Global Diplomacy With Climate Crisis

International haggling over climate change has put the Kyoto Protocol, Paris Agreement and  Conference of Parties’ pledges in doldrum

By Sankar Ray

  • 48 years after the Stockholm Conference, climate change has only worsened for a majority of the seven and a half billion human beings
  • Earlier COP witnessed a standoff between USA and Europe, which will have some common grounds to fight for
  • “Code red for humanity” – the IPCC has shown that the world is likely to hit 1.5C by the early 2030s
  • The UN estimates that the combined cut from national pledges made by rich countries, barring the US, is 16-23 percent

THE environmental problems of developing countries are not the side effects of excessive industrialisation but reflect the inadequacy of development. The rich countries may look upon development as the cause of environmental destruction, but to us, it is one of the primary means of improving the environment for the living or providing food, water, sanitation and shelter, of making the deserts green and the mountains habitable.

The words above have not been penned by this scribe but were of the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm on June 14, 1972. The last anti-US Prime Minister of India, albeit partially equivocal, expressed her concern for mankind genuinely, as the planet we live in has not changed in the direction she envisioned but turned for the worse in the 48 years in between for a majority of the seven and a half billion human beings inhabiting this world.

For those who visited the high altitude villages of Tokyo and Asrang about a decade ago, the sight is pleasant: there are now terraces full of apple trees which, when they bear fruit, bring in a kind of colour and aroma the villagers had never experienced before. And they are told that this change has been ushered in by climate change.

They were and are guinea pigs of nearly a three-decade failed experience of neo-liberal globalisation by mega-corps that played a hegemonic role in the drafting of the media-hyped Kyoto Protocol. Professor Barry Brook; Sir Hubert Wilkins, Chair (Professor) of Climate Change and Director of the University’s Research Institute for Climate Change & Sustainability; Professor Tim Flannery (Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council, and Division of Environmental and Life Sciences, Macquarie University) and Nick Rowley (former adviser to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and now Director of Kinesis Pty Ltd, a climate change and sustainability consultancy company) who have been among staunch supporters of Kyoto Protocol wrote a letter jointly to the journal Nature a few years ago, defending Kyoto as ‘a valiant first attempt to tackle global carbon emissions’.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (COP 3) in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997 remains stuck as the superpowers do not want it to be legally binding

Activists termed the letter as attuned to the megacorps whose religion is a rising trend of super-profits. Brook and his co-signatories too admitted that the Protocol eludes the international community and isn’t ‘enough to make a breakthrough with climate change’. But as incorrigible optimists, they look forward to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Australia, which “would rightly acknowledge that climate change is an international and non-partisan crisis”, but warned, “this step should not be seen as an end in itself”.

SUBDUED PESSIMISM

However, Professor Brook stated with subdued pessimism that Kyoto in its current form “is not enough to create the low-emissions transformation in the global economy that is required to tackle the climate problem successfully”. It was rather harsh to have concluded that those climate scientists sided with mega TNCs and financial megaliths as they snapped fingers at Kyoto’s inadequacies suggesting that “the harder and more vital job is building on it to achieve a more effective and adequate one”.

Nonetheless, these scientists took 20 years to realise that the Protocol was congenitally rickety, during phase 2. And they admit the folly. “It takes 20 years for new technologies to get to market time we do not have. What we need are tools (such as a cost for carbon through market incentives and emissions trading) that facilitate rapid uptake of existing clean technologies,” the letter states, adding further, “The market is awash with investment funds and good policy is needed to unlock them.”

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (COP 3) in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997. On paper, it shared the objective and institutions of the Convention, although there was a basic distinction between the two. The Convention encouraged industrialised countries to stabilise emissions of greenhouse gases but the Protocol committed them to do so.

It was based on the principles and provisions of the Convention and followed its annexe-based structure. It only bound developed countries, and placed a heavier burden on them under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”, because it recognizes that they are largely responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

The detailed rules for its implementation were adopted at COP 7 in Marrakesh in 2001, and are called the ‘Marrakesh Accords’. It placed a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on 16 February 2005 and to date, 192 Parties have ratified the treaty. Leading the countries that didn’t do so is the USA. Environmentalists were shocked when signs of withdrawal were already manifest, with Canada quitting.

CONFERENCE OF THE PARTIES (COP)

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the main decision-making body of the UNFCCC. It includes representatives of all the countries that are signatories (or ‘Parties’) to the UNFCCC. COP assesses the effects of measures introduced by the Parties to limit climate change against the overall goal of the UNFCCC. A key task for the COP is to review the national communications and emission inventories submitted by Parties.

