Archive for the ‘Durban’ Category

With the choice of a high road and a low road from Lima to Paris, the Parties seem to have selected the dirt track off to the side, replete with rocks, obstacles, difficult terrain and an uncertain destination. However, the map they have crafted in Lima, while full of options and dead ends, does at least have some clear pointers to the outcome that is actually needed. The question is whether or not these are followed.

The Lima call for climate action turned out to be a hard won outcome, with the talks extending into Sunday morning as negotiators struggled to reach agreement over one issue in particular that has dogged the process since its very beginnings in 1992 – the respective roles of developed and developing countries. Many commentators believed that the negotiations in Durban in 2011 had, at least to some extent, relegated this issue to the history books.

In particular, Professor Robert Stavins of the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston, said in his 2011 report on Durban;

It focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020. Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” or “distributional equity,” which have – in recent years – become code words for targets for the richest countries and a blank check for all others.

In the aftermath of Lima, the flavour of differentiation has reappeared and even some of the words. The call for climate action now incorporates a clear reference to “common but differentiated responsibilities“, albeit with the addition taglines of “respective capabilities” and “in light of different national circumstances“. Professor Stavins was quick off the mark with an assessment of Lima, but still maintained that the intent of Durban remained;

. . . . the fact remains that a new way forward has been established in which all countries participate and which therefore holds promise of meaningful global action to address the threat of climate change.

It is difficult to agree with this given the recent negotiations. By contrast, Jonathan Grant of PWC referred to the final day of Lima as “trench warfare mentality”. While it is certainly the case that all countries are still required to submit INDCs of some description, the allowable range of options and structure to pick from has broadened considerably. Notably, Parties “may include” details such as quantifiable information and time frames, rather than the previous wording of “shall include”.

Adaptation planning is strengthened considerably, with this subject now highlighted in the opening lines of the Lima text and also referenced clearly in the context of INDCs. For developed countries this probably has little meaning in terms of their own actions, but for a number of developing countries this could be interpreted as a call for additional financial assistance from developed countries simply to build national infrastructure. The Loss and Damage issue also resurfaced with specific mention in the Lima text. These two apparent concessions may turn out to be a high price to pay for retaining some semblance of the Durban mitigation philosophy.

The intensity with which the developed / developing country issue erupted in the last hours of the Lima COP raises valid questions about the negotiations over the coming year. Leaving this particular issue still looking for a solution in Paris itself may be a burden too great for those final days, but it could also be that no matter how much effort is put into solving it in the interim, it will nevertheless emerge again in the last hours in 12 months time simply because negotiations tend to do things like this.

Looking more positively at the Lima call for climate action, the 40 page annex, “Elements for a draft negotiating text“, throws up some interesting tidbits but also a host of negotiating options which will need to be resolved. Two tidbits of note are;

  1. The mention of carbon pricing in the text; “Acknowledging that carbon pricing is a key approach for cost-effectiveness of the cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. The reference on several occasions of an end-goal of net-zero anthropogenic emissions; “Also recognizing that scenarios consistent with a likely chance of holding the global average temperature increase to below 2 °C relative to pre-industrial levels include substantial cuts in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and net emission levels near zero gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent or below in 2100.

The carbon pricing mention is almost certainly the result of the recent tireless work of the World Bank in getting this critical subject back on the global agenda, but the reference is rather empty in that no strong follow-up text supports it. Rather, there are several vague references to the use of markets and mechanisms.

The “net zero” reference though is quite bold, in that even if this century sees a sharp reduction is emissions, a net zero goal is much more challenging. Residual emissions from agriculture, industrial processes, land use changes and some level of direct fossil fuel use will likely remain well into the 22nd century if not beyond that, which means at a minimum some large scale application of carbon capture and storage at some point in the future.

