Cancun Success? Compared to What?

Cancun was not a surprise.   Nor was it a failure.  This much is easy to say.

But was it a success?  This is a more difficult question.  I used to have an irritating friend.  Every time you made a strong, implausibly simple claim – something like “Cancun was a success” – he would reply “Compared to what?”  It was a pedantic device, but it worked well enough.  It made you think, which, I suppose, is why it was irritating.

Compared to what the science demands, Cancun was obviously a failure.  The Climate Tracker crew made that clear in an evaluation filed before most people even got home – if the pledges in the Cancun Agreements are delivered upon, but only just barely, the result would be at least 3.2C of warming, and possibly far more – the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere would be about 650 ppm in 2100.

Why then wasn’t Cancun a failure?  Because, just maybe, it will put us onto a better road.  Because it was so closely managed that, even in the face of immense discord and multi-polarity, it managed to produce a weak – though substantive – agreement.  Because, though doubt is everywhere,  it could be the breakthrough that its partisans claim it is.  Because, in any case, we’ve lived to fight another day, and the UN-based multilateral climate negotiations have been relegitimized, at least for the moment.  Which is why most of the assembled NGOs, citing a pre-Cancun study by UK think tank E3G, decided that the Cancun outcome met the qualifications for the “Lifeline scenario”:

“Skillful diplomacy led by the Mexican Presidency provides just enough substance to move the process forward; and does not compromise environmental integrity of reaching a global deal in the future… This scenario provides sufficient movement on key issues and rolls the negotiation process forwards another year, but must contain a high degree of trust and confidence to prevent moving back into Zombie.”

The Zombie scenario, suffice it to say, would have been worse.

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Everything you always wanted to know about emissions trajectories…

Well, not everything.  But you’ll find a good, almost definitive summary in The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord pledges sufficient to limit global warming to 2° C or 1.5° C? This report, organized by the UN Environment Program, basically consists of a meta-analysis of the various current studies of emissions pathways and their consequences.  It’s focused on the Copenhagen pledges (which are judged to be way too weak)  and is notable for taking proper account of 1.5ºC as well as 2ºC targets, for closely analyzing the loopholes by which the wealthy countries propose to avoid actually having to deliver on their nominal emission-reduction commitments, and for taking a good look at the need for “negative emissions” in the not too distant future.  This is not a notion that realists usually dwell on, but here it’s even defined.

The tone is a little clinical.   And there is a wee bit of soft-pedaling — for example, the range of 2020 emissions targets that is consistent with “likely” chance of holding the warming to 2ºC is judged to be 39-44 GtCO2 equivalent, which is not, actually, a range that can fairly be called “approximately 44.”  But put this aside.  The main point is that, after reading this report, you’ll know the key thing — if we’re going to squeak by, it’s going to be by way of a pathway that has no historical parallel.  The necessary rate of annual, global emissions decline alone makes this crystal clear.

This report doesn’t go into the ethical-political failings that have stalled international progress, but this is no real surprise.  These failings, though, cannot forever be set aside.  Inevitably, they will be the focus of another round of increasingly visible analysis.   They have to be.   One way or another, we’re heading into a new world.

Climate Interactive has done a nice video summary of the UNEP report.  It is here.

The Cancun Setup: One year after Copenhagen, and counting

The first thing to say about the climate negotiations – meeting soon in sunny Mexico – is that they’re teetering at the edge of what, back in the day, we used to call a “legitimation crisis.”  On every side, folks are eager to suggest that the negotiations have become a waste of time.  It’s gotten to the point that people are apologizing for going to Cancun, as if it were bad for their image to be seen at the climate talks.

Which, actually, is an odd turn of events.  Because if ever a moment was critical, it’s this one, midway through the cycle of negotiations (Copenhagen 2009, Cancun 2010, South Africa 2011) that will determine the shape and direction of the post-Kyoto climate regime.  What happens now matters, particularly because, all else being equal, the eventual end of the economic crisis will be accompanied by another rapid rise in global emissions.  The only way to avoid that rise, and many others, is to escape the logic of the business-as-usual world.  Despite the coming low-carbon energy revolution, we can’t expect to make that escape without systems of global cooperation, burden sharing and accountability to help us along, systems that can only be rooted in a fair multilateral accord.  Which is to say that the climate talks may not be fun, and may not even be the main event, but there’s no real hope without them.