The COP meets every year, unless the Parties decide otherwise. The first COP meeting was held in Berlin, Germany in March 1995. The CMP meeting happens at the same time as COP and includes the 192 countries that are party to the Kyoto Protocol. This treaty commits its signatories to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to individual targets. The agreements under the Kyoto Protocol are legally binding, whereas UNFCCC agreements are voluntary. COP 22 had taken place, and in practice, every one of them yielded nothing but a pious platitude.

COP 23 took place in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017 on an optimistic tune, as the host government was formally committed to climate action in sync with the European consensus against recalcitrance in the main from the USA, Japan and Canada to agree to implement planned cut in carbon emission. COP23 made significant progress toward clear and comprehensive implementation guidelines for the Paris Agreement, which will make the agreement operational. These guidelines will help governments plan their economies, and give confidence to investors and businesses that the low-carbon economy is here to stay.

COP24 was hosted in a region of Poland that is heavily dependent on the coal industry for employment and energy highlighted the important need to ensure a ‘just transition’ to a low-carbon economy, i.e. making changes to cleaner environmental living whilst minimising the potential negative impacts for communities like this, which are dependent on fossil fuel industries. Friends of the Earth International Chair Meena Raman said very aptly: “Around the world, millions of people are already suffering the effects of climate change. People outside the talks have sent a strong message demanding climate justice. This message must no longer fall on deaf ears.”

The global temperature has already risen 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. The more, the adamancy of Washington to effectively agree to slash emission of carbon dioxide (CO2), the more remote the chances of reaching out at an adiabatic equilibrium. The goal of Paris was to keep temperatures well under another 1 degree Celsius by 2100.

The Paris climate deal, inked by some 200 countries at the end of COP21 at Le Bourget, north of Paris around mid-December, 2015 was lauded as “historic,” “sweeping,” and “ambitious” anticipating the world into a post-fossil-fuel milieu with less-than-2°C-warming by 2020, but remains a will-o-the-wisp as the decisions are legally “non-binding.”

 According to the UN estimate, the combined cut from national pledges made by rich countries, barring the US, is 16-23 per cent, But another scan by the Alliance of Small Island States, estimates this to drop at anywhere between 11 and 18 per cent, keeping in mind the US offer. Thus if industrialised countries offset large amounts of emissions, as expected, the rich countries might not have to make any emissions cuts at home.

BIG NATIONS’ TANTRUMS

COP 23, the second “conference of the parties” since the Paris Agreement was struck in 2015, promised to be a somewhat technical affair as countries continued to negotiate the finer details of how the agreement will work from 2020 onwards. However, it was also the first set of negotiations since the US, under the presidency of Donald Trump, announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris deal. And it was the first COP to be hosted by a small-island developing state with Fiji taking up the presidency, even though it was being held in Bonn.

The COP 23 was to witness a tough debate, meaning that the process of slow climate change continued to suffer from a weak pace, more so as there was no provision for setting up penalties within the framework of the agreement. 

The 45th US President Donald Trump was openly against the commitment to climate change, having edged out all his predecessors beginning with Bill Clinton. Paul Hawken, the initiator of the Project Drawdown, which launched a direct attack on the increase of GHG, supported this point very cogently in an interview: “The United States had never been a leader in climate: not Obama, not Clinton, not the Bushes. We tried to be, but the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent initiatives were shut down by Congress. We didn’t lose our leadership – because we never had it on the federal level.” 

The severe additional impacts of warming at 2C, rather than the lower Paris limit, had become increasingly clear, not least via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C, published in 2018

Germany is a leader, Europe is a leader and China now is a leader and understands it very well. Another reason was that these initiatives didn’t come from the federal government. They came from the private sector – from individuals, nonprofits, and the business community. People did not change their behaviour because of the Trump administration. They’re not going to un-install their solar panels. They’re not going to stop saving money when it’s cheaper to have a solar panel than conventional utility rates. I don’t think anything could have been better for the issue of global warming than the Trump presidency.” 

The Trump administration was unashamedly dedicated to coal and oil, in contrast to the rest of the world investing in cutting-edge 21st-century technologies. China, on the contrary, “is spending $360 billion on renewables — mostly solar, with some wind and hydro — by 2020,” says Brandon Wu, US director of climate policy and campaigns for London-based Action Aid. The Chinese President Xi Jinping reasserted his commitment to the Paris Agreement and to a steady transition from the coal-fired power plants, which shrouded the Chinese cities in smog. 

Sources affirmed that China’s leadership and US fossil fuel retrenchment could freeze America out of clean energy international markets that would likely cost domestic jobs and global credibility.  The two goals set for the COP by the Fijian Presidency advanced work on the Paris Agreement implementation guidelines, and agreed on the design of the Talanoa Dialogue, named after a Pacific storytelling tradition that fosters empathy and trust – were met. 

