When psychologists identified the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance — the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time — they might have been describing the world of international climate change negotiations.
Only this month, two authoritative international agencies have pointed out that the world has only a few years left in which to begin taking sufficient action to combat dangerous global warming.
The UN Environment Programme’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report shows that, even if all countries implement their emissions targets for 2020 to their maximum extent, total emissions in that year will still exceed the level required to hold global warming to the UN’s 2?C goal.
Further action is needed now, it pointed out, if this emissions gap is to be closed. At the same time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that the world has only five years to seriously start replacing fossil fuels with low carbon energy and energy efficiency. Failure to make the required investment by 2017 would “lock in” high future emissions to such an extent that the 2?C goal would become unattainable.
Yet at the UN climate talks in Durban, delegates are arguing about whether a new round of negotiations should not even begin until 2015 and not come into effect until after 2020. Some countries appear to be throwing the 2?C goal away even as they rhetorically reaffirm it.
The positions being taken on this give the lie to the lazy view that climate talks are always a matter of developed versus developing countries. On the one side of this argument are the countries most vulnerable to climate change — the small islands and least developed nations — and the EU. These want negotiations on a new legal agreement to begin next year, to conclude in 2015, and to enter into force as early as possible thereafter (the EU has said no later than 2020). On the other side, advocating that no new negotiations should start until after 2015 at the earliest, is an unlikely alliance of the usual developed country laggards — the US, Canada, Russia and Japan — and two of the largest emerging economies, China and India.
The delayers argue that now is not the time to start a new set of negotiations. After concluding the last round in Cancun, Mexico, a year ago, the priority now is to implement the decisions reached. They point out that countries have only just started to implement their own domestic emissions reduction plans, with most struggling to put into place low carbon and green growth policies, so they are not yet ready to start thinking about new ones.
In the current economic climate, the chances of agreeing new commitments for 2020 are negligible. And the UN has already committed to a review of the 2?C goal to take place in 2013 to 2015 — which will provide the proper foundation, it is argued, for new negotiations after then.
One Indian delegate has said in Durban that the world should wait until the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014 to decide whether there is in fact an emissions gap.
For many of those in the delayers’ group, these arguments are of course just cover for the fact that they don’t want to commit to a new legal agreement at all. While the Kyoto refuseniks (the US, now joined by Canada) dislike any kind of binding international obligations, China and India are seeking to postpone the day when they are subject to them. What none can explain, however, is how a delay is compatible with achieving the 2?C goal they have all espoused.
Indeed, this remains a source of disagreement even within the “start negotiations now” camp. The small islands and least developed countries want any new commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol to last only another five years (2013 to 2017), with a new set of targets to begin in 2018. However, the EU is loathe to reopen the huge and delicate framework of its internal climate policies, which are all tied to 2020, fearing that they are more likely to unravel than be tightened.
The answer almost certainly lies in looking at how the UN review scheduled for 2013 to 2015 can generate greater immediate ambition. There is still disagreement among parties in Durban as to what the review is for. Some see it as just a reporting process on what countries are doing to implement their commitments, but others view it as a chance to assess whether 2?C is indeed the right global goal (the small island states want it to be 1.5?C) and how mitigation can be collectively ramped up to achieve it. That would allow not only new commitments to be made for 2025 and 2030 — which must form the bedrock of any new post-Kyoto agreement — but the strengthening of the commitments already made for 2020. There is indeed little chance of this happening now.
However, by 2015, when (perhaps) the worst of the economic crisis may be over and the new IPCC report has re-awakened the world to the dangers that climate change poses, it might just be possible.
Michael Jacobs is a visiting professor on climate change at the London School of Economics.
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