So who’s left on the villains list — the roster of top national polluters in the developed world who have not yet made their contributions? For various reasons, Japan, Canada, Australia, South Korea, and South Africa have missed their INDC deadlines.
Franz Perrez, the Swiss climate representative, told the Sydney Morning Herald recently:
It seems difficult to understand why a major economy would not be ready. This would clearly undermine the trust in partners.
Jake Schmidt, director of international programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, notes that “whether or not these countries propose something strong sends a signal about how serious they are.” To many observers, the laggards deserve to suffer what young parents refer to in misbehaving children as “consequences.” At the very least, they need to hurry up and make some reasonable commitments.
First, Japan (3.9%), one of the world’s leading nations, has no numbers in. Junya Nakano of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that his country could “not comment on the specific timing… [as] we are taking into account submissions from other countries,” but that Japan would submit “as soon as possible.” Its commitment is widely expected by June.
The country occupies a prickly position due to the failure of its nuclear establishment to live up to promises and a national underestimation of the powers of mother nature — or perhaps a misplaced faith in human engineering and technology. Japan had to back out on previous international sustainability commitments after its strong push for nuclear expansion failed and forced the nation back onto a heavy fossil-fuel diet.
Japan deserves credit for a stiff upper lip, but nuclear desires continue there, especially in the current conservative and sometimes self-contradictory government. Unfortunate realities have emerged in the form of continued bad news from Fukushima (near-total meltdown of Unit 1), another nuclear plant recently found to be located on a large seismic fault, and unmitigated public distrust in both utilities and government. Plans for importing more LNG from Indonesia are now under way, and the Japanese are investing heavily in a new project there.
Canada (1.6% of emissions), also a successful industrialized country, has not filed an INDC either. Even since before Canada discovered the worth of its tar sands and withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, it has been waffling on the issue of climate change. Parts of the nation, like British Columbia with its carbon trading scheme, evince promise in coping with climate change.
The country as a whole is resource-rich but politically divided. It derives 10% of its GDP from energy and fossil fuels, which spurred 30% of the country’s economic growth and 40% of its export growth in the first half of 2014.
This heavy reliance on fossil fuel exploitation has made Canada leery of a global deal that might limit emissions from its oil customers. Also, the country’s current fossil fuel policies, which allow considerable latitude for petroleum development and production, are not likely to achieve Canada’s pledged 2020 target for greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the numbers have barely budged since that promise was made.
Another problem for Canada, as for Russia (5.1%), has been forest depletion, especially by wildfire and surface-hungry tar sands mining. In fact, a report last fall found that Canada leads the world in forest degradation. Canada’s representatives at least give lip service to the UNFCCC process, and the country has contributed to the Green Climate Fund, but it needs to accept its own responsibility for the state of the atmosphere and pony up with everyone else.
Australia (1.1%) is expected to make its INDC submission by June. Relatively unpopulated, Australia is very important because of its abundant fossil energy sources, practically capable in themselves of continuing to fuel the world into climate oblivion. The big land Down Under has waffled on environmental issues, torn by internal politics that produced a very promising start several years ago — including a major carbon pricing scheme — but are now making some large reversals under a conservative government.
In fact, a key issues paper released by the Prime Minister and Cabinet last week even seems to prefer a 3.6-degree C warming target, not acknowledging the globally agreed-on 2 degrees — yes, the same target that other nations are contemplating pushing back to 1.5.
Also, the nation has declared that “for the foreseeable future, Australia will continue to be a major supplier of crucial energy and raw materials to the rest of the world.” One of the top three per capita users of fossil fuels for energy, Australia seems bent on business as usual, exploiting its ample stores of coal and petroleum while other major world economies (Saudi Arabia, for instance, also a top per capita user) start to develop more and more renewables. Other nations and nongovernmental organizations see Australia as putting its “climate credibility” on the line and have suggested that the nation adopt a target emissions cut of anything from 25% to 40%.
South Korea, one of the most affluent countries in Asia and the world’s seventh largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases (1.8%) and South Africa (0.9%), also a wealthy developed nation, round out this list. Neither of these middle powers has a very credible reason for delaying an INDC filing, especially since it’s largely symbolic: 2015 is only the first round of commitments, and as UN officials concede, we cannot expect to match greenhouse gains without future negotiations.
South Korea’s emissions stand a good chance of dropping quickly under the country’s new (January 2015) cap-and-trade market. The country also uses nuclear energy for about half its power and has good public transportation, including high-speed trains.
South Africa, also a middle power in international affairs, is the 25th-largest country in the world by land area and also the 25th most populous. It has the second-largest economy on the African continent (next to Nigeria), but only in the 1990s did it begin shedding the harsh and retrograde tradition of apartheid. Development and deforestation over the past half-century have cost South Africa much of its wild habitat, but it’s still the sixth most biologically diverse country in the world. A member of the G20 and G8+5, it has been part of the Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRICS) group of countries and trade partners since 2011. The nation has floated INDC ideas but not yet submitted them formally.
Not mentioned are Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich developed nations of the Middle-East-North-Africa region, all fossil fuel suppliers to the world to some degree, but many continuing to be mired in religious-political conflict. Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s three largest per capita energy consumers, has begun using renewable energy more and more for domestic needs. Too, it has left the oil spigot open at its own expense to keep prices low recently.
The New Climate Institute provides a useful look at overall INDC progress so far, garnering reports from 99 countries on their stages of contribution reached, submission dates, and support provisions. The institute has a concept of “fair share” similar to what I have described in this series of INDC articles and presents more exhaustive detail from a team of collaborators. A March 31 snapshot on NCI’s website indicates that almost 60% had initiated national discussions, begun technical design, and entered the political process by then, on top of the INDCs completed by then.
This chart shows the proportion of GHG emissions expected to be covered by submitted INDCs by the end of the year. It takes all countries into its view, including those currently without information. The New Climate Institute expects the bulk of new submissions in September and October, by which time it believes about 80% of global emissions will be covered.
In the same survey, country representatives have commented on the extent to which certain challenges had impaired their INDC processes.
Another useful benchmark in the process: slightly over half (55.6%) of country representatives indicated that their INDCs would feature climate change adaptation plans.
Surely the nay-sayers — especially in politically volatile nations like the United States — will continue to point out that some countries will renege on their commitments. The US opposition party has already threatened to default on climate promises, and quite possibly other nations will go back on their words as well. Unanimity of human purpose certainly has few, if any, precedents in world history. (Then again, people have never tried to corral as swift and potentially huge issue as climate change before.)
One thing is certain, though: every failure in the INDC process works against the interests of all air-breathers. There are no exemptions here. And that means we need to keep track of false or straying promises, including our own. Politics are simply unwelcome at the table when it comes to survival of life as we currently understand it.
A final question: can international efforts really make a difference in the outcome of climate change? Candidly, I believe an increasing number of knowledgeable people are beginning to doubt the human ability to survive and flourish. But working together on a global challenge is surely an iterative process. We are still trembling at step one.
We live in a constantly fractious world, but not yet a totally failed one. Recent history indicates strongly that the international movement to gather real statistics and formulate national contributions has become more compelling. Let’s see what we can come up with going forward and reassess in July, if not before.