All posts by Fiona Armstrong

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.

COPping the heat (and the procrastination) in Durban

The beachside city of Durban is packed, with 10,000 people from 194 countries in town for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to negotiate the next step in the process of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

It’s also the 7th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP7), the mechanism through which the Protocol is implemented, and the central subject of this meeting, as nations wrestle with what arrangements can be put in place to replace or extend the agreements under the Protocol which expires in 2012.

The focus to date has been on drafting, negotiating and agreeing proposals for each country’s Ministers to use when they begin to negotiate the shape of the new commitments next week. There are concurrent discussions on the mitigation efforts agreed in Cancun last year, outstanding commitments from the Bali Action Plan of 2007, and intense discussions on both the volume and rate at which contributions to the Green Climate Fund are delivered to assist developing nations cut emissions and adapt to climate change.

Several countries, including Australia have put forward proposals for a new treaty that would provide for implementation of the Convention post 2012. Ideally, this would also cover the commitments being negotiated under the Long term Cooperative Action (LCA) plans begun at Cancun, which includes mitigation strategies by countries such as the US currently outside the Kyoto Protocol.

In a demonstration of negative peer influence, US recalcitrance is now being echoed by its northern neighbours, Canada, who earned themselves “fossil of the day” award on day one of the negotiations by indicating their intention to withdraw from the Protocol when it expires next year. This surprised no-one, as Canada has been falling short of their commitments for some time, but their hostility to the process was somewhat unprecedented, given the comments by the Canadian Environment Minister that signing Kyoto has been “one of the biggest blunders” ever made by their national government.

The glaring chasm in the discussions is the gap between stated commitments of countries to cut emissions and those recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 4th Assessment Report (and confirmed by more recent evaluations, such as the Australian Climate Commission’s Critical Decade report in May). (This ‘discrepancy’ was acknowledged in the Cancun Agreements, but subsequent indications of willingness to act and the negotiations here suggest there is a widespread delusional disorder among many nations that postponement will not carry profound risk and that delay due to poor political appetite is somehow justified).

Other issues being negotiated here include the establishment of common accounting methods for measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of emissions reduction efforts, including international offsets. This is key to transparency and accountability, and a vital underpinning of any international agreement. There is much that is unknown about many of these commitments to date however (eg how emissions will be achieved, what gases will be covered, what accounting systems, and what sectors will be covered).

In the meantime, many nongovernment organisations (NGOs) are focussing on the kinds of climate change issues that affect the welfare of people – trade, markets, gender, global justice, finance, and health.

Health is receiving more attention than at previous COPs, with the largest ever health delegation to attend the international climate talks in Durban. There are scores of health organisations from more than 30 countries and dozens of health-related side events. Over 200 delegates will attend the Global Climate and Health Summit on Sunday where the establishment of a global climate and health coalition is proposed.

Mentions of health in the negotiating texts are few and far between however, but health NGOs are working hard here to encourage countries to embed health messages into the discussions and stated ambitions, by highlighting the serious and increasing risks to health from climate change, as well as the substantial and immediate benefits to health from strategies to reduce emissions.

Australia’s role appears more cooperative rather than at earlier meetings, and the delegation coasting on a bit of goodwill for getting some form of climate policy legislation passed. Questions are still being raised however about its role in holding out for a loophole in the rules for land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) which allows Australia log and burn native forests without having to account for the emissions this causes.

And there is no room for complacency in assuming the Clean Energy Future legislation is anywhere near enough for Australia to meet its obligations: a study out this week shows Australia needs to do much more to meet even its own 5% by 2020 target, much less the ambitious reductions required to keep warming stays below 2°C agreed to in Cancun, or the 1.5°C maximum sought by Pacific and some African nations.

Along with most other nations, Australia needs to substantially raise its ambition. This requires much stronger targets: its contribution to the global task of emissions reductions must be consistent with its emissions profile as well as a fair share of the global task – cognisant of the commitments already in place from other countries.

Its important to be aware that many other countries are meeting their (admittedly inadequate) Kyoto commitments and many are implementing climate policy: eleven other nations with whom Australia trades now have a price on carbon; fourteen have renewable energy targets; many more have policies such as emissions performance standards, feed-tariffs, and subsidies or incentives for energy efficiency or renewable energy technology. Despite having been hit by the eurozone crunch much harder than Australia, the UK, for example, is still committed to reductions of 50% by 2020. Global investment in renewable energy hit US$211 billion in 2010 and this despite the global economic downturn.

The key messages from NGOs here in Durban are that: Australia’s current target is inadequate;

  • other countries are taking action;
  • strong domestic national policy is key to other countries taking action: and
  • there are important national benefits for emissions reductions that are available immediately.

But Australian officials need to do a better job both here in Durban and at home to create a compelling narrative for strong climate action. There are many ‘frames’ through which climate action can be positively viewed i.e. benefits to health, risk management, and low carbon market opportunities – all of which are real, and available right now.

The community must be made aware of the opportunities; and the consequences of further delay. And distortions of the science by those with vested interests must be exposed, as one presentation here today suggested for the “assault on humanity” that it is.

