The Paris conference will deliver only paper promises on global warming
by Gordon Campbell
The last time the global community tried to take collective action on climate change – in 2009 in Copenhagen – the world’s leaders finally came to agree that every not-too-onerous effort should be made to hold global warming to 2°C above the pre-industrial average. At Copenhagen, the Small Island Developing States (SIDs) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) raised their concerns that their very survival would depend on a 1.5°C upper limit. The world promised to look into that.
So far, the scientists appointed to look into it – they’re fetchingly called the Structured Expert Dialogue (SED) – have found that yes indeed, the 2°C limit is too warm for many of the world’s vulnerable eco-systems and regions, and a 1.5°C limit would be significantly safer. Devising policies that will achieve anything like those targets is the challenge now facing the delegates to the climate change conference in Paris that kicks off on November 30. Luckily for planet Earth, this process will not depend on New Zealand leading the way.
Why do I say that? At Paris, all 150 participant countries nations will have put forward their pledges (they’re called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) that set out how they plan to combat climate change. In early July 2015, New Zealand tabled its INDC target which is to cut emissions by a paltry 11% on 1990 levels, by 2030. On the information available, this is the second weakest contribution ( next to that of Canada’s previous government) of any nation in the developed world.
Now that Canada’s new leaders have announced a firm commitment to climate change action, New Zealand will be heading into the Paris conference at the very bottom of the class among developed countries, and with the trends heading in the wrong direction. On current settings, New Zealand’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions will surpass those of the United States by 2025. As the authoritative Climate Action Tracker site stated in its analysis of our INDC paper:
“If most other countries were to follow New Zealand’s approach, global warming would exceed 3–4°C ; a world that would see oceans acidifying, coral reefs dissolving, sea levels rising rapidly, and more than 40% species extinction.”
True, as Climate Action Tracker concedes, there is as yet no cost-effective solution available for New Zealand’s farm-based methane emissions. (Nitrous oxide emissions from fertilisers, everything else associated with intensive dairying are a quite different saga of culpable neglect.) Also, the main growth in New Zealand’s emissions since 1990 has occurred in transport, energy use in manufacturing and other areas of the economy – but without the New Zealand government making any substantive policy response. Climate Action Tracker again :
There are virtually no policies in place to address the fastest-growing sources of emissions in New Zealand from transport and industrial sources, which comprise over 50% of the growth in emissions (excluding forestry) in New Zealand since 1990.
Luckily for New Zealand, we’ll be only a small fish in a very big pond in Paris. Individual nations will not be taken aside and pilloried for their (lack of) action and ambition at this conference. Moreover, despite our purely nominal response to what is a global problem, New Zealand seems likely to be heavily involved in the politicking surrounding at the Paris meeting. Under the so-called ‘New Zealand proposal,’ nations will be asked from the outset to embrace purely voluntary targets with a promise to review their progress at some future date.
To Greens co-leader James Shaw, this – in effect – amounts to conceding defeat before the starting gun. “It is a case of claiming credit for taking the lowest common denominator approach. [Climate Change Minister] Tim Groser’s approach has been to propose a completely flaccid agreement, which is non-binding. Individual countries pledge what they think they can do and at some future point they’ll merely be asked : ‘Hey, how ya doin’? Like to do a bit more ? Maybe a bit less?’”
In practice, this level of pragmatism puts New Zealand at some risk. Few other countries have based their tourism brand on claiming to be environmentally pure and eco-responsible. At Paris, the spotlight will be on what steps countries are willing to take for planetary health and survival. To be seen as dragging our feet and being ultra-pragmatic at the world’s premier attempt to combat global warming involves taking a huge economic – and moral – risk.
On RNZ’s Insight programme about the Paris conference earlier this month, Adrian Macey – New Zealand’s former climate change ambassador and former chief trade negotiator – outlined what he expected the main outcome in Paris would be. Macey envisaged a core legal agreement – which would be, he said, legally binding – sitting alongside the INDC targets put forward by each country. These voluntary targets will be subject to regular review, and measured against the 2°C target.
