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Climate Change



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Issue #1436      18 November 2009

Barcelona climate change negotiations

A matter of life & death

Five days of heavy negotiating in Barcelona came to a disappointing close on November 6. The last negotiating session before the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December was undermined and obstructed at every turn by a group of developed countries, including Australia. The hopes and expectations of developing countries and millions of people around the world were dashed as the rich countries attempted to kill the Kyoto Protocol and dimmed the prospects of success at Copenhagen.

International aid organisation Oxfam outside the conference venue in Barcelona. They are bringing to the public's attention that the developed nations – represented here by heads of state Gordon Brown of Britain, José Zapatero of Spain, Barack Obama of the USA, Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy – will make developing nations choose between using international aid money for either defence against climate change or building schools and hospitals.

“When we ask why they are not willing to put numbers on the table they said it is economically and politically difficult. But for us it is a question of life and death, due to the climate change impact brought about by the actions and the lifestyles in the North.” These comments from Grace Ukamu of Kenya, who spoke on behalf of the Africa Group, sum up the great divide between the North and South, the rich and the poor nations on the question of arresting climate change.

Today we speak about disappearing animal species but tomorrow we may be speaking of disappearing states, said the representative of Cape Verde. Developing countries are the most vulnerable and have a right to expect convincing actions and political will, the delegate said, expressing the frustration and urgency felt by many other negotiators. Australia, the US, Japan and New Zealand were amongst those developed nations that ducked and dodged their obligations and failed to submit scientifically based targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Their aim was a political, non-legally binding, agreement outside of the Kyoto Protocol.

The key issues before the Barcelona conference were the future of the Kyoto Protocol; the setting of new global and country-specific targets for emission reductions by developed countries; the provision of finance and technology to enable developing countries to take action; and attempts to shift the burden onto developing countries contrary to the principles of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol (KP) is international law, a legally binding treaty under the UNFCCC which has been ratified by 189 of the NFCCC’s 197 Parties. The US is the only major industrialised economy that is not a party to the KP. The KP provides for a series of commitment periods to address climate change.

The first commitment period of 2008-2012 set the global target of a 5.2 percent reduction in emissions compared with 1990 (the base year) levels. The Copenhagen conference in December was scheduled to finalise global targets and individual country commitments for the second commitment period to commence in 2013. Contrary to claims by some governments and media in developed countries, including in Australia, the KP does NOT expire in 2012. The year 2012 is the when the first commitment period ends.

One of the most important principles of the UNFCCC is “common but differentiated responsibilities”. This principle is based on the recognition that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. It takes into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries.

In accordance with this principle, 37 industrialised countries and the European Union (EU) have legally binding targets under the KP, based on their specific conditions, to reduce or limit emissions by 2012. Australia is one of only two countries permitted to increase emissions over that period.

The developing countries gave commitments to collect and submit data and formulate and implement mitigation and adaptation measures – this commitment is conditional on receiving financial and technological assistance which the developed nations are legally bound to provide. Needless to say they have failed to provide the required assistance and this remains one of the big issues still to be resolved, although some progress was made on possible mechanisms.

A series of negotiations on second round KP commitments began almost four years ago. In 2007, negotiations in Bali saw the industrialised countries forced into accepting an Action Plan. The Bali Action Plan commits governments to reaching agreement on the following issues at the Copenhagen meeting:

  • mitigation – actions to avoid and reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases
  • adaptation – actions to deal with the effects of climate change (it is the poorest countries that are the most vulnerable and have the least means to take adaptation measures)
  • finance and technology – the means by which developing countries are to be assisted by developed countries to take action.

Emission reductions

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that aggregate emission reduction by industrialised countries of between 25% and 40% over 1990 levels would be required by 2020, and that global emissions would need to be reduced by at least 50% by 2050, in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change. These targets, which aim at limiting the temperature increase to 2°Celsius, are now being questioned by scientists as more findings on climate change come to light.

Those countries already experiencing loss of life, extreme weather conditions or slipping into the ocean want to do more than “stave off the worst effects of climate change”.

At Barcelona developing countries were calling for an aggregate reduction of 40% by 2020 compared with 1990. According to estimates by the Alliance of Small Island States the offers being made (including the US) amount to an 11-17% reduction in emission levels that falls alarmingly below what is required by scientific assessments.

Many of the most vulnerable countries are calling for an increase in temperature of less than 1.5°C. The Alliance of Small Island States pointed out that the temperature increase is already at 0.8°C and the impacts are being felt.

