Climate carbon negotiations: a black hole, and a new idea

If there is no post-Kyoto climate deal, of the kind attempted at Copenhagen, few if any will care. Jeanette Fitzsimons, back in the country and back at work, tells Pundit why she doubts Kyoto and the ETS can help us. She wants to start again

It turns out that Copenhagen was, in fact, more of a failure than we knew: it was not the destination some hoped, not even another milestone, but a rock in the road so large that we may need to take another route.

The first Kyoto Protocol commitment period ends in 2012, with nothing so far to replace it. Kyoto, which makes developed countries cut or pay for some of their emissions, has been a key part, to date, of international climate change response. But in fact, if there is no post-Kyoto deal, in the sense that we currently understand that idea, it seems that few will care. Nobody really wants that particular kind of deal any more, but for very different reasons.

Climate sceptics and ‘realists’ have never wanted a response. Nor have politicians really, watching their economic backs, and their votes. But now even some of the advocates, after two decades of largely failed and flawed negotiations, are saying we need to do something different.

Sooner or later, then, Kyoto seems doomed, if there is nobody left to fight for it. Either the talks will fold, or produce a response that is not robust in real climate terms. And if anyone is still willing to stand up for it, it may be for all the wrong reasons, because of the further opportunities for denial and prevarication it offers them.

We need to start figuring out what to do instead, because doing nothing is not an option. The stakes have never been higher. There is no time, five years out from the point at which emissions need to peak. Massive damage to political and public goodwill seems inevitable, from any decision to scrap it all and start again. The risk is that we slip back into in-fighting and inertia.

To understand why anyone, especially Fitzsimons, would advocate this, it’s necessary to understand that Kyoto’s risks are now seen as even greater.

Since Kyoto was signed, international climate change policy has become, essentially, a carbon trading policy: liability for emissions over caps set under the Protocol; along with a general move towards emissions trading schemes, to allow polluters to trade, and limit their liability.

At Copenhagen, countries did two things: they signed up to an accord to limit global warming to two degrees, or 450 parts per million (ppm) greenhouse gas in the atmosphere; and made pledges about per country reductions.

There are doubts, anyway, that atmospheric CO2 of 450 ppm is enough to avoid dangerous climate change, but even assuming that it is, Kyoto (and Copenhagen, etc) will not deliver it.

The Sustainability Council’s Simon Terry (co-author of The Carbon Challenge, with Geoff Bertram) has reviewed international literature on the pledges. There is, he says, close agreement across all of those independent studies that, taken at face value, the pledges commit to reducing developed country emissions to between 12 and 18% below 1990 levels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended a 25-40% cut. The combined pledges are not only, therefore, too low; the IPCC based its conclusions on outdated science. The only thing certain about the science seems to be that projections for emissions, and their effects, consistently turn out worse than expected. A reduction on 1990 levels of 25-40% would not be enough, in other words, and the promises made are far less.

There are also so many things that are ‘hot air’ or don’t count under the Kyoto accounting rules that in effect, by the time all those hidden emissions are factored in, Terry warns there may be no cuts at all, in real atmospheric terms.

The loopholes include so-called ‘hot air’, from eastern European economies’ collapse, shortly after the 1990 base year. International aviation and shipping emissions, up 60% since 1990 and set to double by 2020, are not counted under the Protocol; there are also proposed force majeure exclusions, for carbon-emitting wildfires. Subject to negotiations still in progress, parties may be able to choose what land use changes to account for, or not (eg, soil carbon, forestation), and fiddle the books in other ways.

