Two years ago, media interest was building towards something of a frenzy in the lead up to the most significant international environmental gathering for many years: the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. World leaders - not used to being dragged along to single-issue international conferences - were persuaded to travel to Denmark’s capital to share in the final negotiations and bask in the reflected glory of a new, groundbreaking, global climate change treaty. But ‘Hopenhagen’ collapsed under the weight of unrealistic expectations, leaving many disillusioned and cynical about the ability of the United Nations solve to what many have regarded as the defining environmental challenge of the 21st century.
In just a couple of weeks, politicians, officials and civil society leaders will meet again in Durban, South Africa, in an attempt to progress matters. The stakes are no less high than existed in Copenhagen in 2009. Global emissions continue to rise. In 2011 however, they are fuelled not so much by rampant growth in Western economies but rather by the steady rise of countries such as China and India. But, unlike the unrestrained optimism and hype preceding Copenhagen, expectations ahead of the Durban conference are low.
The past is a foreign country
A central question hanging over the entire process concerns the future of the Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997. It was a time when the US economy was robust, and a united Europe was determined to take a strong lead in implementing innovative measures to reduce emissions. China and India had not then really flexed their muscles economically, and were still seen as ‘developing’ nations for whom binding emissions reductions obligations were not appropriate. An agreement was reached which required developed countries (including New Zealand) to achieve fixed emissions limits, but committed developing countries to little more than “best endeavours” steps to reduce emissions.
In the event, the US baulked at implementing the Protocol – not willing to accept limitations which did not also apply to its competitors such as China. Australia dragged its coal dust-caked boots until 2007. But with ratification by Russia in 2005, an international regime was set up which provided a global legal framework for domestic policies such as the EU and New Zealand emissions trading schemes and the contentious carbon tax scheme approved in early November this year by the Australian Senate.
Fast forward 14 years from Kyoto, and the world is a different place, economically and geopolitically. China has taken number one spot as the world’s largest carbon emitter. Its rate of economic growth well outstrips that of most Western economies, including the US. India sits in third place in the emissions rankings, also enjoying strong growth. The EU operates the world’s largest and most established emissions trading scheme and is still committed to a global regime which includes comprehensive binding limits. But the EU’s current economic woes, not to mention searing international political and legal pressure concerning its plan to bring international aviation into its ETS, mean that it faces bigger challenges now than it did in 1997.
The increasingly influential BASIC grouping (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) are positioning themselves to (a) hold developed nations’ feet to the fire on emissions reductions and financial support for developing countries on climate change issues; and (b) avoid becoming stung by growth-limiting emissions restrictions themselves. Many would say that their position is completely reasonable: their standards of living are still low compared to western economies with long histories of resource exploitation and associated unrestrained emissions. They should be given a chance to catch up. But conditions are ripe for a South African stand-off.
New Zealand’s ETS
Closer to home, New Zealand politicians are pondering the future of this country’s climate change policy. Earlier this year our fledgling emissions trading scheme was put under the microscope by a government-appointed review group. Amongst its recommendations was the indefinite deferral of the agricultural sector to enter the ETS. The rationale is something like this: no one has yet figured out how to reduce emissions from the farming of cows and sheep, and the sector is so important to the national economy. So, it makes no real sense to bring it into the scheme. There are compelling arguments to the contrary. But it is reasonable to assume that if the present government is re-elected, farmers will be breathing easy for quite some time to come. A Durban outcome which pushes the timeframe for a new international binding treaty out to the last quarter of this decade will not help the cause of those arguing for faster, deeper and wider emissions cuts domestically.
Stepping back for a minute from the political and legal wrangling, what are the scientists telling us? In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that to keep global temperature to between 2°C and 2.4°C above the pre-industrial average and secure a reasonable hope avoiding significant climatic and environmental damage, emissions would need to peak before 2015 and sharply dive after that. Judging from their behaviour, not many world leaders seem to believe that advice. Our own included.