There was much more to Lima than just the last hours of tense standoff politics, but that is what the world will likely focus on in the coming days. The draft negotiating text sets out some clear options for the future, although if the weakest of these is picked in every instance the end result will have hardly been worth the effort. However, there is also text there that doesn’t have options, so that may well see the light of day in Paris. This is the case for some of the “net zero emissions” wording and also the need for Parties to “develop low emission strategies” and “maintain commitments / contributions / actions at all times“.

As such, there remain a few reasons to be hopeful.

Albert Einstein once said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. So it was that I spent the last few days in Doha, perhaps anticipating that something might just be different this time around – after all there were things to be done and a whole new agreement to be crafted by 2015.

Finally late on Saturday, COP18 came to an end. Two weeks of discussion and negotiation had barely moved the needle, so the challenge to bring the conference to a useful conclusion and at least move the agenda forward somewhat fell on the Qatari President of the COP, H.E. Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah – which is what he did, despite the objections of some parties. At the end of it all, UNFCCC Christiana Figueres tweeted;

“Read how COP18 has opened a gateway to greater ambition and action on climate change . . . .

Some may see this as a rather optimistic perspective on a COP that may well be remembered more for the excellent facilities provided by the Government of Qatar, rather than anything tangible that the countries were able to agree to actually reduce emissions. The outcome could be described at best as administrative. The three objectives I discussed at the beginning of the conference were delivered to some extent, although the Durban Platform did not progress as much as might have been expected, given the tight delivery timetable it has.

  1. The highlight was the agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, which will now run through to 2020. Most commentators made much of the fact that the agreement only included Europe and Australia, but this is a rather unfair representation of the conclusion. True, the coverage is not what it was for the 2008-2012 period, but looking at it from the reverse perspective, only Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand have dropped out. All of the other former Soviet states have remained, as have Switzerland and Norway. Of course the developing countries have remained, but still without commitments other than to make use of the Clean Development Mechanism. The AAU issues were largely put to rest and at least for the time being the agreement leaves the world with the internal workings of a carbon market, but not much else.
  2. The LCA discussion proved to be the most fractious, perhaps because it is home to the financial flows that are now beginning to percolate through the UNFCCC. This shouldn’t be confused with the carbon market financial flows of the Kyoto Protocol and the future New Market Mechanism, but the much anticipated flow of public funds from developed to developing countries. The job of the COP was to bring the LCA to a close, which in turn would make way for a more focussed discussion on the 2015 Durban Platform agreement. But money got in the way. Many parties claimed that the work of the LCA was incomplete, largely because of the fact that the money is hardly flowing and the Green Climate Fund remains uncapitalised. The US argued that this is because the modalities of the fund have not been agreed and complained that where money had been made available, such as through the Fast Start Mechanism, no appreciation was shown on the part of the recipients. In the end, the LCA did close, but mainly through an administrative sleight of hand which relocated most of its activities to various technical groups under the Convention.
  3. Finally, there was the ADP (Durban Platform). The delegates spent two weeks discussing this under two work streams, one which is looking at increasing the level of ambition up to 2020 and a second which is looking more holistically at the structure of an overarching framework. At this late stage, increased ambition through to 2020 seems like a rather pointless discussion. The energy mix for the 2020s is rapidly being cast in stone all over the world, to the extent that only relatively minor changes could now be made. This isn’t to say that we should give up, but we should at least recognise that major initiatives starting today will only bear fruit in the 2020s and 2030s, but not before then. Even a modest energy efficiency initiative could still take a decade to fully play out, given the time for political agreement, national ratification and finally implementation. Gripped by the urgency of the issue, the parties managed to agree the meeting schedule for the period between now and 2015, but failed to take matters further. That amounts to a year lost since Durban, with almost nothing to show in terms of progress. Unfortunately, even the world’s glaciers would consider the pace to be slow.

Perhaps there was a gateway opened to ambition and action, but nobody has passed through it, or seem likely to in the near future. The level of ambition also remains far short of a 2 deg.C trajectory. By contrast, the side event programme was full of national delegates, some who had come from the negotiation meetings, talking about their national programmes. Not surprisingly, the Chinese “carbon market” presentations were packed.