Which ever way you look at it, Australia’s proposal for 5-15% by 2020 (based on a slight-of-hand year 2000 base, not 1990) or 25% conditional on certain outcomes, is offensive, morally reprehensible and totally inadequate for a rich country.

Japan and the EU were amongst other treaty partners who also played the game of making targets conditional upon what others were prepared to do. Shyam Saran, representing India, made the point that they were going around in circles to the refrain of: “I will show you my targets, when you show me yours.” What was required were responsible commitments based on science.

Some proposals had built into them requirements that developing countries make substantial cuts in emissions, contrary to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Needless to say, these were not even accompanied by offers to provide the necessary financial and technological assistance.

There were strong differences over the use of offsets where developed countries could through emissions trading and other mechanisms substantially reduce the actual domestic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The African Group directly questioned how much domestic effort was being made by the industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as against relying on offsets from carbon credits generated by developing countries. This amounted to shifting the burden onto developing countries.

Estimations by developing countries on the level of financial commitment required from the industrialised nations to assist them with mitigation and adaptation ranged from 1-5% of gross national product. Most of the developed countries failed to respond with offers, although the EU did make one considered far short of what is required. There were also strong differences over how the funds would be managed, and the role of markets and the private sector.

Technology transfer was another area where developed countries were reluctant to meet their obligations, the high cost of privately patented technology adding to their difficulties.

Future of Kyoto

It was clear from the Barcelona conference that most of the industrialised nations have no intention of reaching agreement at Copenhagen for a second round under the KP. This is evident in their failure to submit serious, scientifically based targets for greenhouse gas reductions. The political will was not there, a fact noted by a number of other countries. In sharp contrast, developing countries were strongly committed to retaining the KP and advancing it to the next round.

Australia’s Climate Change Minister Penny Wong was amongst those pressing for an “international political agreement” at Copenhagen. Australia, she said, is committed to playing its part in “working to develop a new long-term approach for global co-operation on climate change.” The UNFCCC and KP are long-term and involve co-operation. The difference is that the KP is a legally binding treaty, whereas a political agreement and co-operation place no legal obligations on Australia.

The Australian government prefers to work outside of the democratic UNFCCC framework. This was seen most recently at the G20 – its favoured body for international decision-making – and again this week at APEC, with calls for a political agreement on emission reductions. There are strong parallels here with its snubbing of the UN’s conference on the global economic crisis and promotion of the G20 as the world’s leading body on economic policy.

The Labor government has previously claimed that the KP expires in 2012 but appears to have backed off explicitly repeating this lie. The real danger is that the KP might be killed in 2012 by the actions of developed nations and their corporate patrons who have also played a role in climate change negotiations.

Senator Wong called on developing countries to submit binding schedules on how and where they could make reductions in emissions, contrary to the principles of the UNFCCC and KP.

Japan spoke in terms of a new single legal framework retaining a number of elements and useful mechanisms of the KP. Australia also talked in terms of a “single outcome”, ratifiable under the UNFCCC. The single outcome refers to attempts to dissolve the KP and retain a weakened UNFCCC, with new arrangements that reflect mitigation “ambitions” and clear rules for the carbon market.

One of the most positive developments at Barcelona and other climate change negotiations in recent years is the refusal of the third world nations to be bullied and trampled over. The G77 and China, the African Group, the Least Developed Countries, the Alliance of Small Island States as well as individual countries including some of the smallest nations stood firm – for them it was a matter of life and death, not GDPs and corporate profits.

India strongly made the point that it was not prepared to give up or declare failure at Barcelona or lower its expectations at Copenhagen. While developed countries fail to take the lead, it would not slacken off. In many ways the poorer nations were doing much more on climate change than their rich partners despite severe limitations of modest resources, India noted.

Socialist China

At the closing session, Su Wei, head of China’s delegation, delivered a strong warning: “To those developed countries who are standing there waiting for developing countries to act, please look ahead…. We, the developing countries, have already left you behind; you cannot use developing countries as an excuse for your inaction any more.

“Please wake up and see that Copenhagen is just miles away, you have to get running in order to catch up. Otherwise, you will fail in the race to Copenhagen and beyond.”

The developing countries will be approaching Copenhagen with determination in sharp contrast to the short-sighted, narrow attitude of the profit-driven capitalist countries. Capitalism is proving incapable of saving the planet.

The leadership given by China, India and the other developing nations, alongside the struggles on the ground of the millions of people around the world who are fighting for the planet and life on earth are the only hope that remains.

Acknowledgements to Third World Network,, whose reportage has provided much of the information in this article.

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