Getting Action: COP Should Set Carbon Budgets for Real Progress

We are very happy to repost here an article from Nele Marien, a former negotiator to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and an analyst on environment and climate policies, based in Bolivia. In it Nele argues for a set of fair criteria to establish carbon budgets which can actually deliver on the COP’s original goal of reducing  GHG emissions.

This article was originally published at: 

When the premises are wrong the answers can never be right – Rethinking the criteria for climate change negotiations

by Nele Marien

Year after year, the world turns it’s eyes towards the UN climate conference, and again and again final results do all but give a reasonable answer to the climate crisis. What is wrong, and how can we bring negotiations on track?

20 years ago, in 1992, the climate convention defined as its main objective the stabilization of the GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. Up till now there is no decision on what these levels should be, and even worse, the issue is being swept off the negotiation table. Meanwhile, they rose up to 392 ppm, far above the safe upper limit  of 350 ppm as defined by respected climate scientists, like James Hansen. The results are already clear: unprecedented arctic melting, major floods, never-seen storms, and impressive droughts.

The criteria for the blame game

One of the main reason why climate negotiations don’t advance is a never-ending blame game: most countries condition their proposed actions to commitments by others, or have reasons – like ending poverty first- to postpone climate action. They all have some criteria – reasonable or not- for passing their responsibilities to others. A serious discussion on what should be the criteria to divide the burden of the climate problem among countries never took place.

There is one important criterion defined in the Convention: the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities. This criterion, or principle, implies that developed nations (Annex I Countries) have a high responsibility in climate matters, and developing nations (Non-Annex I) have a lesser responsibility

The logic behind this: Annex I countries as a group emitted 75% of historical emissions, counting with only 25% of the world’s population. But, even though in aggregated terms the responsibilities of both groups of countries are clear, the division brings some major problems:

  • It is quite arbitrary. Compare Qatar, (GDP per capita: 104,300$, emissions per capita: 44 tons; Non-Annex I country), and Turkey (GDP per capita 14.700$, per capita emissions 4 tons; Annex I country)
  • Several developing countries are increasing their emissions in a worrying way, implementing the same kind of unsustainable development path as many developed nations did. There is no way to evaluate if a developing country will at some point reach a level of development and emission levels that lead to a major degree of responsibility.

The absence of criteria leads to voluntary commitments

Because of a lack of clear criteria, all climate negotiations have always been:

a) based on reductions expressed in percentages of a base year: this implies that high emitters are given the automatic right to keep on emitting a lot, just some percentage less of what they used to. And that low emitters are supposed to reduce even more.

b) based on voluntary reductions. Even the Kyoto Protocol, which had binding reduction targets, was based on targets the countries set for themselves, and that were not science-defined. And then, even those “voluntarily defined” pledges have not been complied to by several countries.

There is a clear link between both issues: since the only criteria for future emission levels is a slight reduction on the emission levels compared to a base year, countries don’t feel there is a fair basis to set reduction commitments that are not only binding in nature, but that are also strong enough to stand for what science demands.

Setting a new basis for climate negotiations

If international climate negotiations ever want to reach a result which somehow satisfies climate scientists, the first objective must be the definition of a global carbon budget that leads to a stabilization of GHG levels. Or in other words: define how many gigatons may be emitted from now until 2050, in order not to warm the planet above the agreed amount of warming (e.g. 2 degrees).

This budget will be small, very small. Just for means of comparison: the proposed 565 Gt budget would just give the world approximately 10 years to continue emitting at the current rate.

The only way to stay within this budget is to share the burden in a fair and efficient way among all countries. This is to be done through the definition of a set of fair criteria, defined in a political agreement by all. They should reflect the principle of the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities, and operationalize climate justice.

Some basic criteria, applicable to all countries, to be taken into account could be:

  • Population
  • Historical emissions
  • Current emissions
  • Development needs
  • Degree of development: GDP and HDI
  • Real access to clean technologies
  • Possibility to apply carbon neutral technologies
  • Special energy necessities e.g. extremely cold/hot countries
  • Special adaptation needs
  • Climate Finance given/received

On the basis of the defined criteria, a clear formula can be defined that divides the global carbon budget, and assigns a specific budget for each country.

Doha can offer a way out of this impasse

In the UN Climate Negotiations issues like setting a limit on the GHG concentration, defining a carbon budget, or fair criteria for the division of the burden of the climate crisis are not on the table. Seemingly, negotiations will go on and on, reaching useless agreements on issues that do not deal with the problem.

But there is an opening: recently a process, called the Durban Platform fot Enhanced Action, started to negotiate a new climate protocol by 2015. COP18 will have to decide on which will be the issues to be included in this new protocol, and which will be the working method to decide on them.

This is the moment to reinstall the objective of the convention on the agenda: a clear limit on the GHG concentrations, and consequently a scientifically calculated carbon budget that will be really implemented. Therefore defining the fair ‘applicable to all’ criteria, according to which the burden will be shared, must also be a part of this agenda.

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