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Climate Change

Already Sinking? COP21 Climate Talks Hit Negotiating Iceberg

Originally published on
By Tim Cadman, PhD

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The twenty first Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) begins its second week today, and the negotiations are foundering.

The sticking points that emerged in the wake of the past few months’ discussions in the lead up to the ‘climate talks that must not fail’ have become entrenched. The developing countries, largely represented by Brazil and China, and the ‘Like Minded Developing Countries’ (the LMDCs), marshalled by Bolivia, are insisting that the nationally determined contributions to reducing emissions should not be included in the final agreement to come out of Paris. And they appear to have recruited the US to their cause.

The anticipated agreement, previously and somewhat optimistically referred to as the Like Minded Developing Countries is in serious jeopardy of delivering no binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions. This would be a terrible outcome. Not the least because it could no longer tie countries to any quantifiable emissions reductions targets. This means that the major global economies will continue to spew out toxic emissions from fossil fuels, coal-fired power stations, forest logging, agriculture and the like.

Why has this happened? Firstly, some (but certainly not all) developing countries are continuing to demand that the the developed countries, whom they consider to be historically responsible for the mess the planet is in, pay reparations for their past polluting misdeeds through the so-called ‘loss and damage’ mechanism (Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage). Countries threatened by rising sea levels are having to rapidly adapt to climate change, and need money to raise sea walls, build coastal defences, and relocate vulnerable communities, etc.

Secondly, the US delegation, which back home faces a hostile Senate comprised of radical climate change deniers, cannot agree to legally binding targets, and therefore cannot have a measurable cap on emissions in the final agreement (which the INDCs imply). This has the knock-on effect that there may not even be agreement as to whether the global climate policy community will commit to keeping ‘dangerous’ climate change within 2 degrees centigrade – let alone the 1.5 degrees many climate affected countries are pushing for.

This intransigence is being largely played out through opposition to the market mechanisms currently in place to mitigate (prevent) man-made global warming. The developed countries want to see a price on carbon, so they can create an international emissions trading scheme, to encourage countries to ‘decarbonise’ their economies. This would stimulate investment in renewable energy, and enable countries that cannot meet their emissions reduction targets to purchase ‘carbon offsets’ from countries that can.

A whole series of mechanisms have been constructed over the past two decades to enable this to happen, not the least of which is the Clean Development Mechanism, whose fate now hangs in the balance. The CDM has enabled developing countries to benefit from investment in emissions reductions projects, paid for by developed countries. To date, more than seven thousand projects have offset almost one and a half billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This has occurred largely in China and India, who now have ‘ecologically modern’ economies, and can scarcely even be considered developing countries any more (even if the poor and ultra poor remain). In a desperate bid to keep the CDM alive, it is even being suggested that the credits previously generated under the mechanism be re-offered to the private sector, at a fixed price (currently it is suggested that this be a little over 2 Euros).

Now even REDD+, the poster-child of recent negotiations, which aims to provide payments to developing countries from developed countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, is being caught up this debate. REDD+ is a logical mechanism to generate offsets from avoided deforestation. But offsets need to be tied to the CDM’s certified emissions reduction scheme (popularly known as carbon credits) – and the verification and accounting requirements these entail (otherwise how can the credits have credibility?). Bolivia is leading the ‘anti-market’ charge, but in many ways it is a front for countries with large forests, who want to continue logging, and get paid not to do so at the same time – without any oversight.

India and China, who have previously benefitted so much from market-mechanisms are now part of this strategic play. If the INDCs are no longer included in the final agreement, there is no global driver for carbon markets, and the lack of confidence in offsets will continue, threatening the CDM’s longer-term viability. All eyes are now on the CDM’s ‘poor relation’ Joint Implementation, which allows (developed) countries with commitments under the Kyoto Protocol to transfer or acquire emissions reductions and use them to meet their targets. But the JI is less robust than CDM, and with a much weaker track record. Will it be the victor, or next victim in this play? How then will countries mitigate their emissions?

The tragedy of this conflict is that the good will of many small players, from developed and developing countries alike, is being rapidly starved of oxygen. The sense of frustration is palpable. Latin America, as several sources have indicated over recent days, is not a bloc. Many countries with forests want to modernise their economies in favour of the environment, and wish to benefit from emissions trading. Civil society organisations in countries such as Bolivia are equally exasperated by the neo-Marxist rhetoric, but have no voice.

Meanwhile the texts and anti-texts, the secret position papers, and rumours of last-minute French (or other) interventions proliferate. Oh, and the climate sceptics have arrived in force. With so many wannabe captains, can the Titanic be turned around in time? And what of the unwitting passengers (aka the public, whom the negotiators are supposed to represent) who just want to arrive in safety?

About the Author: Dr. Timothy Cadman is a Research Fellow at Griffith University Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Coffs Harbour Area, Australia, and research fellow in the international Earth Systems Governance Project. He specializes in the governance of sustainable development, natural resource management, climate change and forestry, and responsible investment. Cadman‘s books include The Governance of Climate Change and  Quality and legitimacy of global governance: case lessons from forestry.

Reprinted with permission.

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