Don’t get your hopes up about the “legally binding” bit. Anything decided at Paris will only be ’ binding” under international law, which is more like the rules of love than your mortgage contract with the bank. Meaning : if you act like a climate change cad after Paris, you may feel bad and could well cop a lot of dirty looks, but you won’t be subject to any formal penalties that you can’t walk away from.
Macey confirmed as much to Werewolf. So.. Paris won’t be looking to create a binding, sanction-backed regime ? “ No, clearly not,” Macey relied, “ That’s a difference between Kyoto and the Paris agreement. Binding sanction-backed regimes do not have the slightest chance of being the result from Paris. You need to look no further than the fact such a regime is unacceptable to the largest [greenhouse] gas emitters…”
So, what kind of item is likely to find its way into the core agreement ? Only the Mom & apple pie stuff, it would seem. As Macey says, this part of the Paris deal won’t be much different from what’s already in the Climate Change Convention and/or Kyoto Protocol, save that the level of stabilising emissions will probably be formally quantified as at the 2 degree level. Unlike James Shaw, Macey feels positive about the “ New Zealand proposal” being peddled by Tim Groser. What mystifies Macey is how New Zealand got to claim IP rights on what is, in his view, a pretty obvious idea – namely, to keep the various INDCs separate from the core legal treaty.
To Macey – and to Groser – this route recognises the realpolitik of the situation. A year ago, China and the United States reached a landmark – and voluntary – deal to limit emissions. In Paris. China would almost certainly never agree to be legally bound by specific targets, and the US Congress would hardly endorse a one-sided binding target for the US, without China doing likewise. No, Macey doesn’t buy the Greens argument that New Zealand has prematurely helped set the bar at Paris far too low, right from the start.
Macey: “We really needed some framework for an acceptable outcome. Otherwise, [as at Copenhagen] the core of the negotiations could get totally bogged down in detail.” Shouldn’t the delegates have been put under a bit of pressure to angst over the issue of binding targets? “Well, then you would have less time to develop the transparency and accountability regime. You had to leave behind that binding/non binding ambiguity and – as Tim Groser says – get everyone on the bus first.” Even if out in the real world, this could well mean that everyone else misses the bus on climate change.
Where Macey does feel genuinely critical of the New Zealand government is over its all-too-evident unwillingness to conduct an informed public debate, or to be transparent about the modeling and reasoning that has gone into formulating New Zealand’s INDC position. These are major failings, he believes, in a process where the accountability mechanisms – such as they are – depend totally on transparency. Macey’s blog post criticisms of this point can be found here.
Well… does the government actually want an informed public debate, or is it more interested in using secrecy as a tool to manage the politics of climate change – much as it has done with the TPP ? Macey answers only obliquely, by pointing to procedures in train that are soon likely to force the hand of central government. Namely : next year’s review of the Emissions Trading Scheme. Also : the pace of technological change, which is making climate- friendly practices more readily affordable. And finally, Macey has encountered a growing sense in business – and it would seem, among exporters in European markets – that we have to lift our game on climate change. “They’re looking for more from central government.”
Meanwhile, New Zealand is taking an INDC to Paris that may not even be legally valid. It proposes to use accounting – and access to greenhouse gas credits – available only to signatories to Kyoto’s second round. Problem being, New Zealand didn’t sign up to the second round. This problem crops up at the end of Climate Action Tracker’s damning analysis of the New Zealand INDC:
• Based on current policies NZ emissions per capita, while likely to remain stable at around 17 tonnes of CO2e per person (or decrease slightly), are set to surpass those of the US by around 2025. US per capita emissions in 2012 were 20.6 tonnes of CO2e per person and decreasing steadily. This reflects the underlying reality that while the United States is taking action on climate change with a wide range of policies, New Zealand has few policies in place to cut emissions, and has no emissions cap in its domestic Emission Trading System (ETS).
• If New Zealand applies the rules it is proposing to use after 2020 to account for its Kyoto surplus and forestry credits, its overall agriculture, energy, waste and industrial greenhouse gas emissions could increase to 11% above 1990 levels by 2030;
• New Zealand’s proposed 2030 INDC target is not on a direct path to its 50% reduction by 2050 goal, unlike other major economies such as the EU and the USA. But New Zealand’s 2050 goal is also insufficient, and would require a 45% reduction by 2030 below 2005 levels (30% below 1990).
