Our planet continues to warm. A recent series of reports anticipates a 4-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperatures by 2100 — twice the target that nations adopted in 2010 as the maximum allowable range for avoiding dangerous changes that will include the loss of coastal communities, the spread of deserts, extreme weather, and food and water shortages.
This warming process goes on amid repeated attempts at the global level to cap the greenhouse emissions that drive climate change. The most recent effort demonstrated once again the inability of leaders to make the hard choices needed to stave off a warmer future.
It is hard to escape the irony of nations holding the latest round of climate talks in Qatar, a country that relies on the production of a resource that creates greenhouse emissions, and that has used its riches to become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses per capita. Behind the seeming poke at the very intent of an attempt to limit such emissions was a recognition that eventual success of the fight against global warming depends on cooperation from fossil fuel producers, as well as from “consumers” — developed and developing economies.
Negotiations to limit greenhouse gas emissions began in 1992 and culminated in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires industrialized nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent during the 2008-2012 commitment period from 1990s levels.
That agreement was harshly criticized because it required only developed economies to act. At one time, that made sense — those nations contributed the overwhelming majority of gases that had driven climate change to that point — but by the time of the Kyoto negotiations, emerging economies were becoming significant greenhouse gas emitters.
In 2007, China became the world’s leading source of greenhouse gasses and India is now number three. (The United States is rated number two.) Yet, in the name of what they believed was fair, they refused to impose costs on their economic growth to solve a problem they did not create. If only the earth was so discerning.
The Kyoto Protocol had other flaws, too. Because of its limited scope, many nations, the U.S. among them, refused to ratify the pact. That drastically limited its effectiveness. Moreover, it is set to expire on Dec. 31, which made negotiations on a successor deal critical.
These talks, stretching over several years and large international meetings, had foundered on the question of universality: whether and how all nations could be included in a single framework. A 2009 meeting in Copenhagen was widely regarded as a failure, despite fig leaf pledges to make voluntary reductions.
The latest talks in Doha, Qatar, moved the process forward, but just barely. Negotiators agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol through 2020, and will now work to create “a new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force that will be applicable to all parties to the U.N. climate convention.”
The new treaty will be adopted in 2015, and will go into effect in 2020. It is a bittersweet success: Former signatories Japan, Canada and Russia all abandoned the Kyoto Protocol; the treaty now covers countries that produce just 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Worse, no new pledges to cut greenhouse gasses were secured. Not surprisingly, those emissions are forecast to rise 2.6 percent in 2012, and increase some 58 percent over 1990.
Acceptance of legally binding limits for all nations is an important step forward. So, too, is the decision to finally put in place the climate change fund agreed to at the Copenhagen conference. This mechanism will provide up to $100 billion by 2020 to poorer nations as they battle the effects of climate change. It has startup capital and a home in South Korea, but implementation has been slowed as governments fight over its rules of operation — some governments want to vet all its investments — and donors have struggled with the effects of the global financial crisis.
The new agreement contains a pledge to “identify pathways for mobilizing the scaling up of climate finance,” but omits specific commitments and targets.
To call the Doha meeting a success redefines optimism. The truth is that only the bare minimum was achieved without having to tear up the entire climate change process.
Climate change is real, and its impacts mounting. Smaller island nations are already threatened and the surge in extreme storms, along with rising levels of Arctic melt are signs of a planet that is being changed in fundamental ways.
Yet governments show no urgency in addressing this problem. Japan should return to the Kyoto Protocol and join the second commitment period from 2013 to 2020. At least it should work out a domestic goal to reduce emissions from 2013 onward.
Ms. Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, doubts that diplomats will ever deliver change at the needed speed.
That means new mechanisms must emerge. Businesses and publics must drive this process. Investment in carbon-free renewable energy hit a record $260 billion in 2011 and will continue to grow as business leaders see opportunity in sustainable, efficient investment. Consumers should demand that business take this path and insist their governments make such decisions easier by structuring tax schemes accordingly.
Regardless of the “equity” of such a framework, developed countries are likely to have to lead, since developing country publics are more focused on crude quantitative improvements in their lives. That is not a criticism but a fact of life. That is not to say their governments should not care, but it means that the process of leadership will be different.
That sort of differentiation — within a universal system — is the best hope for an effective climate change regime.