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More talk, little action from climate change diplomacy

By Hilal Elver (Al Jazeera) - April 28, 2014

Since the 1992 Rio Summit on Environment and Development, the largest international gathering in history, world leaders have repeatedly pledged to limit human-induced climate catastrophe. But there’s been little actual progress on achieving a binding agreement on climate change to date. Activists hope next year’s Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris will deliver a better response. Facts belie their optimism.

Despite investments in energy efficiency and a movement toward cleaner energy in the U.S., Europe, China and some emerging economies, annual emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have risen almost twice as fast since the 1990s compared with the prior decade. Even if an agreement is reached to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, the atmosphere already carries far more carbon dioxide than the responsible upper limit of 350 parts per million (ppm). Right now we’re at 400 ppm, while adding 2 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. Unless global leaders agree to return to under the 350 ppm limit within this century, we risk triggering irreversible damage that could make climate change spin out of control. A recent study by the World Bank found that average temperature on Earth will increase at least 4 degrees Celsius from pre–Industrial Revolution levels by the end of the century unless major policy changes are adopted.

Currently, the Kyoto Protocol is the only mandatory treaty that requires countries to reduce their GHG emissions. As a legal commitment, even the Kyoto framework is less than meets the eye: Among the biggest emitters, the U.S. never ratified the treaty, while China and India were exempted because developing countries are excluded from mandatory commitments under the UNFCCC guidelines. The U.S. Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol, partly to protest these exemptions, and partly not to put additional burdens on the U.S. industrial sector. As a result, few states were subjected to Kyoto restrictions, and coverage extended to only 11 percent of total GHG emissions.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth assessment report, released on March 31, underscores the urgency of this challenge. “The world has only 15 or so years left in which to begin bending the emissions curve downward,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a co-chair of the U.N. body, told reporters last week. “Beyond this window, the costs of emergency fixes will be overwhelming. We cannot afford to lose another decade … Otherwise it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”

Hailed as the most comprehensive and neutral policy assessment of the current scientific knowledge, the report was authored by more than 300 scientists from around the world, who analyzed mounting evidence on the adverse effects of climate change for several years. Its most salient conclusions include: Humans are responsible for both burning fossil fuels and deforestation, which are the main causes of climate change; the rise of sea levels, loss of coral reefs and shrinking glaciers will grow more severe; climate change will have a serious impact on biodiversity, food and water security; and urgent action is needed to reduce GHG emissions, as inaction will put the world on a no-U-turn course toward global warming.
Politicians spend two weeks each year frantically shaping essentially meaningless conference documents and then forget about climate change policies once they return to their countries.

These findings have been confirmed by extensive reviews from experts and governments around the world. While there is little ambiguity about the report’s key conclusions, climate change deniers continue to discredit the IPCC’s process and influence.

The IPCC is a scientific body that has no power or responsibility to tell sovereign governments what to do. However, the cold reality of this accumulation of overwhelming evidence remains. The report’s urgent tone was intended to pressure political leaders to act decisively on climate change. Some scholars caution that the alarmist language is counterproductive. In addition to its numbing effect, they argue that fear-mongering does not encourage sustainable solutions. Technophiles have also suggested that human ingenuity will find solutions for all the problems that climate change brings. No worries. Just trust technology.

Most technophiles are either true believers in the wonders of technology or market fundamentalists who are convinced that if the economy is left alone, solutions will be automatically generated. For instance, despite its notable failures in the EU, the carbon market is still put forward as one option to curb emissions. Proponents contend that it is possible to overcome past disappointments with this approach by pricing carbon realistically rather than in an industry-friendly manner. But still, those standards would need to be reinforced with robust institutional backing.

The immediate challenge is how to begin across-the-board mandatory GHG emission reductions as soon as possible. Developed countries are making their commitments contingent on developing countries’ acceptance of parallel obligations. Countries in the global South continue to insist the West has unfulfilled historical obligations, and the golden principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” which exempts developing countries from obligatory GHG reductions in the immediate future, must be fully incorporated into any future agreements if it is to be politically viable.

In an era of frequent new offshore oil discoveries, shifting toward a post-carbon economy seems ever more distant. Over the next few decades, the United States is poised to become the champion of an energy revolution driven by ‘unconventional’ new oil and gas resources (shale oil, tar sands). The North American Keystone XL pipeline project, if approved, will further undermine any hope for a carbon-free future. Moreover, even if the Obama administration is willing to commit to meaningful GHG reduction targets, it is unlikely that the current Congress would ratify such a commitment.

At the 21st UNFCCC session next year, leaders from all major emitters are expected to establish an international law regime to control GHG emissions and reduce the effects of global warming. This is the last chance to achieve robust commitments that would take effect in 2020. A failure to reach a suitable agreement will further endanger humanity and discredit multilateral diplomacy on climate change. So far, the incomprehensible documents drafted in the course of almost two dozen climate negotiations since UNFCC came into effect in 1994 have proved useless for addressing the core emissions challenge. Politicians spend two weeks each year frantically shaping essentially meaningless conference documents and then forget about climate change policies once they return to their countries. With each international meeting of this sort, the prospects diminish for heading off a climate change disaster.

The public is already disillusioned with the inability to meet the challenges posed by climate change through international negotiations. It is unlikely the Paris conference will be different, and the process will be repeated after a few years. Meanwhile, the planet continues to heat up to levels well past an emergency stage. The climate justice movement needs to raise its voice, push the bar higher and let politicians know that diplomatic gestures and fruitless annual gatherings are not getting the job done of protecting the Earth from the GHG buildup.

Hilal Elver is a research professor at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She was a member of the Turkish delegation implementing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.