Nations roll the dice in Durban… Two degrees or seven?

In the final week in Durban a sense of frustration is permeating the COP, where aspirations for a global deal remain high, but expectations swing between mildly hopeful and almost absent.

The tone of the Australian delegation is one of determined but checked progress, maintaining there will be positive outcomes on some issues while keeping expectations low.

Australia continues its dream run in terms of public sentiment here, where many international delegates are under the impression that Australia’s carbon price legislation has real significance in terms of emissions reductions, seemingly unaware of the tiny step it actually represents. Still, the misconception is creating goodwill and perhaps even pressure on other countries to commit to binding targets at the international level, so what it lacks in policy efficacy is being made up in PR kudos, at least for now.

In terms of progress in the discussions, China is signalling a openness to legally binding obligations but stonewalling by New Zealand, Canada, Russia, the US and Japan means there is little hope of any final decisions on legal form. Many negotiating efforts by the big polluting nations appear to be about delaying decisions for as long as possible, with the staggeringly irresponsible date of 2020 for mandatory emissions cuts being advocated by the US.

The options currently being pursued range from: retaining some aspects of the Kyoto Protocol, but with limits to offsets, greatly enhanced measurement, verification and reporting, and the development of a new legally binding instrument to be agreed at COP18; to securing some agreement on mitigation measures but with the decision on legal form delayed until 2020. A review of global targets is being proposed to raise the level of commitments, but India, the US and China all want that delayed until after a scientific review slated for 2015.   

Filling the coffers of the Green Climate Fund for adaptation and mitigation in developing nations agreed to at Cancun is also proving difficult; promised funds are failing to materialise and many nations are reluctant to name the figure they will commit in order to realise the agreed goal of $US100 billion per year by 2020.

Hopes of a fast start that would see substantial funds committed between 2010 and 2012 are now looking a bit shaky. Ensuring there funds are a.) delivered and b.) new and additional (i.e. not rebadged aid funding) is the main game. Too little discussion has been had about additional ways of raising funds however – redirecting fossil fuel subsidies is an obvious choice, with the Robin Hood tax (a minuscule tax on financial transactions that could potentially raise US$400 billion a year) another obvious contender.

Bad behaviour by countries here at the COP is rewarded with the title of “fossil of the day“. Winners to date include: Turkey (for its 98% growth in emissions post 1990 plus seeking Kyoto $ to spend on coal and roads); the US (for turning up but only wanting to discuss climate action in nine years time); Canada (for refusing to cooperate with just about everything); and New Zealand and Russia (joint first place for wanting to benefit from Kyoto but not be bound by it).

In the meantime, global emissions increased 6% last year and millions of hectares of forests disappeared. The rate of global deforestation is 14.5 million hectares each year as forests are converted to agricultural land to feed the inexorably rising global human population.

The gap between reality and commitment makes these a rather surreal set of discussions, the nature of which is well captured in this quote from Climate Action Network Australia Director Georgina Woods: “…we are all struggling to find a way to describe the kind of banal failure that is at risk of emerging here. I arrived steeled for major drama, hysterics and intensity, what’s happening instead is potentially worse – a slide into oblivion masked by the veneer of progress. Because there certainly is progress. The LCA text [long term cooperative action] represents a huge amount of work by negotiators in the last twelve months, and encompasses many things that the people of the world need and want to deal with climate change… and yet… putting off the major decisions leaves open the possibility that they will find the important decisions all too hard, and find shelter together in their cowardice, and guiltily cobble together agreements that have the semblance of cooperation, but do not change the trajectory we are already on: towards a four degrees warmer world.”

Current existing pledges fall well short of what the science indicates is needed to give is only a modest chance (66%) of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (itself a target that is not considered desirable or safe), so it’s no wonder a lot of talk here is focusing on the ‘gigatonne’ gap or emissions gap that exists between pledges and the actual emissions cuts needed. Global emissions leapt in 2010, but a recent UNEP report says this puts us on track to be 12 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2e over what we can afford to emit if the world is to have any hope of staying below 2ºC, a goal described by NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen as a recipe for disaster.

What do we really want from Durban? Ideally, Ministers would go home having agreed to a multilateral approach to addressing climate change, with a combination of legally binding instruments, decisions, rules and guidelines. These should be, in the words of the COP President, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s International Relations Minister, “pragmatic, effective, timely and appropriate”. This would require documented commitments for which there are consequences if countries fail to keep them; mechanisms for ensuring emissions trajectories are consistent with the timeframe that science indicates; sufficient climate financing for developing nations to adapt as well as begin their own low carbon transitions; with action from all countries but led by the industrialised nations.

It’s not the case that there has been no genuine efforts to reach agreement; indeed it seems there has been many constructive discussions – some of which may well have been influenced by the COP President’s invocation of ‘Indabas’ – a traditional form of South African participatory democracy in which people come together in the spirit of ‘Ubuntu’, being motivated by the common good, to discuss a matter of great importance and to solve intractable or difficult collective problems in ways that benefit the community as a whole. (Sound familiar?)

So, what have we got without a global deal?

It seems increasingly likely that we will see emerging cooperation between nation states, as bilateral and regional deals are made. Some pressure may come from developing nations who refuse to provide offsets for wealthier countries who fail to act. Aside from those, we are left largely with relying on domestic policy commitments to deliver emissions reductions and the hope that commercial competitiveness and the actions of individual nation states will deliver a sufficiently broad rollout of clean renewable energy to see emissions peak in the timeframe left to avert runaway climate change.

The German Advisory Council (WGBU) remain cautiously optimistic this can be achieved and are working to facilitate that offering a roadmap for a transformation to sustainability to any country or group of countries willing to take the lead. Their Social Contract for Sustainability offers willing leaders the opportunity to showcase how ambitious and committed actions can create a new ‘social contract’ for sustainability and demonstrate how breaking away from existing destructive pathways can deliver greater equity, social wellbeing, and economic security. 

WGBU estimates the global cost of transformation would require $US 200-$1000 billion a year by 2030. This may seem a massive investment but one they consider manageable through innovative business and financing models. They warn if it is not made, the costs associated with the economic, environmental and social disruption that a wildly unstable climate would be much, much more.

To create a bit of perspective, we already spend $500 billion globally each year on fossil fuel subsidies – a source of finance that would be more usefully deployed in a renewable energy transformation than driving dangerous climate change and causing millions of deaths from harmful air pollution.

In light of a less than optimum outcome from our governments, it’s encouraging other actors are not only envisioning but developing the roadmaps we need as a global community to reverse our current destructive path and shape a new future for our planet and our species.

But we should also prepare to be surprised, in the hope that those negotiators in Durban will reveal their hands as stronger than we thought. After all, they won’t be revealing all their cards till the very last, and before they do, may we hope they recall the words of that esteemed South African, Nelson Mandela, when he said: “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

This post was also published on Climate Spectator.