Apples and Oranges … and special circumstances

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By Flickr user Biking Nikon OGG

One of the key issues at last week’s  UN climate change talks in Bangkok was how to measure what countries are actually doing to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets.

For the uninitiated, you would think the way forward is for every country to put their targets (which are legally binding in the case of developed countries) for reducing GHG emissions on the table. Next, agree a system for counting the amount of gases (in gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) the targets represent. Finally, compare this aggregate amount to the cuts that science says are needed to ensure that the earth’s temperature does not rise to a dangerous level – defined in the 2010 Cancun agreements as below 2 degrees of warming.

However, nothing is ever that simple in the complex world of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, as Bangkok proved yet again.

One of the problems is the way the pledges and plans are presented. These come in a baffling range of figures.  For instance, the EU are using 1990 as the base year for their emissions and will reduce from there, while Australia is using 2000 and the USA 2005!  Meanwhile China and India are discussing carbon intensity reduction targets – levels of emissions linked to their GDP.

Part of the reason for this range of measures is that the effort a country is putting into emissions reduction looks very different depending on the measure used – as charts presented by AOSIS (the Alliance of Small Island States) at the Bangkok meeting show.

Using different  measures is not just a case of using different metric – so as not to compare centimetres with inches, or apples to oranges – but can radically change how the targets of one country look in relation to another’s. So there is a fundamental issue of transparency but also fairness here.

The USA argued at Bangkok against aiming for comparability of the pledges. They maintained that each country has its own “special circumstances” and its efforts should be judged accordingly.

In fact, it seems like a lot of developed countries have special circumstances. The US mentioned how the size of the country made a difference, but Poland also talked about its lack of wind or water sources to provide renewable energy and Russia brought up their low GDP and rises in the gas prices as difficult factors affecting how ambitious their emissions targets could be.

In fact, we heard time and time again from countries why emission reductions were more difficult for them and so why it was unfair to compare their efforts to those of others.

Finally, different countries are also using a baffling array of methods to account for comparing like with like – emissions from the planting and cutting down of forests or undershooting economic growth. These loopholes come with a set of acronyms and bizarre phrases such as “hot air”, which can lead the neophyte negotiations watcher feeling like they need a translation. However, their impact is plain to see: further undermining the credibility of the current targets.

Behind all this confusion and special pleading, the most urgent metric can’t be fudged:  the  current pledges on the table do not measure up to the amount needed to keep warming below 2 degrees, the target agreed at Cancun.

A recent UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) report highlights that even if the highest pledges currently on the table were implemented by 2020 global emissions would still be 5 gigatonnes  of carbon dioxide equivalent above the target level required to avoid catastrophic climate change.

And the most recent science shows that even the upper range of cuts agreed at Cancun may be insufficient to keep the planet safe.

Under the UNFCCC, developed (Annex 1) countries have the responsibility to take the lead and act first as historically, they have been the biggest polluters. The only legally binding international framework we have for achieving this is  the Kyoto Protocol, which is why making sure it survives is so important (see Sarah’s blog post “UNFCCC= Useless Frequent Flyers?”).

Yet currently, developed countries are not promising to do the maximum they can to avert catastrophic global warming: they are proposing a range of cuts, with the upper target dependent on certain “conditionalities” being met. This appears to mean contingent on more action from developing countries – which is supposed to be voluntary. In fact, developing countries presenting at Bangkok showed that they are already making efforts to cut emissions now and in the future.

The fundamental fact remains that the cuts currently on the table from the developed countries don’t add up to a safe climate. They need to spell out clearly what exactly their upper end targets are conditional on. What conditions have already been met (if any) by the actions developing countries have already promised under the Cancun agreements and what further evidence do developed countries need to hit the accelerator?

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