Now comes the sting in the tail – “loss and damage”. I suspect that this is a subject that has had the lid kept on it for some time, but it is in the open now, probably because of the claimed dissatisfaction with the level of funding and financing flowing from developed countries. The final version of the text raises the worrying prospect of the development of a mechanism to address the impacts of climate change. The following two clauses are pretty clear on the issue:

8. Requests developed country Parties to provide developing country Parties with finance, technology and capacity-building, in accordance with decision 1/CP.16 and other relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties;

9. Decides to establish, at its nineteenth session, institutional arrangements, such as an international mechanism, including functions and modalities, elaborated in accordance with the role of the Convention as defined in paragraph 5 above, to address loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change;

Subjects like this have the potential to stall the process for years, although some may argue that the current rate of progress is little better than stalled anyway. It will also get to the issue of apportioning blame, since this is the flip side of “loss of damage”. If there is blame to share, then the only pragmatic way to do it will be on the basis of cumulative emissions, since this is the root cause of the climate issue. Unfortunately nature doesn’t know anything about emissions per $ of GDP, it just sees accumulation. Given current development rates and the size of some national populations, the cumulative national emissions league table is rapidly changing. By 2020, many of the leading nations “to blame” for the state of the climate (at least on the basis of cumulative emissions) will be today’s “developing countries” (some further thoughts on this to follow in a future post).

The parties will convene in Warsaw next year, somewhere in Latin America the year after and possibly in France in 2015 – all that seemed to be agreed without too much fuss. There will be various inter-sessional meetings in the meantime, but if a deal is really going to be agreed by 2015, something remarkable is going to have to happen. We should reflect on the fact that the noisy and messy closure of the LCA was the sad end of a process that started in Bali and was supposed to deliver a global deal. It didn’t. Perhaps Einstein was right.

In search of a new home for CERs

Two recent publications highlight the challenges ahead in the multilateral process that continues to seek an equitable global approach to the issue of growing CO2 emissions. But comparing and contrasting them illustrates the contradictions that exist as negotiators attempt to maintain existing structures and work within the spirit of the Durban agreements.

Two weeks ago, a major report issued by the High Level Panel on the CDM Policy Dialogue recommended a very broad range of actions for stabilizing and reversing the ongoing price collapse in the CER market (Certified Emission Reduction, the carbon unit within the CDM), with a view of re-establishing the CDM as the cornerstone of the global carbon market and thereby kicking off a further round of emissions mitigation action.

This week, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements issued a policy brief  which outlines the shape of the new paradigm that the UNFCCC process has hopefully entered following the creation of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action at COP 17 last December. Their ambitious interpretation of the agreement sees the Berlin Mandate effectively consigned to history (which enshrined the notion that emission reduction was effectively the responsibility of developed countries and which led to the 95-0 vote on the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in the United States Senate) and a new order emerging which results in all countries acting to manage emissions. There is no doubt that the latter interpretation is the only one that makes sense, but only time will tell if this represents the new reality. The Harvard think piece ends with the challenge;

Having broken the old mold, a new one must be formed. A mandate for change exists. Governments around the world now need fresh, outside-of-the-box ideas, and they need those ideas over the next two to three years. This is a time for fundamentally new proposals for future international climate-policy architecture, not for incremental adjustments to the old pathway.  We trust that this call will be heard by a diverse set of universities, think tanks, and advocacy and interest groups around the world.

Rescuing the CDM as recommended by the Policy Dialogue is a laudable ambition, but perhaps falls into the category of “incremental adjustments to the old pathway” rather than “outside of the box ideas”. Conversely, the Policy Dialogue proposal is attempting to stave off the collapse of the very idea of “carbon markets” by rescuing the one global example of their application. While “out of the box” thinking is certainly welcome, it is also hard to argue that we are done with carbon pricing/markets and now need something new. In fact, carbon pricing remains core to the solution.

