It's that time of the year again when the spotlight falls on climate change.
The annual United Nations Climate Conference opens this week in Doha, Qatar, with 15,000 people expected to take part.
Actions are more sorely needed than ever before. The 18th Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention (dubbed COP18) meets amid stark evidence of the damaging effects of climate change.
The most publicised recent event is Hurricane Sandy that caused US$50 billion (153 billion ringgit) of devastation in the United States’ east coast, including the flooding in New York City’s subway system.
“It’s the climate, stupid!” said the cover of Bloomberg Business Week in its pre-election issue. Its writer said that climate change should have been the biggest election issue.
Yet, “the issue is missing in action on Congress’ calendar and in the presidential debates. After Sandy, that is insane.”
It is hoped that US public opinion will change after Sandy. Climate denialists and conservative politicians have prevented the US from making credible emissions-reduction commitments in the climate talks. Indeed, the US is the biggest blocker of global action.
It has promoted the voluntary system of pledges where each country simply states what it wants to do, instead of a top-down approach preferred by most other countries in which scientific estimates are made on what needs to be done and then each country is assigned to undertake required cuts comparable to one another.
The world is on track for a disastrous rise of 4?C in average temperature, warned a World Bank report last week, far above the 2-degree threshold. Even at today’s 0.8 degrees (above the pre-industrial level), extreme weather events such as floods, drought and storms are already causing havoc.
Sobering data was provided by the latest UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the emissions gap.
Annual global emissions have shot up from 40 billion tonnes in 2000 to the present 50 billion tonnes, and are projected at 58 billion tonnes in 2020 if there is no action.
This needs to be brought down to 44 billion tonnes in 2020 to stay within the 2-degree limit. But even if countries fulfil the best of their emissions-reduction pledges, the 2020 level will be 52 billion tonnes.
The UNEP estimates the emissions gap to be eight to 13 billion tonnes by 2020. This is the difference between what should be the emissions level in 2020 and what it is projected to be. It is thus a measure of the extra effort needed to cut emissions.
Unfortunately, COP18 is unlikely to produce a breakthrough. It is supposed to close the work in two working groups (Kyoto Protocol or KP, and Long-term Cooperative Action or LCA) and pave the way for work to start in a third group (Durban Platform, or DP).
The DP group can get into real work only if the other two groups finish their work successfully, and this now seems unlikely.
Under the KP group, COP18 should see developed countries finally binding their commitments to reduce emissions by certain percentages for the next five or eight years under the KP’s second period (the first period ends next month).
But there are multiple problems. Canada quit the protocol altogether, just as the US did years ago.
Japan and Russia refuse to take part in this second period, and Australia and New Zealand have not yet made up their mind.
That leaves the European countries. The European Union will only commit to a low number (20 per cent cut by 2020 compared to 1990), and have hinted that instead of this figure being committed in a binding way to be ratified by Parliaments, it may propose to do so only through a decision at the COP.
Meanwhile, other developed countries that are not in the Kyoto Protocol are supposed to make a comparable commitment in the LCA group.
However the US has led the move to a “pledge” system, in which countries can pledge as they please.
The US is adamant in closing the LCA group (formed in 2007 to negotiate the Bali Action Plan), even though it has not yet finished its work on mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology.
The US dislikes several things about the Bali Action Plan: its provision that all developed countries have to make a comparable effort in mitigation, its recognition of the difference in mitigation obligations between developed and developing countries, and the principle that developing countries’ actions depend on their obtaining funds and technology.
The developing countries want the LCA group to complete its work or else to have its outstanding issues properly transferred (together with the principles and framework underlying these issues) to other bodies before the group closes down.
But they face resistance from several developed countries, which want to get rid of many key issues put forward by developing countries (such as the effects of intellectual property on technology transfer, and to ensure that climate change is not used as a ground for unilateral trade measures).
These developed countries also want to continue the negotiations on certain issues, especially mitigation, but without the principles or understandings already agreed to in the Climate Convention and in the LCA group.
They hope that if the KP and LCA groups close down, they can get the new DP group to discuss climate actions on a clean slate, with all countries having to take on similar obligations. The differences between developed and developing countries would be erased or minimised.
But this is precisely what the developing countries do not want. For them future negotiations on the actions countries should undertake must be guided by the Convention’s principles of equity which recognises “differentiated responsibilities” between developed and developing countries.
They fear that the developed countries are refusing to live up to their commitments to cut emissions, and instead are preparing the ground for passing the burden onto the developing countries.
They are also concerned that the developed countries have not kept their promise to transfer technology. And the new funds to support developing countries are also absent or far below the promised or required levels.
On the other hand, the developed countries want to see the developing countries taking on similar emissions-reduction obligations. They fear that otherwise the developing countries will catch up economically, and they will lose their economic dominance.
COP18 will see the continuation of this diplomatic wrangling. The deadlock or, at best, slow progress in the climate talks contrasts with the urgency of action needed to combat rising temperatures and the growing number and intensity of extreme weather events.
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