By Kristen Hite, Interim Director, Climate Change Program
In recent years we’ve seen global predictions on climate change becoming increasingly dire. In recent weeks it’s gone from bad to worse: The International Energy Association, often criticized for how its future projections of energy production rely too heavily on fossil fuels and nuclear energy just issued a report that says our current energy patterns will lead us to a global rise in temperature of 4 degrees Celsius or worse, leading to “irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.” This comes on the heels of a new analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which tells us that impacts are worse than expected and that climate change is increasingly responsible for natural disaster damages to the tune of billions of dollars annually. Put simply: we can’t avoid climate impacts—we’re already experiencing them and they are getting worse. But we can avoid locking in an unsustainable future that guarantees widespread destruction to communities and ecosystems across the globe—that is, if diplomats representing 190+ countries agree on how to act.
Without an internationally reliable package of specific targets and timetables beyond 2012, it is unclear how individual country actions can collectively avoid dangerous impacts to the Earth’s climate. Do we have to have a legally binding agreement in order to stop wreaking havoc on the climate? Yes and no. Some would say that if we secure pledges from enough countries, we could add up the emissions reductions and financial commitments to collectively take action to address climate change. But there are two problems with this: (1) adding up current pledges means we’re facing at least a 5.8 degrees Farenheit (3.2 degrees Celsius) temperature increase and fall tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars short on financial commitments, and (2) there’s no guarantee countries will live up to their already inadequate promises. A legally binding regime allows a solution for a situation—like this one—where countries have to rely on each other’s efforts to address a truly global solution.
What does the solution look like? We need an agreement that is global and ambitious enough in coverage to keep global greenhouse gas emissions within the limits dictated by science (as opposed to politics). And we need a system with enough teeth so that the rest of the world doesn’t have to suffer because of broken promises. The existing tools in the Kyoto Protocol allow many countries to take on the necessary targets. And many countries are willing to do so. But not all. And therein lies the problem: how to move the world forward with the Kyoto Protocol if other countries’ principal obligations are under another treaty—either the existing climate treaty (UNFCCC) or another treaty yet to be negotiated. Ideally we could just use the existing treaty but right now the UNFCCC doesn’t have provisions for specific targets and timetables. Add politics into the mix for tinkering with the UNFCCC and we might as well adopt a new treaty. We then face the same challenge of ratification as Kyoto: finding the political outcome acceptable enough (for actors as diverse as the U.S. Congress, China, and the threatened nation of Tuvalu) to ratify. On a timeframe that avoids a gap in the emissions reductions slated to expire next year.
The Durban meetings are critical because the world’s only country-specific targets and timetables for emissions reductions expire in 2012. As we’ve seen in recent years’ negotiations, the next round of Kyoto targets have been held hostage for years because of political deadlock due to rich, fossilized interests. In the U.S., oil and coal interests have spent billions of dollars to fill campaign coffers in Congress, which hides its own inaction behind the fact that China won’t take on binding emissions reductions targets. Meanwhile, China takes the same negotiating position as the world’s poorest countries, despite having a booming economy dependent in part on coal-based manufacturing to make cheap products for consumption in rich countries. And the world’s poorest countries—indeed, most of the 190+ countries who are party to the UNFCCC—are responsible for a small fraction of global emissions but are already facing mounting costs associated with climate impacts. Those countries are asking—quite reasonably—for financial assistance to pay for the costs of a handful of rich emitters’ historical emissions. They say that countries like the U.S. and those in Europe got rich through manufacturing dependent on cheap combustion of fossil fuels, which is what caused much of the current climate problem. But these same countries are struggling to find funds and the political will to pay their fair share of the costs. Meanwhile, the planet burns.
We can’t let the entrenched fossil interests that represent the top tier of global wealth hold the planet hostage. We need global reductions based on science based in an international legal framework that makes sure countries keep their promises. The vast majority of us understand the dangers and want to act now. In Durban we have a choice: do we let the privileged—the global1%, if you will, hoard their wealth and compromise our future through fossilized reliance on coal plants and other 19th century technologies, or do we demand that our governments represent the remaining 99% of the planet and take on the legal commitments necessary to change course towards a sustainable future?
CIEL’s Climate Team is in Durban, South Africa to participate in the latest round of UN climate negotiations. Learn more about this conference and the issues we will be covering at this critical moment in the development of the international climate regime.