• There are virtually no policies in place to address the fastest-growing sources of emissions in New Zealand from transport and industrial sources, which comprise over 50% of the growth in emissions (excluding forestry) in New Zealand since 1990.
• While New Zealand has not agreed to accept a legally binding commitment for the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, yet it appears to be planning to apply accounting rules that carry over surplus units from the first commitment period. This is something that is available to countries with commitments under the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, but not those without a commitment, like New Zealand. The legal basis upon which New Zealand is seeking to rely upon these accounting rules is therefore unclear.
So we’re aiming to use credits to which we’re not entitled, to enable us to proceed on a business-as-usual basis during the 2020-2030 period. The sleight of hand involved is all but acknowledged by the wording in the New Zealand INDC document – which says the New Zealand position is only provisional pending “full and final agreement on the accounting rules/guidelines to apply” to the accounting rules for the land sector and access to carbon markets, or “ confirmation in Paris that accounting rules agreed post-Paris will not be applied retroactively.” Meaning : if Paris proves to be a stickler on the greenhouse gas accounting rules, then (a) we won’t be held to our own INDC commitments, and (b) if Paris sets new rules that allow us to proceed as planned, it had better not impose retrospective penalties for how we’ve bent the rules.
That, at least, is what Dr Marcia Rocha from Climate Analytics seems to be saying : “Unusually, New Zealand’s INDC is stated as being provisional pending confirmation in or after Paris of the accounting rules for the land sector and access to carbon markets. However, New Zealand may struggle to secure the rules that it needs to allow its emissions to continue increasing, which raises another question: what would New Zealand’s target be if its preferred rule-set fails to materialise?” Good question.
So, who will be the main players in Paris ? Sweden is being touted as a likely go-between in the dealings between the main emitters, and the developing world. Reportedly, Sweden has promised about $US580 million over four years to the Green Climate Fund, which is set to become a conduit of more than $100 billion a year in aid for developing nations by 2020, from public and private sources in First World economies.
At 55 pages, the conference basic negotiating document in Paris is smaller than the 300 page behometh that finally sank Copenhagen. Even so, it won’t be plain sailing:
“A lot of ministers are not happy that the text is so full of brackets so close to the meeting,” Sweden’s Environment Minister Asa Romson told reporters late on Monday as ministers gathered for warm-up talks. An updated draft text of an accord has whittled down a final text by about half to cover 55 pages, but it still has 1,490 brackets marking points of disagreement and remains far longer than hoped.
To date, a chronic difficulty has been that climate mitigation is still widely seen to be the enemy of poverty reduction, which largely depends on policies that promote economic growth. Recently though, a convergence of sorts has been occurring between the developed and developing world on the need for collective action – driven in part by the evidence on where the rapid growth in emissions in currently coming from :
Between 1850 and 2012, the United States and Europe produced 45% of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere, compared to 18% from China and India, according to the non-profit organization Climate Analytics. Based on current practices, it is projected that by 2020, China alone will produce 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, India 7% the United States 13% and the European Union 8% Climate change action by China and India is now critical.
The November 2014 voluntary accord between the US and China, and the China/India emissions reduction negotiations this year are steps in recognition of this situation. Probably too late and too little, but not inevitably the case. The feasible outcome from Paris, Macey believes, will be a system to ensure that the greenhouse gas inventories of countries are accurate and verifiable by the global policeman on such matters – which happens to be the Secretariat for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. As genuine global and/or regional emissions trading schemes begin to emerge during the next decade, they will set a realistic price on carbon – and in all lielhoodf, this will well north of the $50 a ton that the Treasury calculate its estimates for New Zealand.
It will then be up to the UNFCCC to determine for instance – where the credits being claimed are real, and not the junk 20 cents a ton variety. Double counting is also an issue., Macey points out. “ If I buy some units friom Burkina Faso and count them against my targets, I don’t want Burkina Faso to be claiming them as well.”
