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Nov 16 2013

Climate talks more farcical than ever

COP19 volcanoes

Wisdom from the official website of the COP19 climate talks.

Delegates of the world’s governments are currently gathered in Warsaw, Poland for the 19th Conference of Parties (COP19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – global climate talks to us laypeople. During previous COPs, I’ve examined the negotiating positions and outcomes in meticulous detail, delving into a confusing landscape of arcane jargon and acronyms. But this time around, you don’t need to understand the technical details to see the talks are farcical.

The Convention was signed in 1992, the year I was born. The negotiations have gone on for my entire life; you can catch up on the history of the negotiations here (1992-2011) and here (last year). Yet far from the negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, global emissions continue to rise at an accelerating rate. Human-caused global warming is now more evident than ever, and it is more urgent than ever to cut global emissions to near-zero, leaving most of the Earth’s fossil fuels in the ground. In this context, the unfolding debacle of the climate talks is more disillusioning than ever.

Poland = Coaland

The farce begins with the location. COP19 is taking place in Warsaw, Poland, a country notorious for building new coal-fired electricity generation and repeatedly blocking EU attempts to strengthen climate action. As Giles Parkinson puts it, “Poland Prime Minister Donald Tusk has achieved on a continental scale what Abbott has only succeeded so far in Australia.”

The conference venue is a football stadium, perhaps inadvertently symbolizing that the organizers see climate change politics as a game. Other governments aren’t taking it particularly seriously either: only 134 of the 189 countries attending are sending ministers, despite COP18 having promised ministers would meet to discuss raising ambition at COP19. In contrast, business lobbyists have a greater presence than ever at the talks.

In September, Poland signed a Communique with the World Coal Association (which includes some names familiar to Australians, such as BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto) calling for “high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies” and claiming:

There is a misconception that the use of coal is incompatible with meeting the challenge of climate change. This is simply not true. With the support of industry, governments, development banks and the international community, coal can continue to play its role in delivering on economic development goals, affordable energy and industrial growth while managing the expectations of people worldwide on climate change and other environmental challenges.

Well, I feel so much better now I know my expectations are being managed.

In October, the Polish government published a blog post on the official COP19 website (since taken down) saying the Arctic ice melt creates opportunities for oil drilling, shipping, and “chasing the pirates, terrorists and ecologists that will come to hang around”. This is presumably a reference to Russia imprisoning 30 Greenpeace activists arrested for “piracy”, ie. protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic. The COP19 website also re-posted a supposed excerpt from a non-existent scientific paper apparently submitted by an NGO, which made the following claim:

If we want to make the Earth warming, we should make volcanic eruptions mainly occur at night; if we want to make the Earth cooling, we should make volcanic eruptions mainly occur at daytime. We are no longer afraid the arrival of the world’s end caused by climate change.

In what is being dubbed “the Coal COP” or “Corporate COP19”, Poland has allowed COP19 to be sponsored by fossil fuel companies, including one which runs several Polish coal power plants. It organized a pre-COP “business day” of meetings between industry lobbyists and the Polish government, with no agenda released to the public and no NGOs, scientists, or renewable energy companies allowed in. One can only conclude they were agreeing on what negotiating position Poland should take. Polish environment minister Marcin Korolec boasted: “For the first time in 19 years, since the climate talks have been held, representatives of global business will be a part of it.” (Actually, that’s not quite true: Australia used to include business lobbyists in its own official delegations.)

Poland has even endorsed a World Coal Association conference, oxymoronically called the “International Coal and Climate Summit”, to be held in Warsaw next week alongside COP19. UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres has chosen to address the coal conference instead of youth climate activists. Korolec says opposition to the summit is “very strange, if not worrying”, because there is “no place for confrontation, isolation and selection” at climate talks and global coal demand is projected to rise until 2035.

As one protestor at COP19 put it:

Why are we letting the world’s biggest climate criminals wrap themselves in the colours of the UN and parade around the world like climate heroes? Why are they allowed anywhere near the talks – the WHO doesn’t allow Marlborough anywhere near its effort to tackle lung disease, yet the UNFCCC allows ArcelorMittal, BMW and the rest to sponsor this COP. It’s beyond belief.

The Polish government’s behaviour is in spite of a poll showing 73% of Polish people want more climate action and 89% want more renewables.

Bad behaviour from Umbrella countries

I am ashamed to say my own country, Australia, is behaving just as badly as Poland. Australia’s Environment Minister is staying home to repeal the carbon tax. Midway through the conference, Australia has already received three “Fossil of the Day” awards from the Climate Action Network. Firstly, for refusing to provide any finance for poor countries. Secondly, for repealing its carbon tax, cutting renewable energy funding, and backing away from emissions targets. And thirdly for “obtrusiveness”: attaching conditions to everything, objecting to funding arrangements agreed last year, and even opposing insurance provisions despite those having been mentioned in the 1992 UNFCCC itself). I have a sinking feeling Australia is going to be Fossil of the Year.

With a draft report having landed on Tony Abbott’s desk arguing international action now meets Australia’s bipartisan conditions for moving beyond its measly 5%-by-2020 target, Abbott has invented a new condition. The new condition is outlined in a Cabinet decision that has not been released to the public, but Abbott summarizes it as: “we are certainly in no way looking to make further binding commitments in the absence of very serious like-binding commitments in other countries and there’s no evidence of that.” Environment Minister Greg Hunt says the target will not be reviewed until 2015 and Australia will only increase its ambition if other countries have made “comparable and binding” commitments. He claims the conditions have not changed.

