Climate negotiators meet in Durban, South Africa, from Monday to discuss controls on greenhouse gas emissions. The ostensible aim is to devise a continuation for the Kyoto protocol, which ends in December 2012. It is two years on from the deal-that-never-was in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the global temperature is still rising. Environment consultant Fred Pearce offers his guide to understanding what's at stake.
Will there be a deal this year?
Sadly not. American legislators won't entertain the idea of legally enforceable limits on their emissions. The Russians and Japanese say that without the US, they are not interested. Ditto China and India. That leaves only Germany of the top six national emitters still in favour of a binding deal.
Even optimists don't think US politicians will be in the mood to consummate a new deal until 2016 at the earliest. The best that can be hoped for is a "coalition of the willing" committed to a stop-gap extension of the Kyoto protocol which does not include the US. We are facing a "lost decade" in climate talks.
Most of the US Senate barely believes in climate change, let alone doing anything about it. Most other nations play lip service, but blame economic travails for postponing hard decisions. Some think the recession will buy us time. Not so. Last year saw the biggest annual increase in carbon dioxide emissions ever recorded – almost 6 per cent. This was mostly due to China, India and others burning more coal, the dirtiest fuel.
Isn't coal supposedly on the way out?
Quite the reverse. When the new climate talks started in 2006, the world got 25 per cent of its primary energy from coal; now the proportion is 30 per cent. Even Germany will likely burn more coal as it shuts its nuclear plants in the wake of the nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant. Just 2 hours' drive from Durban, South Africa feeds the coal addiction with the world's largest coal export terminal at Richards Bay.
Meanwhile, CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere. By 2016, concentrations will probably pass 400 parts per million, compared with 353 ppm when the climate convention was passed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Is there a plan B?
There could be. Even without a Durban protocol, some countries say they will meet voluntary national targets. The European Union has legislated to cut emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. China, Brazil, Mexico and some others say they will reduce the "carbon intensity" of their economies – the amount of CO2 they emit per unit of GDP - though their emissions will probably continue to rise. A few US states, led by California, plan to cap their emissions. Some see this resorting to a voluntary approach as doomed. Others see it as the only way forward.
Durban will also see negotiations on REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, which could deliver a system for countries and corporations with self-imposed targets to offset their emissions by investing in forest conservation. This could kick-start a global carbon market and help create political consensus for a future deal.
But can there be a carbon market without a global deal first?
Doubtful. Without legal limits on emissions, there are no legally enforceable emissions permits to trade, so a voluntary system could be prone to collapse. The price of carbon on the existing limited market, based around EU Kyoto protocol permits, has halved during November to below 6 euros per tonne.
Any other possibilities?
Yes. The UN Environment Programme is behind a big push to cut emissions of soot from diesel emissions, traditional cooking stoves, brick kilns and the like. Soot, often termed black carbon, is the second biggest contributor to climate change, but is not part of the climate talks. Soot only stays in the air for a few days, so cutting emissions would have a big and immediate impact. UNEP says banishing it could cut global warming by 0.5°C by 2030 – 0.7°C in the Arctic. Watch out for separate talks. Even the US might buy into this one.
Even so, the climate forecast is bad, right?
Dreadful. Nobody knows for sure, but the sober-minded International Energy Agency said this month that we have just six years to stave off 2°C of warming. And the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that such a warming would bring a big increase in many extreme weather events, from droughts and floods to killer heat waves.
So what will the crux of the Durban meeting be?
The hottest topic will probably be drumming up money for the promised $100 billion "green fund" to help poor countries adapt to climate change. It's supposed to start in 2013.
How do you apply?
Good question. Nobody seems sure what the eligibility criteria should be. One view is countries vulnerable to any kind of extreme weather should be entitled to cash from the fund. Another is that the money should go to those who can show that they are threatened directly by human-made climate change. In any case, rich nations are proving very slow to put their hands in their pockets.
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