All of this sounds like a response – and a system – that’s going to be far too slow for those Pacific islands sinking beneath the rising sea, or for those countries being battered by hyper-cyclones. Macey can see the problem. At Paris, he says, there will be a lot of talk – and cost analysis – of the co-operation required on mitigation and adaptation, on transfer of technology, capacity building and loss and damage : “Countries will be expecting compensation for extreme events…”
Naturally, Macey adds by way of an aside, New Zealand tends to focus on what global warming and rising sea levels may do to the Pacific. This recent report by Jan Wright, the Environment Commissioner, is a sober and balanced assessment of how and where New Zealand cities, transport links and low lying regions stand to be affected by a fairly modest rise in sea levels.
Yet in Vietnam and in Bangladesh, Macey continues, the people those who stand to be affected (by rising sea levels) number in the tens of millions, and not just the hundreds of thousands at risk in the Pacific. At Paris, the world can’t afford to be complacent about muddling though somehow. “We can’t assume that if it looks like we’re going to miss the target….we’ll go and help you build higher sea walls. We need to get this stuff done.”
Finally, the ordinary observer could be forgiven for feeling someewhat confused about where New Zealand is positioned with respect to stands on climate change in the decade to come. In one scenario, we will be entering the post 2020 period buoyed by credits ( however dubiously acquired) sufficient to enable business as usual – especially given that technological change ( Electric cars ! Methane- reduction science !) may well appear over the horizon soon enough to save our bacon.
In the other less cheery scenario, we enter the 2020s with the prospect of the mass harvesting of the trees on which our carbon credits have hitherto depended – and where the foreign private owners of our forests may not be all that interested in funding a replanting programme timed to co-incide with our de-carbonisation needs. If we’re lucky, we may get a greenlight from the UNFCCC to “smooth out” the gap between the looming credit losses now, and any replanting due onstream in the distant future. In which case – and in any case – New Zealand would still have to spend large amounts of taxpayer money pre 2030 to buy the necessary offsets on the currently non-existent international market. (There’s an underlying assumption that a global ETS – or a sizeable regional one – will be up and running by 2030.)
Does it really matter which scenario is more likely to play out in the decade 2020-2030? Within a scheme of greenhouse gas reduction that remains voluntary, the potential costs – however huge they may be on paper – are at crunch, only theoretical. If we can grin and bear the reputational damage, we could always choose – come 2030, to walk away from our INDC provisions if the economic cost of them ends up looking exorbitant. In doing so, we’d be pretty confident that the rest of the world would be doing likewise, if faced with a similar-sized bill for its climate change commitments.
That’s the problem with the Paris conference. While it busily sets itself to devise a new set of accounting systems for greenhouse gas emissions, the level of gross emissions in the real world appears set to keep on rising – at a rate which will be checked by politicians only to the degree required to allay the extremes of public concern. Tragically, that’s not going to be enough, soon enough, to save the regions and species currently at risk.
Footnote One: The review of our Emissions Trading Scheme referred to above by Adrian Macey has now begun, and agriculture has been omitted from its ambit. According to Tim Groser this is because there is as yet no affordable way of dealing with this country’s farm-based emissions.
Critics point out that (a) methane is not the only source of our farm-based emissions, (b) that a realistic carbon price signal to farmers is needed to tackle the land compaction and water pollution problems caused by intensive dairying and (c) without agriculture being in the frame, New Zealand is willfully refusing to devise a means of coping with the source of nearly half of its greenhouse gas emissions.
Footnote Two On 2012 figures, agriculture accounted for the largest share – about 47% – of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. Energy use (excluding transport) accounted for about 24% of emissions and transport’s contribution was about 19%. However, the largest sources of emissions growth in this country since 1990 have been in transport, which accounted for 40% of the increase in emissions and agriculture about 28% – while energy (non-transport) emissions was running at 18% followed by industrial emissions at 14%. Government policy has not seriously addressed the areas of emissions growth, farm related or otherwise. In fact, the massive government investment in roading – and the related use of fossil fuels – has made government a key enabler of that growth.