As such, we end up with the dichotomy of needing new ideas but not wanting to see the structures of the past slip through our fingers; but should we mind that they institutionalize some of the ideas within the Berlin Mandate?

The CDM was a bold idea when conceptualized in the Kyoto Protocol, starting with the simple phrase;

A clean development mechanism is hereby defined.

But has it reached its use-by date and should it be consigned to the dustbin along with the Berlin Mandate? Unfortunately the answer is both “yes” and “no”. It does represent an era of action and financing being the responsibility of developed countries only, which is no longer a tenable paradigm within which to operate. It was designed to help developed countries meet their mitigation goals and to channel funding from developed to developing countries for the purpose of sustainable development. Yet it did demonstrate a mechanism which allowed a broader range of actors to get involved in the carbon market than those immediately impacted by the cap on allowances. This has become a design feature of more recent cap-and -trade systems, albeit with home grown offset systems.

The solution for the CDM, both to rescue the market today and to prepare it for the “out of the box” solution of tomorrow, must be to disentangle it from the Kyoto Protocol and make it available as a general offset resource under the UNFCCC, perhaps even one that any nation could use when it wants to involve part of its economy in the market without actually applying a cap to it (such as the farming sector in Australia).

Considerable resource is required to establish an offset mechanism, both in design and operation. Reinventing this multiple times around the world hardly seems like the best use of government resources, but that is what is happening. Unshackling the CDM wasn’t discussed in the Policy Dialogue report, perhaps because it then enters into the complex realm of Kyoto Protocol politics. The closest it got to this was a proposal to broaden the use of CERs.

To unlock the full potential of the CDM, all countries should be enabled to use CERs, not only those with mitigation targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

But the Kyoto Protocol represents the Berlin Mandate and, according to the Harvard Project, the new paradigm is a world without such a legacy. It also makes little sense under the accounting rules of the Kyoto Protocol to have other parties dipping into that market when their compliance obligation may be governed by another system. This leaves only the more radical approach of decoupling the CDM from the Kyoto Protocol, but then following the recommendations of the Policy Dialogue to broaden its scope and expand its use.

This also takes the CDM into the world of another discussion, that of the New Market Mechanism. Under such an approach, the CDM could migrate to become the NMM, but for all nations to use within the design of their emission trading systems.

As the NASA Curiosity rover touched down gently on Mars and began its 2+ year observation and exploration of its surrounding terrain, the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies announced the publication of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I reported on a pre-publication release of this paper back in April and was able to reproduce a much simpler version of the analysis using New York Central Park data in a more recent posting. As demonstrated by Curiosity, NASA is a formidable science based organization and one whose findings should not be taken lightly. An early version of the paper appeared back in March, before the extended heat wave experienced in the USA through most of July.

The analysis shows how the distribution of summer temperatures has shifted in recent decades, to the extent that there has been a notable change in the frequency of what were extreme outlying events. This in turn led NASA to assert that “the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave afflicting the U.S. Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming”.


As it turns out, July has been confirmed as the single hottest month ever recorded in the continental United States. The average temperature across the Lower 48 was 77.6 °F, 3.3 degrees above the 20th-century average, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported. That edged out the previous high mark, set in 1936, by two-tenths of a degree, NOAA said. In addition, the seven months of 2012 to date are the warmest of any year on record and were drier than average as well, NOAA said. U.S. forecasters started keeping records in 1895.

Some of course will question the validity of the data used by NASA GISS, but just days before their announcement came a second release of findings from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. They found that the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by 1.5 °C over the past 250 years. The Berkeley study noted that the good match between the temperature record and historical carbon dioxide suggests that the most straightforward explanation for this warming is human greenhouse gas emissions. One of their key charts is shown below.


