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The Australian Government, Kyoto and the illusion of progress

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet, announced on Friday that Australia is “ready” to join a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework…

Global energy use must grow substantially every year to keep up with population - our decarbonisation efforts aren’t making inroads. Carolyn Chan

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet, announced on Friday that Australia is “ready” to join a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Such readiness, however, is heavily qualified; Mr Combet further stated that it is conditional on, among a number of other things, “progress in international negotiations towards [a] … new 2015 agreement”.

A “Platform for Enhanced Action” was launched at the UN climate change negotiations in Durban last year – a non-binding agreement to develop “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” under the UNFCCC and applicable to all parties, both developed and developing (unlike Kyoto).

Any such document is to be concluded by 2015 – with “pledges” from developed and developing state parties to reduce emissions. It will ostensibly come into effect and be implemented from 2020. These state parties would also, of course, need to ratify such agreement.

Any agreement resulting from the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action would include (as Mr Combet stated) China, the United States, the EU, India, Japan and Brazil. It is important to note, however, that the Durban Platform is simply an agreement to reach agreement – an agreement to agree. This has been recognised, post-Durban, by India’s environment minister who has said that the “agreement” does not mean that “India has to take binding commitments to reduce its emissions in absolute terms in 2020”.

Greg Combet announces Australia’s new commitment.

If (and it’s a big “if”) parties reach agreement and targets commence in 2020 (as Mr Combet anticipates), what happens between now and then? This is a decade critical for limiting the rise in global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the global warming limit adopted by parties to the UNFCCC.

Some states will, and some states may, take voluntary action, but verification and other issues attend such action. And China and India, of course, will not have legally binding targets in any Kyoto second commitment period to which Mr Combet referred in his announcement. (Indeed, in this second commitment period Kyoto will cover only about 14 or 15% of the world’s emissions – a figure widely used at Durban.)

In 2007 the non-binding Bali “road map” was agreed with a view to a post-2012 agreement. Now there is “agreement” – the Durban Platform – procedural in nature, to work towards a 2015 agreement with a 2020 start date for developed and developing states. And as time elapses, and with every delay, the ambitions for agreement unsurprisingly increase.

It’s the illusion of progress. It’s even more illusory in a world where, if an agreement was to be concluded between (let’s just say) only the world’s five largest emitters (developed or developing) – China (29%), the US (16%), India (6%), Russia (5%) and Japan (4%), none of whom have had (or will have) targets under the Kyoto process – such an agreement would cover 60% of global emissions (and 71% if the EU is added).

Perhaps it’s time to consider alternatives to (on one view) the broken top-down UNFCCC process. One alternative way forward would be to break the climate change problem up into different pieces, to contemplate a more decentralised arrangement in which particular issues are discussed and negotiated.

One academic has said that, “since an agreement among the major emitters is unlikely anytime soon, we should seek progress where we can, through whatever means and in any forums that are available”. Two others propose a climate change “regime complex” – a loosely coupled set of specific regimes. And yet others refer to an incremental “building blocks” approach.

Mr Combet referred in his announcement yesterday to the “lived experience”. In global terms, the planet’s lived human experience has resulted in a range of problems related to (or with implications for) climate change: ocean acidification, loss of rainforests, desertification, the growth of megacities, and famine, for example. All of these global problems become more difficult and then impossible to solve “with ever more people”, as David Attenborough has noted.

Growing global population amplifies a range of other threats, and they are all related to climate change: resource scarcity, for example, and the energy crisis. And energy of course goes to the heart of the climate change problem. Michael Klare notes that “the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the [world’s] staggering needs … global energy must grow substantially every year”.

Mr Combet said that, “[a]s the world increases the extent of its action on climate change, Australia’s domestic scheme means that we have the ability to match that action”. According to PwC, however, the world economy needs to reduce its carbon intensity by 5.1% every year to 2050 to have a fair chance of keeping to the 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels target I referred to earlier. Yet to get even to 4 degrees implies nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation. (PwC notes that the decarbonisation rate required for 2 degrees has not been achieved in a single year since the Second World War.)

Australia’s carbon intensity grew by 6.7% in 2011.