Mind the Gap(s)

07 Dec 2011

The Durban climate change negotiations are about three gaps.

The first is scientific and has to do with the amount of Greenhouse gases we are pumping into the atmosphere, and the levels we need to reduce to in order to prevent irreversible changes to the climate system. The second is political and affects the course of the negotiations. The third is the gap between public perception of climate change and the reality of the change that has already begun.

All of these gaps are interrelated.

In 2009 countries made pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global average temperature from increases below 2 degrees Celsius. Last week the United Nations Environment Programme issued “The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord Pledges Sufficient to Limit Global Warming to 2oC or 1.5oC?”

Following the conclusion of the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen, 42 industrialized countries submitted “economy-wide” emissions targets for 2020. Another 43 developing countries also submitted “nationally appropriate mitigation actions.” While the Copenhagen negotiations failed to produce an expected new climate change treaty, these pledges have become the basis for “analyzing the extent to which the global community is on track to meet long-term temperature goals” (for details, see the Emissions Gap Report).

They are also the source of much of the wrangling that continues in the Durban negotiations. The 2020 date is significant because that’s the date by which the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that emissions cuts need to start being made if the global average temperature increases are to be kept below 2oC.

The report states that while it is possible to reach the required level of reductions by 2020, the current reduction pledges “are not adequate to reduce emissions to a level consistent with the 2°C target, and therefore lead to a gap.”

Research tells us that annual emissions need to be around 44 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 equivalent by 2020 to have a likely chance of holding global average temperatures to 2°C or less. (A gigatonne is equal to 1 billion tonnes of carbon. According to the International Energy Agency, the world emitted a record 30.6 tonnes of CO2 in 2010 - a 5% increase over the previous record level in 2008.

The report states that if the “highest ambitions” of all the countries that signed the Copenhagen Accord are implemented, annual emissions of greenhouse gases would be cut by around 7 (Gt) of CO2 equivalent by 2020.

This represents a cut in annual emissions to around 49 Gt of CO2 equivalent, which would still leave a gap of around 5 Gt compared with where we need to be—”a gap equal to the total emissions of the world’s cars, buses and trucks in 2005.”

However, if only the lowest ambition pledges are implemented, and if no clear rules are set in the negotiations, emissions could be around 53 Gt of CO2 equivalent in 2020 – “not that different from business-as-usual so the rules set in the negotiations clearly matter.” If it’s “business as usual” emissions could rise to 56 Gt by the same date.

This points to the second gap -- in political will. The differences between those who are feeling the brunt of rapid climate change right now -- primarily many of the Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries -- and the major emitters, is growing. The Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiated nearly 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro, calls on all nations to cooperate “ accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions.

This has been traditionally interpreted to mean that the industrialized nations of Europe and North America bear a large portion of the responsibility for dealing with the problem since they are primarily responsible for the vast majority of historical emissions. Indeed, the United States was only recently surpassed by China as the largest GHG emitter. However, the US, Canada and others have higher per capita emissions levels.

Nevertheless, Canada has led the charge of developed nations that now say that it is “unfair” for developed countries to cut total emissions while developing nations such as China, India and Brazil are not bound to reduce in the same way. Canada has become the first nation in the world to say it will not abide by the Kyoto Protocol, nor will it agree to a second commitment period.

This approach has widened the gap between those that support a renewed Kyoto Protocol -- most of the developing world and the European Union (subject to developing nations such as China getting onboard) -- and those that say they don’t want a second commitment period. This group is led by Canada, Russia and Japan but others have now joined, so many that there is little chance that the Kyoto Protocol, which lapses next year, will be renewed in Durban.

Such positioning and politicking is widening the gap between developed and developing countries. For some, like the Small Island Developing States, there is a sense of being abandoned to their fates. Delay does not bode well for the Arctic either. People from both regions need immediate and sustained emissions reductions.

The third gap is between what we think or believe is (or is not) happening and what the facts are telling us. The latter are based on observation and a growing body of scientific knowledge. There are literally thousands of peer reviewed scientific papers that demonstrate that the climate is changing and we are primarily responsible.

The public in developed countries -- and many developing nations -- still has not embraced this reality. While millions of people are mobilized and calling for action, there is still a strong predilection to ignore the signals that are all around us, or to use the current economic downturn as an excuse for inaction. Both lead to the same end -- they are further narrowing the window in which we have time to act. And they are passing the problem of adaptation on to future generations, when the price will be much higher.


ieva - 07 Dec 2011
and Canada is gaining more "friends" oi-oi
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