While the analysis from NASA and the data validation from Berkeley will still not satisfy everyone, they will hopefully begin to put to rest the ongoing science controversy that seems to hamper any rational thought about the best approach to actually addressing the issue of rising levels of atmospheric CO2.

Since the creation of the UNFCCC 20 years ago after the first Earth Summit, many have lost hope that a multilateral approach can achieve anything, particularly after the setback of Copenhagen (another attempt plagued by science and temperature controversy just as world leaders gathered) and the eventual failure of that process to agree anything substantive in terms of mitigation efforts for the period 2013-2020. Yet it will ultimately only be such a multilateral approach that can eventually tackle the problem of global emissions – not necessarily to dictate to the world how to do it, but to at least set the direction and timetable for what will ultimately be a bottom up approach. No one country, region or industrial sector can solve this unilaterally. Even if the big three, China, the USA and the major EU economies acted alone (with China reaching a plateau in the short term and then reducing by 50% by 2050 and the US and EU reducing by 80% by 2050), global emissions would plateau at best (see chart below) assuming that the rest of the world emissions grew by no more than 1.5% per annum over the next 40 years (in fact they have been growing at well over 2% p.a. over recent decades). So this issue needs a response from all nations.

As the agreement at COP 17 in Durban “to try once again” gains momentum and turns into a full negotiation process it will be important to lay down foundations that might actually deliver a workable outcome. This is a subject that I hope to revisit in a number of posting between now and the end of the year.

While much of the focus in the recent UNFCCC meeting in Bonn was on the protracted discussion around agenda and chair for the ADP (Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action), some progress was made in other meeting rooms. On the middle Saturday a workshop was held for initial discussions around the call for a “New market Mechanism” (NMM). A report out from the workshop can be found here.

So far, the discussion on a NMM has tended to focus on the crediting of mitigation activities in developing countries, such as the role performed by the CDM. The talk is often about up-scaling rather than having an initial discussion about the market conditions necessary for crediting to be effective or alternatively to ask what a market mechanism actually is. For some, the CDM can be represented as shown below. 

This is a very supply biased conversation, when in fact the full description of the mechanism must include both the creation of supply and the likely demand. The mechanism is much broader than the CDM and involves the core design of the Kyoto Protocol and the various elements within it. 

There are many definitions of “market mechanism”, but all talk about the process of the whole market rather than just a sub-part within it. Here are three;

  1. Means by which the forces of demand and supply determine prices and quantities of goods and services offered for sale in a free market.
  2. The use of money exchanged by buyers and sellers with an open and understood system of value and time tradeoffs to produce the best distribution of goods and services.
  3. The process by which a market solves a problem of allocating resources, especially that of deciding how much of a good or service should be produced, but other such problems as well. The market mechanism is an alternative, for example, to having such decisions made by government.

As the NMM discussion matures and eventually becomes part of the ADP, a much broader discussion on the need for a viable carbon market will be necessary. This cannot be limited to a discussion on crediting mechanisms because these, if standing alone, are not market mechanisms. A working mechanism requires some means of establishing price and particularly demand, a feature not inherent to the CDM.

The assumption that demand for credits will somehow be created is arguably a flawed one. The Kyoto Protocol addressed this by assigning AAUs to certain countries and making the CER (from the CDM) a fungible instrument, thereby allowing interchange for compliance. The AAU approach created demand in countries that had compliance obligations which in turn completed the market mechanism. Nations that held AAUs tended to cascade the instrument directly into their economies or if not, a proxy (e.g. the EUA under the EU ETS). Either way, the compliance obligation remained and allowed private investors to participate in the market.

There was a certain elegance in the market mechanism design of the Kyoto Protocol, one that shouldn’t be lost in the transition to a new international agreement. While it may not be smart politics in some quarters to highlight the benefits within the KP, the NMM discussion will do well to learn from what was developed in years gone by and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

A Tweet to change the world

Anyone who followed COP 17 in Durban would have noticed that the UNFCCC and its Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, are active Tweeters. But one Tweet in particular opens up a key issue facing the UNFCCC – what exactly is its remit? The Tweet in question came during COP17 and said:

Global business plan has to have 3 bottom lines: adaptation, mitigation and eradication of poverty. Only way to develop that is sustainable.

