Global and National CO2 Emissions: A Reality Check In Time for the Durban Climate Summit (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this blog, we analyzed the global CO2 emission trends published recently by the International Energy Agency (IEA), as well as the high divergence of emission trends among countries. In this follow-up, we discuss how these trends can inform negotiations at the UN climate summit that began this week in Durban, South Africa.

Industrialized countries as a group have achieved significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Although national efforts vary greatly and a rebound in emissions is expected with economic recovery, the IEA estimates that “developed countries” (as defined in Annex I of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) are on track to reach their target of reducing emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, as agreed to under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The numbers look somewhat different at the country level, however. The United States, the only major developed country that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, has seen a 6.7 percent increase in CO₂ emissions since 1990, according to the IEA. The U.S. is the world’s second highest CO2emitter after China, which has more than three times as many inhabitants.

Certain signatories of the Kyoto Protocol, including Canada and Japan, have not stuck with their reduction commitments, clearly a sign of weakness of the treaty. But the agreement is functioning well for those who strive to abide by it. There is no doubt that Kyoto has prompted regional, national, and sub-federal action on climate protection and sustainable agriculture, energy, and transportation in many parts of the world.

The most prominent example is the European Union’s emissions trading scheme for large-emitting industries, or more recently the EU’s “20-20-20″ package, which aims at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency by shares of 20 percent each. According to European Environment Agency estimates, the EU reduced its 2008 emissions 10.7 percent relative to 1990 emissions, so the region has largely surpassed its Kyoto commitments, a very different development than in the United States.

A significant gap remains between actual emissions developments and what is needed to keep global temperatures below a 2-degree Celsius rise, a threshold suggested by many scientists as maximum warming if we want to avoid dangerous and potentially uncontrollable climate feedback loops (although some researchers believe the limit should be 1.5 degrees Celsius or even less). The 2-degree target was affirmed in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, the main outcome of the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UNFCCC, as well as at last year’s COP16 in Cancun.

The IEA agrees with the view of mainstream science that in order to achieve the 2-degree Celsius goal, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations would need to be stabilized at a level no higher than 450 parts per million. To stay below this limit, energy-related emissions need to reach a peak of 32 gigatons (Gt) just before 2020 and then decrease quickly to 22 Gt by 2035. However, the 2010 World Energy Outlook projects that in a business-as-usual scenario, world CO2 emissions from fuel combustion will continue to grow, albeit at a lower rate, reaching 35.4 Gt by 2035. Such a scenario would lead to a world average temperature increase of between 2.4 and 6.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, clearly an unsustainable and highly dangerous course.

Developed countries that refused to take part in the Kyoto Protocol (read: the United States) or that have since (in practice if not by official rhetoric) abandoned their commitments—such as Canada and Japan—are largely cancelling out the collective efforts of abiding countries to combat climate change. In addition, Non-Annex I countries that are not bound by international emission targets, such as China and India, are increasing their emissions rapidly.

The 2007 Bali Road Map organized actions from both developed and developing countries to address climate change under a two-track process: the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA). To get us closer to emission trajectories that are in line with our scientific knowledge, negotiators in Durban need to advance the efforts to commit Annex I countries to a second commitment period under Kyoto, while at the same time encouraging developing countries to adopt Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) that are Measurable, Reportable and Verifiable (MRV, in UN lingo).

Yet the political outlook, unfortunately, looks very different from what is needed. Most actors in both groups are not stepping up to the plate. Some of the world’s largest emitters in the developed-country camp, including Canada, Japan, and Russia, declared in Cancun that they would not ratify a second commitment period under the Kyoto architecture. The United States is also unwilling to take part in any treaty without limits imposed on major emitters such as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

The BRICS countries, however, point to the UNFCCC’s principle of a “common but differentiated” responsibility for tackling the problem, which is generally understood as a mandate for richer countries to take the lead in emissions reductions. A lack of political will indicates there is a long way to go toward a new climate deal. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, suggested recently that the climate regime may need to seek a way forward without those who are unwilling to share the burden.

Or is it a burden? Even as delegates at the Durban International Conference Center negotiate how to do the least possible (and definitely less than everyone else) to move forward, many nations are already moving in the direction of a paradigm shift outside the UN process. There is a growing conviction that environmentally sustainable economies will also be economies that are economically and socially more sustainable in the not-too-distant future (after short term economic disadvantages have been overcome) because they are more efficient, do not unnecessarily export large financial resources for the import of dirty fuels, and become pioneers in new technologies and markets. This perspective is infecting an ever-larger group of decision-makers at all levels of political organization and around the world.

As cited in the REN21 Renewables Global Status Report—which Worldwatch recently launched on Capitol Hill and will also present at a press briefing in Durban next week—renewable energy technologies accounted for half of last year’s investments in new electricity capacity. Equally exciting, half of those renewables investments took place in developing countries.

Many green pioneers are already seeing positive results of their change of course. It seems that countries like Germany (a country that prides itself on being the world’s champion of exports) and South Korea are dealing with the global economic and financial (and for many observers political) crises better than those who took a “free ride” on environmental legislation. And new countries seem eager to join this club. Australia put a price on carbon just a few weeks ago. China and India are currently developing market mechanisms to supplement domestic policies and already have measures in place to slow emissions, despite the fact that these countries are unlikely (yet?) to accept legally binding international mitigation obligations.

Bottom-up initiatives are also taking place in the private sector, with companies cutting millions of tons of emissions each year, often in parallel with economic success. We can harbor at least some degree of optimism that others will strive to replicate the success stories that these pioneers have created, and that the aggregate effects of all new economy efforts will create a more sustainable future. In the meantime, a bit of compromise in Durban and cooperation at the international level would also fare well.

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