Expectations for the recent United Nations-led climate-change talks in Poznan, Poland, were relatively low, due to political inertia and economic woes. Even so, it was surprising quite how little was achieved. A number of key issues that were on the agenda at Poznan must now be cleared up prior to the conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009. Worse still, negotiations ended on a bitter note, with recriminations from developing countries about financing for climate-change adaptation.
The negotiations also exposed a discontinuity between the scientific understanding of global warming and countries’ willingness to act. There was much talk of a “green new deal” as a means of simultaneously addressing economic recession and climate change. However, there was little evidence that developed countries believed in their own policies to reduce emissions, with most arguing for much smaller targets than the 25% to 40% reduction below 1990 levels suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In a speech on the final day of the conference, former US vice president Al Gore said “many still seem not to feel the appropriate sense of urgency that should cause them to demand the emergency measures that the scientists have so clearly told us governments must take.” Gore endorsed a global stabilisation target for concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases at 350 parts per million, which is significantly lower than the 450 parts per million suggested as a target by the IPCC. Current projections suggest that concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to rise well beyond this point, leading to potential temperature rises of 3°C to 5°C. This would lead to terrible consequences for humanity and throw the piecemeal efforts at Poznan into stark relief.
What actually happened?
The talks culminated with the announcement of a fund to help the poorest countries adapt to climate change. Money will be raised through a levy on the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the UN arrangement that allows rich countries with greenhouse-gas reduction commitments to invest in emissions reduction projects in developing countries. Current estimates put the value of the fund at US$80 million. This figure should rise significantly between now and 2012, but it will fall short of the billions of dollars that the UN says developing countries will need. Reactions from these countries were not positive. Senior Indian negotiator Prodipto Ghosh said: “This is one of the saddest moments I have witnessed. In the face of the unbearable human tragedy, that we in developing countries see unfolding every day, we see callousness, strategising and obfuscation.” Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), defended the decision not to provide more money to developing countries, stressing that the idea was not, “abhorrent to industrialised countries”, but that “politically this was just not the time to do it”.
Deforestation was another sticking point. The talks about Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) inched forward. But there was controversy, as a provisional agreement failed to mention indigenous rights, took no strong position on biodiversity and did not include peatlands, which are large carbon sinks. It is also still not clear whether “net” or “gross” emissions will be assessed: a “net” approach would make it possible for some countries to continue chopping down existing forests and replacing them by planting new trees. Such a process would lead to large-scale loss of habitat and biodiversity.
Reform of the CDM also stalled, with disagreements on a number of fronts, notably over whether or not to include credits derived from future projects that capture and store emissions of carbon dioxide.
Why was so little agreed?
The conference was affected by events almost 900 kilometres away in Brussels, where the European Union negotiated its own climate agreement up until the final day of the meeting. The package of targets and policies that emerged was weak and unambitious. The EU committed itself to a 20% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels, but allowed significant scope for reductions to include carbon credits purchased from outside of Europe. The agreement also took a soft line on polluting industries and the growth in emissions from eastern Europe.
The United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, all members of the loosely aligned “Umbrella Group” of nations, also played an obstructionist role in negotiations. The US was in no position to make firm commitments at a time of political transition, while Canada, Japan and Australia were wary of committing themselves at a time when their own emissions are rising dramatically. Canada was awarded the “Colossal Fossil” prize by the Climate Action Network – a grouping of over 430 non-governmental organisations – for consistently blocking progress toward an agreement on emissions reduction targets. The country also insisted that a reference to indigenous rights be removed from the agreement on deforestation and cancelled the appearance of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Canadian climate scientist at the last minute.
In contrast, developing countries provided some of the few tangible outcomes from the conference. Brazil announced its own plan to significantly reduce deforestation in the Amazon rain forest, while Mexico, South Korea and South Africa all announced national plans to reduce emissions. However, the largest developing countries, China and India, are not yet willing to commit to targets to reduce emissions. Chinese representatives instead expressed disappointment at the unwillingness of developed nations to meet their own commitments or to take seriously developing country proposals on technology transfer, finance, adaptation and capacity building. The gap between the positions of developed and developing nations may have widened at Poznan.
What happens next?
In the climate-change community, all eyes are on the incoming administration of US president-elect Barack Obama. Obama has said that the US will re-engage in the negotiating process under his leadership. US senator John Kerry suggested at the conference that his country would commit to reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. In the short-term, the country is likely to focus on a more modest goal of returning American emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This would mean a cut of 15% from current levels, but it is unclear if that will be a strong enough signal for developing nations to begin to reduce their own emissions.
Many argue that the relationship between the US and China will determine the success of global efforts to reduce emissions. It may be that once he is president, Obama will need to commit to deeper cuts and directly engage with China on climate-change issues, including the all-important quartet: technology transfer, finance, adaptation and capacity building.
Countdown to Copenhagen
2009 will be a busy year for negotiations. Meetings will be held in Bonn, Germany, in late March and June, when a draft text of the Copenhagen agreement will be produced. The UNFCCC has agreed to postpone discussions about new emissions reduction targets to this point, allowing the US to devise a new policy. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has also suggested an additional two meetings take place. The Copenhagen conference itself has been put back a week and there was discussion at Poznan of extending the process further to accommodate an additional meeting in 2009.
If an agreement is not reached in Copenhagen that includes deeper cuts in emissions across the developed world, serious questions will be raised about the UNFCCC process and its ability to deliver results. After disappointment in Poznan, negotiations in Copenhagen must not fail.
Tan Copsey is development manager at chinadialogue
Homepage photo by Oxfam International