December 12, 2011
The low expectations for the climate change conference in Durban were justified. Not only was there a failure to come to a legally binding climate change agreement containing substantial emission reduction targets, but the prospect of reaching such an agreement also appears to be unrealistic for the foreseeable future. Despite a myriad of investments in energy efficiency and renewable energies it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the 2°C target can be achieved. The world has thus made a de facto decision in favour of more adaptation.
Expectations for the climate change conference in Durban were low – and no positive surprise was forthcoming. It was not only the fact that there was a failure to achieve the objective of reaching a legally binding follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, whose initial commitment term expires in 2012, containing significant emission reduction targets for the industrial nations at least. Post-Durban, a global climate change agreement with clear and legally binding reduction targets for all major emitters even appears to be fundamentally extremely difficult to achieve and – if it materialises at all – will probably come too late.
In Durban of course “steps in the right direction” were taken once again: the Kyoto Protocol will be extended, though without a concrete agreement on greenhouse gas reduction; countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada have also announced that they will not be party to a second commitment term. Furthermore, an “outcome with legal force“ is to be agreed by 2015 that also includes the reduction targets of nations that did not sign up to the Kyoto Protocol (e.g. the US, China and India) and is to come into force from 2020 onwards; the decisive factor, however, is that it is unclear whether this construct will be legally binding. In addition, further progress was made with the Green Climate Fund, which is to be used to provide financing of USD 100 bn per year for mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries and emerging markets from 2020, even though it remains unclear what financial contribution individual countries will have to make and which countries are to benefit according to which criteria. Progress was also made on forestry conservation.
It is also right that many countries are betting on energy efficiency or renewable energies irrespective of international climate change policy. The EU already decided a long time ago on concrete targets and the planned energy policy rethink in Germany points in the same direction. Even the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the US, are investing heavily in renewables and energy efficiency measures.
But taking an objective view, all that will not be enough to halt or reverse the upward trend in global greenhouse gases; in the last decade alone global energy-induced CO2 emissions rose by more than 30%. The global thirst for energy is huge and continues to be satisfied to a large extent using fossil fuel sources. Coal in particular is plentiful and inexpensive in many economically aspiring nations and is therefore often the number one energy source. In the coming decades the population numbers on Earth will swell by more than 2 bn – and consumption demands will increase accordingly.
At the same time, scientists tell us that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2020 in order for there to be a realistic chance of limiting the rise in the Earth’s temperature to a maximum of 2°C compared with the pre-industrial level. Given the above-described developments, however, it is difficult to conceive that the dramatic turnaround in international climate change policy this requires will materialise. After all, the commitment to the 2°C target often expressed by politicians does not tally with the proposed measures and efforts in the international climate change negotiations and in most cases does not tally with the individual national climate change programmes either.
At the moment most countries continue to stress the responsibilities of other nations. But why should there be any substantive change in the next few years? The negotiating positions of China and the US for instance will not be vastly different until 2015 or 2020 from what they are now. And the EU cannot halt the rising global trend in greenhouse gas emissions alone, especially as it still has to prove that it can permanently succeed in doing so even while the debt crisis continues.
What does this mean for the future of climate change policy? Is wanting to achieve a global breakthrough at the UN level still valid? Given the experience gathered over the last few years the answer is probably “no”. Is a smaller country grouping – the G20, for instance – the better alternative for making substantive progress in combating climate change? Presumably yes, since this increases the likelihood of forging a reliable coalition of trailblazers. There are, however, no grounds for excessive optimism in this respect since the G20 also contains members that hold opposing views.
Irrespective of the organisational framework one should definitely not count on scientists being wrong with their climate change projections. Implementing sensible measures to prevent CO2 emissions thus remains the right thing to do, and it remains the right decision for governments and companies to set a good example especially as scarce resources are thereby used more sparingly. Huge potential lies in, among other things, energy efficiency, forest conservation and renewable energies. Politicians and those in business should continue to focus on technological progress and promote this since it will boost the price competitiveness of renewables for instance. As things currently stand, however, this will probably not be enough to meet the 2°C target. The slow progress in international climate change policy thus means that effectively the world is deciding in favour of more adaptation to climate change.
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