This comes close to formalizing a trend that has been an undercurrent of the UNFCCC process for some years now, i.e. dealing with the issue of access to energy (and therefore poverty). There is no doubt that this is a critical global issue and in many instances is a key part of the poverty trap that numerous communities and even nations find themselves in. Access to affordable water, food, shelter and energy are the drivers of development and well-being, with energy often being the lynchpin component. The issue is also linked to the UNFCCC via the adaptation challenge.

The question at hand is not whether access to energy and poverty  should be priorities to act on, but how (or even whether) they should be part of the UNFCCC process. As an issue, poverty seems to have grown under the UNFCCC as mitigation has become increasingly challenging and developing country emissions have grown. In the latter case, the need to use energy and therefore emit CO2 has come with rapid development, which in itself is the most effective way to shift populations out of poverty.

But does all this mean that the eradication of poverty should become a core pillar of the UNFCCC, which seems to be what is happening?

There is little direct justification for such a step in the Convention itself. The words “eradication of poverty” are mentioned, but not as a goal. Rather, for certain countries, poverty acts more as a valid exemption to the requirement for mitigation action. The two instances are:

Affirming that responses to climate change should be coordinated with social and economic development in an integrated manner with a view to avoiding adverse impacts on the latter, taking into full account the legitimate priority needs of developing countries for the achievement of sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty,

The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.

Just as a reminder, the objective of the Convention is stated as follows:

The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

Based on the above, it could be argued that the eradication of poverty is a necessary precursor to action on climate change. After all, with so many nations claiming “exemption status”, mitigation action is and might remain insufficient to make real progress on lowering global emissions. But given that global energy emissions now stand at some 30 billion tonnes per annum and are rising rapidly, waiting for the eradication of poverty is a questionable strategy.

Given the above “ultimate objective”, a blank sheet of paper and the world in its current state, what should the starting point for action be? Should it be the eradication of poverty?

Harsh though it may sound, the answer is likely to be no. Dealing with poverty should be a global priority, but it probably shouldn’t be so intertwined with the need to reduce emissions and stabilize the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. From another perspective, the two issues could be argued as being largely unrelated. Africa is the poorest continent, yet if it undertook rapid development over the next 40 years with no mitigation action at all and emissions grew at 5% p.a. (well above current rates and comparable to China over the past 40 years), its cumulative emissions over that time would amount to only a tenth of the remaining atmospheric stock for CO2 that equates to a 2°C temperature rise. Meanwhile, the cumulative emissions for everyone else would have more than exceeded the stock limit remaining. In other words, the difficulties faced by Africa could be dealt with using current energy sources and the impact on the mitigation challenge would be minimal. Of course it would be better if Africa grew on a low emissions pathway, but if that remains the global focus we might win the battle and lose the war.

Crafting effective action by those who can both afford it and are relatively high emitters is no easy task, as successive COPs have demonstrated. But introducing “eradication of poverty” as a mainstream theme is unlikely to make the process any easier and quite possibly it could become a major distraction from the real task at hand – stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. By introducing poverty eradication into the core mix of UNFCCC, there is also the risk that much needed funding for emission reduction and adaptation projects is diluted. Clear lines of financial support for mitigation and adaptation under the UNFCCC and poverty eradication through other bespoke channels also helps ensure that funding is truly additional rather than being double counted.

Both challenges are extremely important and the world must address them simultaneously – but putting poverty as a core UNFCCC pillar potentially reduces the effectiveness of the one global body specifically designed to focus on climate change.