2020 was the critical year for climate action on two fronts. It was the deadline for emissions reduction commitments made by developed countries in 2008 and 2009 (at Cancun and Copenhagen). It was also the deadline for the $100 billion in finance to be provided to developing countries, a commitment made by developed countries in Paris.

Rather China, the largest polluting nation, spewing 8751.31 tonnes CO2 of a day, had the guts to call this a sabotage a couple of months before the Copenhagen meet in the first week of December 2009. 

LEGAL STICKS

A brainchild of James Thornton, a Yale University-educated former Wall Street lawyer who decided to bring an American-style approach to legal activism to Europe, ClientEarth, based in the USA and set up in 2007, makes an unorthodox companion to the campaign-focused NGOs that litter the European lobbying landscape, and to the European tradition of using public protests to force government change. ClientEarth’s backers granted it £6.6 million in 2015, including from the US-based McIntosh Foundation, the Netherlands-based Adessium Foundation and the European Climate Foundation, a grouping of 13 other foundations. The unorthodox approach of ClientEarth is working. Sixty ClientEarth lawyers across London, Brussels and Warsaw are taking numerous governments to task over their failures on air pollution, chemical regulations and transparency.

But there is a unity of approach between the USA, Japan and Canada on the one hand and Europe (including the UK) on the other hand climate-as-molecules and prices-as-natural-signals fused in the hybrid system of carbon trading, which proved to be one of the neoliberalism’s landmark innovations.

Both the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon market and the EU ETS combined “bubble” and “offset” systems, allowing for the circulation of a huge variety of interchangeable tokens or units of pollution compensation. Climate market proponent, Pedro Moura Costa of Brazil’s Bolsa Verde, said the idea was to “transform environmental legislation into tradable instruments”. This is a deceptive transaction for millions of GHG-hit people. That is another but the real battle for social and economic transformation which is against the UNFCCC.

OUTCOMES

In the months before COP26, people on every continent had felt the visceral impacts of a changing climate at just 1.1C of global warming, being hit by floods, wildfires, storms or heat waves. The talks had also suffered under the cloud of Covid, which first delayed them for a year and then, for months, placed a question mark over them taking place at all, let alone in person. Continuing restrictions due to Covid had made it impossible for some to reach Glasgow, while observers faced many challenges accessing the negotiations. The economic impacts of the pandemic also cast a shadow, having reduced incomes, cutting into government budgets and pushing many into poverty, particularly in developing countries. 

According to Carbon Brief, last year’s COP – the fifth since COP21 in Paris – were seen as particularly important, with countries due to have brought stronger pledges under the Paris Agreement’s “ratchet” mechanism. Some 151 countries had responded by submitting new or updated documents. “The 1.5C ambition had been squeezed into the Paris Agreement in “the last hour of the last day” of COP21, according to Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation (which funds Carbon Brief) and a key architect of the deal, speaking at a COP26 press conference. The severe additional impacts of warming at 2C, rather than the lower Paris limit, had become increasingly clear, not least via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C, published in 2018.

The global temperature has already risen 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. The more, the adamancy of Washington to effectively agree to slash emission of carbon dioxide (CO2), the more remote the chances of reaching out at an adiabatic equilibrium

In the first part of its sixth assessment report, published in August and described as “code red for humanity”, the IPCC has shown that the world is likely to hit 1.5C by the early 2030s. Against this backdrop, negotiators were due to arrive in Glasgow to adopt a series of dense, technical decisions to finalise the Paris “rulebook”, including new emissions reporting rules for all countries from 2024 and the Article 6 carbon markets nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) to the UN – including China. The UNFCCC states that the annual COP26 serves two main purposes: to review the implementation of the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, respectively.

To adopt decisions to further develop and implement these three instruments. Specific objectives are also set for each COP.  Before COP26, four goals that needed to be achieved were set out. These were to secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 C degrees within reach by: accelerating the phase-out of coal: curtailing deforestation: speeding up the switch to electric vehicles and encouraging investment in renewables. But to achieve these pledges all the countries need to support it.  

However,  according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in order to maintain the goal of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, all financing of new fossil fuel projects must be stopped immediately. The Oil Change International campaign group has calculated that between 2018 and 2020, G20 countries alone provided $188 billion in financing for overseas oil, coal and gas projects. Despite also agreeing on processes towards a new global goal on adaptation, a new climate finance goal from 2025 and loss and damage finance, the talks can easily have been seen as an irrelevance against what the US and China jointly calls the “climate crisis”. 

Sankar Ray

Sankar Ray is a senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazine, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics in India and abroad.

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