Climate talks at new crossroads

Martin Khor warns that it is evident from the Bangkok negotiations in September that the future of global climate change talks hangs in the balance. The prospect of bridging the division within the international community on tackling the problem seems as remote as ever even as evidence of the devastating impact of climate change mounts.

THE global climate change negotiations are at a new crossroads, as evident after the latest round of meetings that ended in Bangkok on 5 September.

'Crossroads' because the talks and the emerging climate change regime may go into one of various directions, or else become stuck in an impasse.  'New' because the climate talks have faced crossroads several times before in the past five years.

The Bangkok negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held over a week, revealed a major split between developed and developing countries on what to do over many issues that the developing countries want to continue to discuss, because they have not been resolved.

Most developed countries, led by the United States, believe there is no need for further discussion because they have been closed off by a decision taken at the last Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa last December.

The wrangling over a seemingly procedural issue of what remains on the agenda and what should be taken off is in fact a sign of a far larger question - what are the respective responsibilities of developed versus developing countries in the years ahead?

As evidence on the ground and in the science mounts over the devastating effects of climate change, it seems that the international community of nations has become less and less able to address the crisis.

At the heart of the problem is the continuing attempt of several developed nations' governments to run away from their earlier agreed dual obligations - to take the lead in sharp greenhouse gas emission reductions in their own countries, and to provide finance and technology to developing countries for them to take their own climate actions.

Killing off the Kyoto Protocol...

It was also in Bangkok in a 2009 negotiation session that the rich nations were plotting to kill the Kyoto Protocol (KP), a treaty that implements the commitment of rich countries under the UNFCCC to cut emissions.

Under the legally binding KP, all developed countries (except the United States, which is not a Party) agreed to cut their emissions by specified rates; the overall average rate was 5% by 2012 compared to 1990. 

Cuts for a second period starting 2013 have been negotiated in a KP working group since 2005.  The new cuts are supposed to be at least 25-40% for all developed countries; the developing countries have demanded 40% or more.

Another working group on long-term cooperative action (AWG-LCA) was created in 2007 in Bali that mandated those developed countries that are not in the KP (only the United States at that time) to undertake a climate change mitigation commitment comparable to countries in the KP.

This LCA group also obliges developing countries to take enhanced mitigation actions, supported by finance and technology supplied by rich countries, and both the actions and the support would be subjected to measurement, reporting and verification (MRV).  The actions would not be legally binding, and can take on various forms and rates.

Developed and developing countries are treated differently as the Convention recognises that the former are richer and also responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.   

For the past three years there has been a see-saw battle to save the Kyoto Protocol as one country after another indicated it was jumping ship to join the US in the relatively safe haven of the AWG-LCA. 

At the 2011 Durban climate conference, it was clear that Canada, Japan and Russia would not take part in a second KP period of emissions cuts, while Australia and New Zealand took a wait-and-see attitude.

Thus only the European countries are left in the KP's active roll-call for post-2012 cuts.  Up to now, well past the deadline, even they have not stated what cuts they are willing to commit to.

... and the AWG-LCA

With the virtual abandonment of the KP, the developed countries have plotted to now kill the AWG-LCA.  The US dislikes the group and its Bali Action Plan for at least three reasons:  it obliges all developed countries to make a comparable mitigation effort (the US is not willing to do as much as the European Union); it treats developing countries more leniently; and it links the developing countries' actions to the funds and technology transferred to them from the developed countries.

At Durban, a draft decision was put forward to end the life of the AWG-LCA by December 2012.  This draft had not even been seen, let alone discussed, by developing countries, but was put on the floor in the last hours of the conference and adopted together with all other decisions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

At Bangkok in September, many developing countries put forward proposals on several issues not yet resolved in the AWG-LCA, including financing of developing countries' actions, technology transfer, adaptation, mitigation, trade and other measures against developing countries, and capacity building.

The Chair of the AWG-LCA, Aysar Tayeb, prepared a compilation of issues drawn from countries' submissions that have to be resolved or transferred to other bodies, so that the working group can successfully conclude its work and close by December.

However, the developed countries, led by the US and the 'Umbrella Group' (non-European developed countries), vehemently opposed further discussion on most of these issues, and claimed the Chair's paper had no status and was wrongly raising expectations.

It is quite evident that the US and its allied countries want to kill the AWG-LCA and its associated Bali Action Plan and get rid of their three inconvenient elements - comparability of efforts, different treatment of developed and developing countries, and the link between developing countries' actions and finance and technology.

