The other world game: reporting from international climate talks

It’s all one atmosphere: tackling climate change will need action on a global scale. blueforce4116/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Over the weekend the latest round of international climate negotiations concluded in Bonn, Germany. Offering some encouragement, the talks are inching towards a new global agreement in Paris 2015 for global action to tackle climate change.

The talks reported for the first time that developed nations within the Kyoto Protocol (Europe, Australia etc) have met and in fact overachieved on emissions reductions, and that the same nations have seen strong economic growth while reducing emissions.

Good news from the US and China too — after a decade of inaction, both are now supporting and urging global agreement.

But commitments still lag behind what the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say are needed to prevent dangerous climate change. And while the first period of the Kyoto Protocol for 2008-2012 was successful for those who ratified, we still need an agreement up to 2020, and a long-term agreement after.

The Bonn negotiations and a second round in Lima, Peru, in December this year are tracking to final negotiations in Paris, December 2015.

I sat in on Ministerial Roundtables at the Bonn talks as an official observer. With apologies to World Cup fans, what’s the score at this “semi-final” stage? Who has form? And what about the final?

Meeting emissions targets

Under the first period of the Kyoto Protocol, developed nations agreed to reduce emissions collectively by 5.2% of 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Each nation negotiated its own target, and some were allowed to increase emissions. This year it was revealed that Australia comfortably passed its own target of 108% of 1990 emissions.

While the US didn’t ratify this first period, a significant number of countries that did reported current emissions are below or well below targeted reductions. Collectively, the developed nations that ratified reduced emissions by 22.6% of 1990 levels.

This “overachievement” builds confidence that most developed countries, which generated much of the historical emissions affecting today’s climate, are prepared and able to act, and to act more.

Emission reductions and economic growth

Developed nations have also reported a successful decoupling of emissions from economic growth.

In the Ministerial roundtables that I sat in on at Bonn, Germany reported substantially cutting its carbon pollution and dramatically growing its industrial output and economy since the Kyoto baseline year of 1990. As the “largest exporter of manufactured goods”, Germany reported it was “on track to cut emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050”.

Sweden reported “cutting emissions by 40% alongside 60% economic growth since 1990”. Switzerland grew its industrial productivity by 54% and cut carbon pollution 8% below 1990 levels.

The UK reported it “was proud of significant overachievement with emission reduction targets, and was on track to cut emissions by 34% by 2020 on 1990 levels” while substantially growing its economy, and “becoming one of the most energy efficient group of counties on earth”.

Movement in the US and China

For many years of climate negotiations, the US and China have held back efforts for a global agreement. As the world’s two biggest carbon polluters this has stymied effective global action and provided cover for other nations that don’t want to act.

Following President Barack Obama’s recent “Clean Power Plan” announcements, the US delegation was on the front foot in Bonn, saying this is “a new era in which the US is taking action to cut emissions by 17% by 2020 on a 2005 baseline”. They noted that the US is “committed to achieve an ambitious and effective agreement that can be finalised in Paris”.

China said that it “is willing to work with all parties” on a agreement to reduce emissions before 2020. It also said that to achieve the mutual trust of all countries for new agreements, developed countries needed “to enhance their ambition to cut emissions and ratify the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.” China said that “it was a gentleman’s agreement that developed countries should ratify Kyoto 2 and then countries like China and others would enter a new global agreement”.

All roads lead to Paris

All countries, including the US and China have made commitments to act on carbon pollution and agree to a legally binding global instrument in Paris in 2015.

But there is a major problem remaining: the commitments to reduce emissions fall significantly short of what the science is saying is required to avert dangerous climate change.

Ratifying the second period of the Kyoto Protocol (on reducing emissions up to 2020) is important, as is increasing ambition in emissions reduction to 2020. And of course support is needed for adaptation, finance, technology, and capacity building, and even the loss and damage that the most vulnerable are now suffering.

We also need to be thinking about reducing emissions beyond 2020. At Bonn, Germany floated a global mid-century carbon neutral goal in Bonn (similar to what NewsCorp, NAB, and Melbourne City Council have achieved or are committed to by 2020), and others canvassed short commitment periods to build confidence and ratchet up action post 2020.

So what’s the score? With so many countries involved, climate negotiations can end up being reduced to the lowest common denominator. But they do provide a bottom line to build further ambition.