Copenhagen, unfortunately, was a grave disappointment, and was quickly followed by a cascade of others: the “Climategate” fiasco, the failure of the beltway realists to deliver a US climate bill, an explosion of denialist populism on the American right, and, of course, the midterm American elections.  Even worse, from the point of view of the climate talks – the success of which depends, in the last instance, on international cost sharing – is the emergence, in Europe as well as the US, of an Austerity Panic Party that pretends, amidst unprecedented inequality and unprecedented wealth, that the North is bankrupt.  The point of the pretense?  To project a story of the future in which declining “foreign aid” is as inevitable as the decimation of domestic social services.

The discouraging pace of the international talks, in other words, is anything but unique.  Right now, nothing is working particularly well.  The US, in particular, is a model of dysfunction, and an eager player in the international “blame game,” which is now in full swing.  Nor is this a simple “climate problem.”  The truth is that the climate challenge is bound tightly to a larger political crisis, and that neither is likely to be resolved without the other.  So, to be clear – there is no “deadlock” in the global negotiations.  Nor is there a “North / South impasse.”  What we’re seeing, rather, is a political and governance disaster of the first order, and despite its many critical international dimensions, it’s a disaster that is centered in the wealthy world.

Continue reading “The Cancun Setup: One year after Copenhagen, and counting”

Copenhagen Accord pledges are paltry

There is of course an ongoing, bitter debate about the Copenhagen Accord, about what it is and what, in the end, it will finally mean.  Briefly, it comes to this: Does the Accord’s “pledge and review” architecture open a new way forward, one that can succeed even given the sorry state of America’s climate politics and, for that matter, American democracy?   Or  does it  rather invite us into a future in which the rich and the responsible escape their proper obligations, and by so doing condemn the poor and the innocent, and eventually the rest of us as well, to the suffering and violence of extreme global warming?

The final resolution of this debate will take time, and, it seems, a great deal of acrimony.  But one matter, at least, is already clear.  The Accord’s “pledges” are entirely inadequate to the goal of avoiding “dangerous climate change.”  This is a matter of broad consensus among the analysts, who have published a variety of cogent commentaries on the Copenhagen pledges.  But a recent article in Nature, straightforwardly named Copenhagen Accord Pledges are Paltry, is the most notable of the quantitative analyses, and the one among them that’s actually required reading.

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You want Loopholes with that?

The bad news is that the climate/energy push just crashed and burned in the Senate.  The good news is that, in the wake of that crash,  the US climate community is having a robust Big Think.  The last time we had such an exchange was back after what, for lack of a better term, I will call the Great Copenhagen Disappointment.  Which raises an interesting question – do we only debate, openly and seriously, after we lose?

If so, and judging by the situation in Bonn, where an inconclusive post-Copenhagen “intersessional” just shambled a bit closer to December’s rematch in Cancun, we’re up for another round of disputation soon.  Not, of course, that disappointment in Cancun is certain.  It’s still possible that the wealthy countries are going to actually come up with the “fast start finance” that they promised back in Copenhagen.  Maybe they’ll even go beyond fast-start finance, and actually start acting like they want to make a meaningful international deal.  Because, frankly, it’s their move.

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Martin Khor on Climate Equity

If you’ve been following the international climate-equity debate, you probably already know that Martin Khor, former director of the Third World Network and now head of the South Centre, has been one of the driving figures, and you will probably be familiar with his views. But concision is its own reward, and the new issue of the South Centre bulletin contains a short piece in which Khor lays out his position in a very clear, and useful, manner.

The piece, Climate Deal Needs Equity In Carbon Space, is framed as a comment on a recent conference, organized by the Tata Institute for Social Sciences and held in late June in Mumbai India. This conference, which was focused on exploring the the “carbon budgeting” approach to global burden sharing was interesting indeed — see the brief comment here. But Martin’s comments are of broader interest. Note, in particular, that he reports that [Indian Environment Minister Jairam] “Ramesh indicated that India will take the lead in the UN climate negotiations in using the carbon budget to develop the paradigm of equitable access to atmospheric space and how this is to be put into operation.”

All this may seem pretty abstract to those in, say, the US, where the Administration’s attempt to pass climate legislation has failed, and rather pathetically, but it is not. This will be a long game, and if we’re going to win it, we have to bring climate change down from the sky and reveal its implications, in people’s daily lives. This, like it or not, will take you to the land of the “equity debate.”

Equity, Energy Access, and Global Carbon Space

If you take a look at Global Carbon Budgets and Equity in Climate Change, an extremely interesting and forthright set of papers and reflections compiled by India’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, you’ll see that the “equity debate” is alive and well, at least in the developing world.