For this, and other reasons, a growing number (and a critical mass?) are losing or have lost faith in the process. They believe this toxic mix of politics and creative accounting around Kyoto guarantees only one thing: that we will fail, because the climate cares about neither. Kyoto’s past performance shows:

  1. Endless arguments about who is responsible for what — for example, should China be responsible for emissions generated, in manufacturing consumer goods for export?
  2. Measurement problems, in quantifying emissions and their reductions, to put a price on them. For example, the formulae for converting the other five greenhouse gases to CO2 equivalents (the basis for Kyoto accounting) are uncertain, and could be confounded, by big margins of error.
  3. Countries setting their targets pragmatically, by what they can achieve and are politically prepared to wear, without any reference to what is necessary to meet the policy objective of avoiding dangerous climate change.
  4. Emissions trading schemes ‘smoothing’ the transition to a low carbon economy — postponing it, in other words, by giving polluters an option to keep externalising their sunk costs. Emissions trading schemes are another delaying tactic, not a response.

“If governments wish to adhere to the FCCC mandate of avoiding dangerous climate change, a new approach is required,” Terry concludes. He is referring to the 1992 framework convention on climate change, and believes that mechanisms in addition to the FCCC negotiations are going to be needed.

Fitzsimons, having been at Copenhagen, agrees with the thrust of all this: “Whatever the small signs of hope,” she says, “there are certainly very good grounds for being very very worried.” And, “A number of us were already aware of this at Copenhagen, and it is a reason for the widespread disillusion among climate activists since.”

The framework convention, which says all countries should reduce emissions and protect sinks, and that developed countries should act first, remains a worthwhile base on which to build, in her view. “Those principles are still right, and we shouldn’t throw them out.” But she now doubts the Kyoto framework:

I have defended it up to now because it is the only international agreement on the table and better to work with what you have, than nothing. And if countries had signed up to 25-40% below 1990 and developing countries had made initial commitments in return, it would have been worth continuing. But I’m thinking we need a new approach.

Perhaps a better alternative measure, she suggests, is ‘stocks’: how much coal we agree to leave in the ground, for example, and how much forest is protected or restored.

Another critique of the international emissions focus, to date, and the trading frameworks, is that they are distracting us from the real problem. We are extracting quantities of fossil fuel that no amount of ‘complementary’ measures — all the efficient light bulbs in the world, home insulation, forest plantations, and so on — can fix, because fossil carbon and active carbon are fundamentally different things.

We are not exchanging like for like, in other words. Fossil fuels such as coal and oil are locked away, underground, but once released, by us, digging them up and burning them, fossil carbon becomes part of the active carbon pool that circulates between trees, soil, water and atmosphere, and there is simply not capacity above-ground to absorb it. Storing carbon in a tree, for example, is by no means the same thing as leaving it in the ground.

James Hansen, renowned NASA climate scientist, says we should cut off access to coal at source, because it is “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet”. Tim Flannery, who visited NZ recently, has said the same: “There is so much carbon buried in the world’s coal seams [alone] that, should it find its way back to the surface, it would make the planet hostile to life as we know it.”

And for anyone else who has thrilled with horror, watching Russian antics in the Arctic, turning the melting of the polar ice cap into an opportunity to claim the territory and exploit its oil reserves:

Trying to bring the frozen wastelands around the North Pole into the global economy involves two huge risks: catastrophic climate change, and a major war. It isn’t worth it … There’s only one sensible response: a complete ban … The logic of the industry appears to be this: fossil fuels create global warming, which melts the polar ice cap, which is sort of handy — even if upsetting for the polar bears — because it means that, with all that stupid ice out of the way, we can start drilling for more oil. And once we get it out, and start burning it, it will further melt the ice and make even more oil accessible … A ban on mining and drilling in the Arctic is the only way.

[Dominion Post “Mad grab for oil’s last frontier” Thursday September 30, not online]

It’s what I said here, diffidently, about our own government’s policies, joined here by Mr Monbiot, with a great deal more conviction.

Fitzsimons proposes taking it one step further, though: not just stopping the drilling and mining, but making this the founding principle. “Is that the subject of a better international agreement?” she wonders. “It is much much harder than annual emissions ... I am not optimistic about it being adopted.”

Why on earth would you propose it, then? Has she lost her nerve? But, like climate change itself, we may have reached the point where the risks of the status quo loom so large, something different has to be tried; and speaking out on that is brave in my view, not stupid.