While many of the negotiations here are taking place behind closed doors, there is a vital role for observers in tracking progress and spreading the word on how the talks progress.

As these talks continue, I hope people back at home are following, and letting their representatives know that they expect a positive outcome. Time is short: very short, according to the recent International Energy Agency report.

Please don’t switch off, Australia – we’ll all COP it if you do.

This happens to be our 100th post.

Health Missing From the Climate Story

In all the to and fro of the current carbon pricing debate here in Australia, one important aspect of the story on climate action is missing.

Why are we acting on climate change? Well, because of the evidence that it poses risks to the global economy, to infrastructure, and to our natural environment. All that is true and makes for a compelling case for action. But at its very core – climate change is a health issue.

It places the safety and wellbeing of our species in jeopardy. Climate change is already responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 people each year.[1] Five million more deaths are expected during the next decade if no effective action is taken to reduce climate risk.[2]  Over 80% of the disease burden attributable to climate change falls on children.[3]

The international medical journal The Lancet outlined the stark facts in 2009: that the effects of climate change from global warming “puts the lives and wellbeing of billions of people at increased risk”.

Climate change presents serious immediate and long term threats to the health and wellbeing of the Australian and global population.

The direct health effects of climate change include deaths, injury, and hospitalisation associated with increasingly frequent and intense bushfires, cyclones, storms and floods, and heatwaves.[4] Indirect effects include increases in infectious and vector borne diseases, worsening chronic illness, and health risks from poor water quality and food insecurity.[5]

Health care services in Australia are already experiencing dramatic increases in service demand from climate related events, such as heatwaves and floods.[6],[7] The heatwave that preceded the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 saw a 62% increase in mortality from heat related illnesses and worsening chronic medical conditions. During this five day event, there was a 46% increase in demand for ambulances; an eight-fold increase in heat related presentations to emergency departments; a 2.8 fold increase in cardiac arrests; and a threefold increase in patients dead on arrival.[8]

So there are many compelling reasons to act on climate change from the point of view of reducing health risks. This story is missing however from the policy debate – it is missing in the explanations from our leaders about why we must act, it is missing from the narrative of many advocacy groups who imagine that a threat to polar bears will be sufficient to elicit support for action. This is not proving to be the case.

Health is not only one of the most compelling reasons to act on climate change – its actually one of the reasons most people will feel compelled to act on climate change, because framing climate change as a health issue is one of the ways we can best appeal to people’s individual assessment of risk from climate change. Put in a health context, people are far more inclined to consider climate change as an issue that affects them

And there are many health gains possible from climate action. Reducing our reliance on energy supply from coal and encouraging shifts in transport away from fossil-fuel-guzzling cars to public transport will reduce air pollution, improve social capital and bring concurrent increases in activity which, in turn, all help reduce obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes, not to mention road traffic injuries and deaths.

Shifting away from coal as a fuel source for electricity will improve air quality and reduce related deaths from lung cancer and heart disease. Switching to low emissions and more active transport systems can significantly improve air quality and reduce respiratory disease, as well as cut the incidence of obesity, chronic illness and cardiovascular disease. Changing to a diet with lower meat consumption can cut emissions from livestock production as well reduce heart disease and diabetes.[9]

The economic argument for the health benefits of climate action is also very strong: a recent report from the European Union reveals significant health and economic benefits are associated with strong targets for emissions reductions, with a target of 30% reduction by 2020 expected to deliver health care savings from avoided ill health of €80 billion per year.[10]

Effective action on climate change has the potential to significantly reduce the health costs (both economic and social) we will face in the next decade and the coming century. It’s also an important way to build public support for action [11]. If our political leaders were serious about building public support (and acting in the national interest), they would be talking about addressing “the biggest threat to global health of the 21st century”,[12] not talking about compensating polluting industries. That needs to change.

[1] Vidal, J. Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year,, 29 May 2009.

[2] DARA, Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2010: The state of the climate crisis, December 2010.

[3] Sheffield, P. and Landrigan, P. Global Climate Change and Children’s Health: Threats and Strategies for Prevention,

Environmental Health Perspectives , Volume 119 | Number 3 | March 2011.

[4] McMichael, A. J., and Butler, C. Climate change and human health: recognising the really inconvenient truth, Medical Journal of Australia, Volume 191, No. 11/12, December 2009.

[5] Nicholls, N. Climate science: how the climate is changing and why (and how we know it), Discussion Paper, National Climate Change Adaptation Facility, August 2009.

[6] Carthey, J., Chandra, V., Loosemore, M. Adapting Australian health facilities to cope with climate-related extreme weather events, Journal of Facilities Management, 7:1, pp.36-51.

[7] Victorian Government Department of Human Services, January 2009 Heatwave in Victoria: An assessment of health impacts, 2009, Melbourne.

[8] ibid

[9] The Lancet, Executive Summary, Health and Climate Change Series, November 2009.

[10] Health and Environment Alliance and Health Care Without Harm Europe, Acting Now for Better Health, Report, August 2010.

[11] Maibach, et al. BMC Public Health, 2010, 10:299.

[12] Costello A, Abbas M, Allen A, et al. Managing the health effects of climate change. Lancet 2009; 373: 1693-1733.