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A 2014 calendar for climate change policy-making

To mark the beginning of a new year, I have put together a list of some of the major issues and events expected to influence climate change policy-making in 2014. From 1 to 8, these are my top predictions…

What are the key issues influencing future climate change policy? www.shutterstock.com

To mark the beginning of a new year, I have put together a list of some of the major issues and events expected to influence climate change policy-making in 2014. From 1 to 8, these are my top predictions.

1. Countries struggle to reach agreement on mitigation targets

In 2011, nations participating in the Durban climate change conference agreed “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” on emissions reduction targets applicable to both developed and developing states.

Then, in 2012, it was agreed that “elements” of a draft negotiating text for such a document would be “considered” no later than the end of 2014, “with a view” to a negotiating text before May 2015, for agreement later that year and then implementation in 2020.

Last year, at Warsaw, a loose time-frame was set for countries to propose their “intended nationally determined contributions” to the 2015 agreement – the end of the first quarter of 2015 for those “ready to do so”.

Nations are now unsure how to fulfill these proposed contributions, and don’t have plans to deliver on them. Overall, states aren’t ready to collectively address the climate change problem.

2. Scientists agree that the planet has a carbon budget

The September publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report on the physical science basis for climate change referred for the first time to a global cumulative carbon budget. The IPCC found that to hold global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels (the limit agreed by most states as a global warming “safety threshold”), total emissions cannot exceed one trillion tonnes of carbon.

By 2011, 515 gigatons (more than half of the threshold amount) had already been emitted.

The Trillionth Tonne website continually updates estimates of current total cumulative emissions from fossil fuel use, cement production and land-use change since industrialisation began at about 575 gigatons. Based on emission trends over the past 20 years, it expects the trillionth tonne will be emitted in October 2040.

3. Four measures may stop emissions growth

In June this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) produced a report outlining energy measures to slow the impacts of climate change. The IEA’s chief economist Fatih Birol summarises and ranks these measures as:

  • adopting specific energy efficiency measures
  • limiting the construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants
  • limiting methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production
  • increasing the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies.

Oil, gas and coal producers received more than US$500 billion in government subsidies in 2011. These financial contributions in turn subsidise activities which “are pushing the world towards dangerous climate change”, beyond the 2C threshold.

4. We realise dangerous climate change is on the way

Even 2C, though, is problematic. A paper published this month by James Hansen, Jeffrey Sachs and others argues that cumulative emissions of a trillion tonnes of carbon (associated with the 2 degrees target) would spur eventual warming of 3 to 4 degrees.

Such warming, they say, would have disastrous consequences. Put another way, such a target is “well into the range of dangerous human-made interference with climate.”

Natural gas is merely a gangplank to cleaner energy, not a bridge. www.shutterstock.com

5. Natural gas: a gangplank to a cleaner energy future, not a bridge

I have argued previously that industry sectoral agreements might be easier to make than international climate change agreements. Also, the advantages of an LNG sectoral agreement could be environmentally effective. By displacing coal with gas emissions will be reduced.

But there are questions associated with a natural gas “bridge” to a carbon-free future.

While cleaner, natural gas is a fossil fuel and is mostly methane – a potent greenhouse gas. Furthermore, a recent study found that emissions from fossil fuel extraction and processing (natural gas) are likely double that cited in existing studies. And, as Joe Romm notes, natural gas as a bridge fuel must displace coal only, rather than a combination of coal and renewable energy sources.

6. ‘Common but differentiated responsibilities’ may be dead

Underpinning the international climate change regime is the principle that states have common but differentiated responsibilities (and respective capabilities) in addressing the climate change problem. It’s more or less the “polluter pays” principle, with developed states given responsibility to take the lead. So, under the Kyoto Protocol, only developed states have emission reduction targets.

Developed and developing states have now agreed to agree on an agreement from 2020, under which both will have targets.

The US negotiator Todd Stern described the position this way:

The imperative of bringing all major emitters into a regime of climate commitments is clear. There is simply no other way to head off the coming crisis … just do the math.

Nonetheless, at the Warsaw talks China clearly emphasised the importance of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle.

Two-thirds of cumulative carbon dioxide and methane emissions can be attributed to 90 international entities AAP

7. Emissions responsibility is attributed

A recent study shows that 63% of cumulative global carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010 can be traced to 90 international entities. Half of these emissions have been emitted since 1984.

This study importantly offers a different view of climate change responsibility: major producers of fossil fuels are not all located in developed states.

Further, in tracing emissions to major carbon producers – corporate entities – it opens new opportunities for such entities “to become part of the solution rather than passive (and profitable) bystanders to continued climate disruption.”

8. Future generations in the “climate casino”

Climate change is the most significant threat to humanity and the natural world.

Yale economist William Nordhaus refers to humanity entering the “climate casino”. Economic growth is producing perilous changes in the climate and earth systems, leading to unforeseeable and dangerous consequences. Humanity is rolling the climatic dice, with likely perilous outcomes.

We benefit now from carbon emissions, but the costs will be borne by future generations. And the present benefits are often modest, the future costs severe.

The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, in his review of Nordhaus’ climate casino book, notes that Nordhaus gives relatively little weight to the interests of future people – he uses a high “discount rate”.

Nicholas Stern, however, with a low discount rate, asks the present generation to make urgent sacrifices for the sake of future generations.

The prevailing view at the international mitigation level seems to be, as the saying goes, “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”

Our view about future generations, however, will determine climate change policy in 2014 and beyond.

Happy new year.

This article included contributions from Rebecca Johnston, a corporate lawyer for a major law firm.