Equity, Energy Access, and Global Carbon Space, the paper by Surya Sethi, is particularly interesting. Sethi was for many years a member of India’s climate negotiating team, and while this is no long the case, his views still carry real weight. And what views they are! The fundamental questions of climate justice are neatly listed here. The injustice that would follow from any accord that allows the wealthy to continue to “occupy” more than their fair share of the atmospheric space is quickly explained. A tidy case is made for a regime of dual obligations, one in which the long-time over-polluters of the North are assigned “negative entitlements” that can only be discharged with “signicant actions within their borders and action beyond their borders, with finance and technology.” And, critically, a bit of bile is reserved to excoriate the reality of intra-national injustices within the South, injustices that allow southern elites to “hide behind their poor.” Continue reading “Equity, Energy Access, and Global Carbon Space”

Energy [R]evolution

We’re pleased to note that Greenpeace Internationals new Energy [R]evolution study finds a prominent place for the Greenhouse Development Rights approach to global, fair-shares, cost sharing. This, to be sure, is a largely techno-economic study, but Greenpeace does not imagine that rapid technological change will occur in the absence of a major commitment to equity and fairness.

With equity, though, and using only existing technology, the skys the limit.

The Energy [R]evolution demonstrates how the world can get from where we are now, to where we need to be in terms of phasing out fossil fuels, cutting CO2 while ensuring energy security. This includes illustrating how the worlds carbon emissions from the energy and transport sectors alone can peak by 2015 and be cut by over 80 percent by 2050. This phase-out of fossil fuels offers substantial other benefits such as independence from world market fossil fuel prices as well as the creation of millions of new green jobs.

The report homepage, where you can download the full report, can be found here. The logic of its use of GDRs is simple:

But although the Energy [R]evolution envisages a clear technological pathway, it is only likely to be turned into reality if its corresponding investment costs are shared fairly under some kind of global climate regime. To demonstrate one such possibility, we have utilized the Greenhouse Development Rights framework, designed by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute, as a way of evening up the unequal ability of different countries to respond to the climate crisis in their energy polices.

For an example of the press coverage, see for example this article from Reuters.

The National Academies study, from a global point of view

A few days ago, I got mail from a colleague at Climate Action Network International, a communications guy, asking for a comment on the US National Academy of Sciences recent climate reports, or rather on the US emissions budget that is recommended / affirmed in these reports. It turned out to be quite an interesting request.

First up, though, these reports only strengthen the scientific case. For example, the IPCCs 2007 Forth Assessment Report says that sea levels could rise by between 0.6 and 1.9 feet by 2100, but recent studies have suggested that this is far too optimistic. The NAS reports incorporate this newer research and concludes that sea levels could rise by as much as 6.5 feet in during this century.

Second, I was a bit surprised by the way the NAS approached the problem of calculating the US emissions budget. The standard methodology in the climate world is to estimate a remaining global budget (which is hard) and then to work out the share of this budget that properly belongs to each country (which is harder). And you have to admit this approach makes sense; after all, when the US or any country takes a budget, less is left for everyone else; which is why climate, fundamentally, is a sharing problem. Anyway, I expected to find some version of this approach in the NAS reports. How else could they calculate a recommended US budget?

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Naomi Klein on Carbon Debt

In this fine, wide-ranging speech, delivered Feb 25 under the auspices of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Naomi Klein did an excellent job of introducing the carbon debt approach, as it has come to be known.

I won’t attempt to summarize her presentation, or to enumerate its many virtues, but I will say that Klein’s approach to the problem of rich-world climate obligation is not without its problems. Note, for example, that her discussion is framed entirely in North / South terms, and that it focuses more or less exclusively on the responsibility of the North to the South. There’s not a word here about the rich / poor divide, or about the southern elites, or about class, or about the problem of capacity, which this site of course believes to be the second half (the first, of course, is responsibility) of the Who Pays equation.

To say this is to broach a key set of political and strategic questions. Add them to the list that Klein lays out here and you’ll have a good bit of the international obligations debate laid out before you. Not all of it, to be sure but given that she goes so far as to broach the criticism that she received for using the language of reparations, its a pretty good start.

By the way, Klein ends her talk with an interesting claim, one very relevant to the Who Pays debate, one that quite adroitly flips the terms of reference here in a manner that just might be very helpful indeed:

When we talk about climate reparation, we talk about those scary numbers, like $600 billion, what gets peoples back up is the idea that this money is going to come out of their pockets, but why should that be? Why should it come from regular taxpayers? With the right kind of taxes and penalties, the oil and gas sector, big coal, agribusiness, and the banks that finance them, the players that actually are responsible for both climate change and underwriting the climate-change denial movement, can be made to foot this bill. The polluter should pay.