaging land grab involving millions of dollars. 

Commissioner Dimas argued that turning avoided emissions into credits would need doing progressively “if we want to avoid flooding the carbon market in Europe and globally”. The Commission suggested having a pilot phase in which credits could be bought by governments to help them meet their post-2012 emission targets. “Subject to a review of this pilot scheme, we could consider allowing companies in EU ETS to use deforestation credits after 2020,” Dimas said.

More cash for adaptation wanted

The other thorny issue is linked to funding adaptation projects in least developed countries. The UN’s main fund to help poor nations to adapt is reportedly short of money and the chair of the UN Adaptation Fund board, Richard Muyungi, told reporters in Pozna? that donors should urgently pour cash to keep it running.

According to the UN, roughly $86bn per year is needed to help poor countries to adapt to global warming. NGOs claim that $50bn would be enough.

In his opening speech, Yvo de Boer, head of the UNFCCC secretariat, said that would only take 0.12 percent of world’s GDP to reach even the highest of goals by 2030. 

Obama administration unable to act before next spring

The US, which signed the Kyoto Protocol but never ratified it, is not in a position to show active commitment before March or April of next year, said experts, who anticipate that the new Obama administration is unlikely to focus on global climate change commitments before enacting domestic legislation. Reportedly, the incoming chairs of the Senate and House of Representatives’ committees on energy and commerce respectively, Barbara Boxer and Henry Waxman, have announced their intention to push for legislation in early 2009. But it is doubtful that any new proposals would become law before Copenhagen.

Meanwhile, big polluters from the developing world, such as China and India, have repeatedly said that they will not commit to a global deal until tough action is taken by developed countries. 

"There are reasons for urgency," Lord Nicholas Sternauthor of the landmark report on the economics of climate change, told the Financial Times a few days ago. "A recession should not justify a deferral action," said Stern, adding that shifting from a high-carbon economy to a low-carbon one would deliver improved energy efficiency as well as create jobs in green industries. "The intensity and pace of technological development in the last three years has been remarkable," Stern stressed. 

Equally important has been the way in which businesspeople and local authorities in some countries have grasped the challenge. 

"Green rules and regulations will help both the climate and the economy," California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said at the Pozna? Climate Group's second annual States and Regions Climate Leaders Summit. "There are some people who say that we can't afford the fight against global warming while our economies are down, but the exact opposite is true," he said. "The green rules and regulations that will help save our planet will also revive our economies," said Schwarzenegger. 

Steve Howard, CEO of The Climate Group, a group comprising 140 global companies including Ebay, Microsystems Inc, Unilever and BP have called for decisive action. Said: "More of the world's states and regions must become laboratories for low carbon development. The window of opportunity for our world leaders to break the deadlock. around a new global climate deal is closing. Tomorrow's global economy cannot afford any crisis of climate leadership today." 

Shyam SaranIndia's special envoy on climate change and lead negotiator at the UN talks, told the Guardian that India was not a "major emitter" of greenhouse gases and would not volunteer to take on responsibilities that would see it accept legally binding limits. He said capping emissions would threaten its growth and prevent it from alleviating "energy poverty" which saw 500 million people live in darkness. 

"In India, I need to give electricity for light bulbs to half a billion. In the West, you want to drive your Mercedes as fast as you want. We have 'survival' emissions, you have lifestyle emissions. You cannot put them on the same basis. I am trying to give a minimal commercial energy service, whereas you are not prepared to give up any part of your affluent lifestyle or give up consumption patterns," he said. 

Meanwhile, scholars keep on stressing that "the world cannot afford the type of shambolic display on show in Pozna?," said Kevin Watkins, senior research fellow at Oxford University's global economic governance programme. "Over the past few months, rich governments have moved financial mountains to protect the integrity of their banking systems. What price the ecological integrity of our planet, the wellbeing of future generations, and our commitments to the world's poor?," he asked. 

Next year in Copenhagen, the global community must decide on a new international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet for a major Conference of the Parties (COP), part of an ongoing international diplomatic process designed to avert catastrophic climate change by reducing countries' greenhouse gas emissions.

The Pozna? conference is the 14th COP and represents the halfway point in global talks, launched in December 2007 in Bali, to clinch a successor deal to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. 

A major challenge is finding a way to share global emissions reductions between rapidly developing countries like China and India and more industrialised countries like the US, which are responsible for the bulk of historical CO2 emissions. 

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