Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Looking for a roadmap in Durban

It's that time of year again where the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meet, this time in Durban, South Africa. Mother Nature provided delegates with an appropriate welcome, striking the Durban area with severe storms and floods that killed 8 people on the eve of the conference. There are two main issues on the table this year: what to do when the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of next year, and what to do about a promise made in Copenhagen two years ago to create a Green Climate Fund of US$100 billion by 2020, which developing countries could access to finance clean energy projects and adaptation initiatives. Both promise to be contentious.

First to the topic of what follows Kyoto. The answer is, probably nothing for the time being. There are essentially two blocs of countries on this issue. One includes the states most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (e.g. small island states like the Maldives) plus European nations who are sympathetic and likely to meet their existing Kyoto targets (like Germany, Sweden and the UK (although Scottish emissions are up, English not)). The Europeans account for less than 15% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions last time I checked, the most vulnerable states an even tinier fraction. This bloc is ready to go ahead with a new round of emisisons reductions targets, with the vulnerable states pushing for heavy reductions ASAP. The other bloc consists of the big developed country emitters, like Canada, the US, Japan, plus Russia and several large emitters who have no Kyoto targets, such as India and Brazil. This much larger bloc would prefer to wait before until at elast 2020 to start a new Kyoto, and would be happy to wait until 2015 before even discussing what 2020 targets might look like. I don't see much happening on this front as a result. There's been some talk of Durban producing a "road map" to the next Kyoto; this is possible, these COPs always result in some face-saving document of one sort of another.

The Green Climate Fund is going to be interesting. At this point in time, it's not clear where the money would come from, how it would be administered, etc. If the delegates expect that it will be funded as direct transfers from rich governments to some central administrator like the Global Environment Facility or the World Bank itself, I don't see it getting off the ground. Since the onset of the current European and US economic problems, deep-pocketed nations have become scarce. If there's room for private sector involvement in the proposed fund, I think we will see more progress, since the US and others are likely to hop on board. The devil is, of course, always in the details, so I wouldn't bet my mortgage on seeing the $100 billion in place on 1 January 2020.

Where does Canada fit into Durban? We're about as welcome as bedbugs. It's not enough that our government signed Kyoto but did little to actually try and meet our targets; now a rumour is circulating Ottawa that our government will announce it is formally withdrawing from it. I hope this is just someone in the PMO floating a trial balloon to gauge where the Canadian public stands on the issue, and is not actually being seriously considered. It's one thing to leave a restaurant without paying your share of the check, another to flip the finger to the other people at your table as you walk out the door. Because really, that's the symbolic equivalent of it. Wiser minds will hopefully prevail.

China has scolded the Canadian government over it's anti-Kyoto stance (can you blame them - we're telling them they should have targets when we refuse to meet our own). China seems to me to be the real wildcard in international climate politics these days. On one hand, it's one of the biggest emitters of GHGs, although China is making better efforts to control emissions and invest in cleaner technologies than many give them credit for doing. On the other hand, China is rapidly becoming a major player on the alternative energy technology scene, and stand to be key beneficiaries of any global push for GHG emissions reduction and clean energy. So it will be interesting to see what they end up doing.

All this to say, I'm glad that these annual meetings still take place, even if it is more an exercise in political science than environmental science. After all, there are many other environmental issues that receive little international attention, much less a high-profile annual conference with particular objectives being negotiated. But, at the same time, I sometimes worry that enthusiasm and momentum may eventually become lost if roadmaps and not results are all we can expect.

UPDATE: The Durban talks concluded Sunday. The Europeans have agreed to continue with emissions targets for the period between the end of Kyoto next year and 2020. The US, India and China, among others, have agreed to ongoing negotiations towards an emissions-reduction agreement by 2020 that would include all countries. A little progress was made on the Green Climate Fund to be set up in 2020, but it still remains to be seen where the money will come from. Click here for a useful summary of what transpired. The Canadian delegation was described as irrelevant or irritating, depending on which media you read.

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