In reality, the former Labor government’s conditions, which can still be viewed on the Environment Department website, did not contain the word “binding”. Before the election the Liberals made it sound like their position was identical to Labor’s, never mentioning any plan to add a condition about binding international targets or delay any consideration of raising ambition until 2015. The former government’s conditions for raising the target were never reasonable. Now the new Government is moving the goalposts to an even less reasonable position, and ensuring it will fail to contribute to the global ambition scheduled to be agreed by world leaders at COP20 next year.

Other members of the Australia-led Umbrella Group are, as usual, also behaving badly. The Canadian government this week released this statement:

Canada applauds the decision by Prime Minister Abbott to introduce legislation to repeal Australia’s carbon tax. The Australian Prime Minister’s decision will be noticed around the world and sends an important message.

Like Poland and Australia, Canada is addicted to fossil fuels. Canada has the world’s third largest proven oil reserves, mostly in the Alberta tar sands. Like Australia, Canada’s emissions have risen rapidly since 1990 and it is on track to completely miss its 2020 reduction pledge.

Japan has announced it is replacing its 2020 emissions reduction pledge of 25% below 1990 with a mere 3.8% below 2005. This is an emissions increase of 3.1% relative to 1990, higher than its 2012 Kyoto Protocol target of 6% below 1990. Japan blames its backflip on the closure of its nuclear power plants, but according to Climate Action Tracker that can only account for seven percentage points.

New Zealand has similarly weakened its emissions reduction pledge, which had been 10-20% below 1990 by 2020, to merely 5% below 1990 by 2020. Like Australia and Canada, New Zealand’s emissions are projected to actually rise.

Russia blocked progress at an intersessional meeting in Bonn in June, in a dispute over rules of procedure, but has so far been relatively quiet at COP19.

No ambition

Argument continues over how to raise the ambition of pre-2020 action – which should rightfully be the main issue of the talks because it is urgently needed. As illustrated above, governments are going in the opposite direction, backtracking on their weak existing pledges.

The US (supported by other countries such as Russia and Australia) says countries should continue to be allowed to decide how much action they are willing to pledge, as in the present regime. The EU wants a process to review the level of global ambition, calculate the gap between present 2020 pledges and a pathway to <2°C, and divide the remaining effort among all countries. The Like Minded Developing Countries argues historical emissions levels should determine how much countries are allowed to emit in future. And the Alliance of Small Island States proposes a focus on identifying those policies and technologies with greatest potential to cut emissions and how to overcome obstacles to their deployment, and communicating the results to politicians to build momentum for raising pre-2020 ambition in 2014.

The carbon budget recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is not on the agenda because, according to Figueres and rich country delegates, it would be too politically “difficult” to divide up the budget. Thus the action needed to solve climate change, leaving most fossil fuels in the ground to stay within the global carbon budget, remains absent from the talks.

No global binding deal

The awaited 2015 agreement for global action post-2020, which was already postponing action until too late, is predictably shaping up to be not even what it was cracked up to be. In July, some countries at a Major Economies Forum meeting in Poland reportedly argued it was not feasible to complete negotiations by 2015, and that 2015 could merely launch a pledging process. And according to Reuters, some countries’ delegates are now saying the post-2020 regime could be neither binding nor ambitious, merely a set of national pledges like what we have pre-2020.

Thus the ideal way to cut global emissions, a global agreement with binding targets for all countries adding up to a global outcome, remains off in the never-never. This endless schedule slip cannot continue: we are fast running out of time.

No finance

COP19 was supposed to be the “Finance Meeting”, but rich countries have failed to cough up any significant funds beyond redirected aid funding and private finance.

The G77+China says its members cannot leave COP19 without agreement on a mechanism to compensate poor countries for “loss and damage” from climate change impacts and extreme weather. But a leaked cable shows the US (again in line with Russia and Australia) has instructed its delegates to block progress on loss and damage. They want it to be merely part of the existing (and virtually empty) Green Climate Fund for climate change adaptation. US delegate Todd Stern says “lectures about compensation, reparations and the like will produce nothing but antipathy among developed country policy makers and their publics”.

Thus any significant funding to deal with climate change impacts occurring now and in the future, which is necessary because of the ongoing failure of rich countries to agree binding emissions targets and make ambitious reductions, remains to be found in the gargantuan budgets of rich countries.

…but progress on offsets

Despite the ongoing failure of the EU ETS, negotiators continue to see carbon markets as a solution. The EU is promoting a New Market Mechanism (NMM) to generate more international carbon offsets (as if the EU and the world isn’t already choked with dodgy permits). Delegates are also talking about accelerating linking between different domestic emissions trading schemes. Poland and Japan are proposing that delegates design a “carbon market toolbox” to standardize “best practice” in emissions trading schemes around the world, but it is unclear how stringent these standards will be, and the endorsement of Poland and Japan doesn’t bode well. This focus on carbon markets ignores that the “trade” aspect of emissions trading was never intended to cut emissions, merely to limit the cost of doing so, a dubious intention because the cost is mainly paid by polluting companies.

Thus countries will get even more opportunities to buy offsets to avoid meeting their own measly targets, and businesses will get to make even more money! Yay, progress!

Protests building

COP19 still has another week to go, and protests are already expressing their frustration with the lack of meaningful progress. An alliance of 500 African NGOs is pressuring African governments to walk out of the talks. Three young climate activists have been banned from the conference for carrying placards displaying the names of towns devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan, despite having been authorized to do so. Several climate activists have joined Filipino delegate Yeb Sano in fasting. And Sano has started an Avaaz petition calling for action, which you can sign here.

As Sano says, the climate talks don’t have to be a farce. We can stop this madness. Which is why it’s the least I can do to attend one of Australia’s national rallies for climate action tomorrow, on 17 November. Why don’t you join me?

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