After two busy weeks, the Durban COP was extended by a full day and then went well into a second, with long nights of negotiation along the way. Eventually a deal emerged which has polarized both the media and blogsphere between being the salvation of mankind or the quick route to runaway warming. In reality it is neither, but if that is the case then where are we?

First the good news. After years of discussion, stalling and negotiation the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is now able to accept Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects. This important technology now has the opportunity for global use under a clear set of rules that all countries have sanctioned. Of course there remains the ongoing issue of the low price of CERs, largely driven by the weakness of the EU-ETS, but at least the CDM will continue to exist thanks to a Durban agreement on the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, albeit with a limited set of players. If nothing else, the “CCS in CDM” agreement puts CCS properly on the radar and hopefully paves the way for implementation through other means, such as via the Green Climate Fund. 

In addition to the move on CCS, the Green Climate Fund and Technology Mechanism both made useful progress. In comparison to expectations going into Durban, the COP could be regarded as something of a success. But these are small steps to take for a two week conference which attracts some 10,000 people (including observers). Of course the real objective is to make a major step forward and agree a way for all parties to begin rapidly reducing emissions.

What then of the agreement in Durban to negotiate a new protocol (or another legal instrument or a legal outcome) by 2015 at the latest, for implementation by 2020? From the perspective of large scale mitigation action involving all the major emitters, this is good news, but given the reality of the rate of increase in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, the story is really very different.

In a 2009 posting, I discussed the issue of a 2°C objective on the basis of CO2 behaving like a stock pollutant in the atmosphere (Allen et al, Nature, April 2009). For a 50% chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C, the stock of CO2 should not rise above 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (or 3.667 trillion tonnes of CO2). This provides a useful way of assessing the impact of the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”. Consider four cases;

  1. The “do nothing” base case which sees emissions continue to rise at the rate of 2% per annum (global emissions increased by 2.5% p.a. over the period 2000 to 2009 – IEA) and accumulate in the atmosphere. This sees the trillionth tonne emitted in 2044 with continued rapid accumulation in the decades following.
  2. A dramatic (but of course hypothetical) deal in Durban which sees global emissions peak immediately and begin to fall at 1.7% p.a., the same rate of decline as currently built into the EU ETS. In this case the trillionth tonne is emitted just after 2100, but emissions are very low by this time and still falling, so the 2°C limit is effectively met.
  3. Business as usual continues until 2020, but the “Durban Platform” acts aggressively on global emissions post-2020, with emissions peaking in that year and then falling. To achieve the same outcome as Case 2 the annual rate of decline must now be 3% p.a.
  4. Business as usual continues until 2020, with the “Durban Platform” resulting in a global plateau in emissions from 2020 to 2030, then falling after that. Now the rate of decline must be over 4.5% p.a. to achieve the same outcome as Case 2. 

While the agreement to start negotiating again with a view towards implementation of a global plan from 2015/2020 must be seen as a positive development, the time lag now built into the process must equally be a cause for concern. There is nothing easy about emissions and the future, but starting the job today is an essential requirement for meeting the 2°C goal – this was also the clear message from the IEA (International Energy Agency) going into COP 17. A theoretical global decline of 1.7% p.a. is at least still within the bounds of technical (but clearly not political)plausibility, although only just, but arguably a reduction rate of 3% or 4.5% is beyond an achievable outcome. Even the financial crisis only managed to deliver a 1.4% reduction from 2008 to 2009 before emissions bounced back in 2010. A 3% p.a. decline from 2020 requires more than a billion tonnes per annum of reduction – or the startup of at least 130 very large CCS facilities that year and then each year after that. A 4.5% p.a. decline is considerably more difficult to achieve.

The above cases 3 and 4 which both represent a robust deal coming from the “Durban Platform” are also very optimistic given the track record of the UNFCCC negotiations and perhaps of greater concern, the track record of national implementation of agreements made.

Nevertheless, Durban may well be seen as a landmark COP and it may just mark the point at which attitudes change, but the shape of the outcome also makes the challenge ahead that much greater.