Sunday, December 18, 2011

COP17 and the meaning of global climate politics

In our series of review posts on Climate Change Conferences (see COP15/Copenhagen and COP16/Cancun), we have to take a look at what was achieved in Durban as part of COP17 in the first weeks of December 2011.

Let's keep in mind that the currently active agreement for stabilizing green house gas emissions globally, the 1997 Kyoto protocol, is running out in 2012. No binding successor agreement is in place and finding a solution to this problem was the primary purpose of COP17 (and its predecessors).

The conference was off to a slow start and nothing much was achieved until the very last days. In fact, the real action took place after the main event had concluded. In 2 night long sessions, an agreement of some form was reached after all. Here is the high level summary:
  • The Kyoto protocol will be extended to a second commitment period until the end of 2017.
  • A new legally binding agreement will be defined by 2015 and put in place by 2020.
  • A rough outline of the Green Climate Fund, aiming at bringing financial aid from developed countries to poorer nations, was sketched. The actual funding remains unclear.
  • More efficient market mechanism for handling carbon emissions were discussed.
  • CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) has been anchored in the agreement as a climate saving technology.
  • Further steps on REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) have been outlined.
Now, what does this all mean? Here are some reflections.

Kyoto and its followers
Overall, we have to openly question the efficiency of a global treaty such as the Kyoto protocol. The US, as the 2nd largest emitter of CO2, never ratified it. China, the largest emitter of CO2 by now, is classified as a developing country and does not have to commit to specific targets. Even better, right after Durban closed, Canada announced that they will withdraw from the treaty altogether since it would impose economic hardship on the country. So what good does it really do? It remains highly questionable if we can ever reach a centrally organized treaty that transfers into binding country law to reduce emissions. Such a centralized, top-down approach seems politically naive and will never reach the dramatic positive impact we need. It will be undermined by the existing economic and political lobbies in each country and at best limp along in slow motion.

Green Climate Fund
Establishing a central fund aimed at transferring investment for sustainable energy development to the more impacted poorer countries is a good idea. There is certainly lots to outline on how such a fund would be structured and managed. But given the current economic weakness and respectives debt crisis of the EU and US, it remains highly doubtful when and if such a fund would be filled with investment money.

Given the high percentage of coal-based energy generation, it seemed logical to pursue a technology to separate the carbon from the power plants' emissions and store it somewhere. Such technology exists in an exploratory stage, but there is no proof that it can play any role on a larger scale to reduce CO2 emissions worldwide. The amounts of CO2 would be staggering and require entire underground cave structures, all to be used for thousands of years without leakage. There is no company or country that can guarantee that such a process could work and therefore making CCS part of a climate treaty is highly questionable.

The rampant deforestation is an irreversible process that is extremely harmful to the CO2 balance. Pushing for active reduction of this emission source by creation of a strong framework is very meaningful and can take effect directly without large technology or investment risk. It should be put into place immediately.

So, overall, COP17 was not the complete failure it threatened to be, but also it showcased the difficulty of any global consensus building that involves painful restrictions and financial burdens to be placed on the developed countries. It remains to be seen if a clear roadmap for the 2020 agreement can be developed in the next three years and if it can be put into effect in a truly binding way at all.

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