Key principles

A new working group on the 'Durban Platform' was formed in Durban to negotiate a new agreement.  The US is insisting that the Platform will not have the three disliked elements of the Bali Action Plan.

But to many developing countries, that is wishful thinking.  For them, the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities are key in the Convention and in the new Platform as well.

If the LCA group is to expire, all its issues and principles have to be transferred to other bodies in the Convention, including the Platform.

At stake is whether globally agreed actions to address the climate crisis are fair, or whether the powerful countries will continue to escape from their obligations and shift the burden to the developing world.

Meanwhile, Nature continues to ignore the slow progress or rather backtracking of commitments going on in the sphere of human affairs.  As emissions continue to increase and the average global temperature rises, a series of extreme weather events are wreaking havoc all over the world (see box).                              

Martin Khor is Executive Director of the South Centre, an intergovernmental policy think-tank of developing countries, and former Director of the Third World Network.

Extreme weather events on the rise

EXTREME weather events are taking place all over the world at an increasing rate, and with damaging intensity.

In late July, at least 77 people died and thousands were displaced in the worst flooding to hit Beijing in more than 60 years. This was due to a long and heavy downpour on 21 July. It was the heaviest rain in Beijing since records began in 1951, causing rivers to burst their banks and flood major highways, submerging cars with people trapped inside, and sweeping houses and people away.

Meanwhile, the United States is facing a severe heat wave and drought. This has caused significant falls in farm output, with serious effects on global food supply and prices.

The dry weather in the US is partly explained by La Nina, which has a cooling effect on the Pacific Ocean, bringing warmer and drier weather to the south of the US, including Texas whose agriculture has been devastated in the past year.

But many climate scientists are also linking the drought to climate change. According to Peter Stott of the UK government's Met Office Hadley Centre, La Nina is only part of the story.

Stott co-authored a recent study which links climate change with the Texas drought and other extreme weather events. Interviewed by the Voice of America, he said his study found 'clear evidence for human influence on the Texas heat wave and also in the very unusual temperatures we had in the United Kingdom in 2011'.

According to the study, the 2011 Texas drought was 20 times more likely to occur than in the 1960s as a result of emissions causing climate change. The heat wave in England in November 2011 was 62 times more likely to have occurred than 50 years ago.

Scientists are cautious to note that it is difficult to pinpoint particular extreme weather events as being caused by climate change but new studies have found that climate change has made these events more probable.

Says Stott: 'It is the combination of natural variations of climate that is important here. We saw that in La Nina in Texas, but, over and above that, there is this additional climate effect that can and has indeed in the last year led to a greater vulnerability to extreme weather.'

In November 2011, a path-breaking report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involving 100 scientists linked the increase in extreme weather events such as heavier rainfall and flooding, and heat waves to climate change.

The report evaluates that there is at least a 66% chance that climate extremes have changed as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and also notes that 'economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters are increasing'.

The global insurance industry has reported that 2011 was a record year for catastrophes (many of them weather-related), with economic losses of $350-400 billion.

A report on extreme weather events and insurance by the Geneva Association shows that the number of natural catastrophes increased from almost 400 in 1980 to 800-1,000 in the period 2006-11. The associated economic losses rose from about $70 billion in 1980 to $380 billion in 2011.

Notable extreme weather-related events in Asia in recent years include Thailand's worst flooding in 50 years in September-October 2011 which had a devastating effect on manufacturing, agriculture and homes, with losses estimated by the World Bank at $45.7 billion.

Pakistan suffered heavy rain and extensive floods in July-August 2010, which affected 20 million people, killed 2,000 and severely damaged agricultural production; in 2011, the country suffered another major flood which killed thousands more people.

Last year, a severe drought hit Eastern Africa, threatening an estimated 12 million people with food shortage.

Again, scientists were careful not to link the shortage of rain to climate change, but were of the view that the changing climate increased the risk of such events.

There are many lessons from all these recent developments, including that policymakers must pay greater attention to the changing weather in their countries, and that extreme weather events are not isolated and one-off events but part of a pattern.

Priority should be given to putting prevention measures such as flood control in place before the disasters happen, and flood management in anticipation of their happening.

And the growing evidence of the links between these extreme events and climate change should also prompt governments and social movements to increase their seriousness to tackle the causes of climate change.  - Martin Khor

 The above is extracted from an article that first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS, No. 7424, 3 August 2012). SUNS is published by the Third World Network.

*Third World Resurgence No. 264/265, August/September 2012, pp 10-12