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Christian Hunt

30.12.2014 | 9:00am
PolicyBack to the future: The year in international climate politics
POLICY | December 30. 2014. 9:00
Back to the future: The year in international climate politics

Remember the heady days of 2009, when recycling was hot, political leaders competed to be green, and we were about to agree a global climate deal that would solve the climate problem once and for all? (This is not flippant, I actually remember people saying this kind of thing.)

Well, for better or worse, it’s all coming back. Maybe. Politicians have set a self-imposed deadline of the end of 2015 to agree a global climate deal in Paris. That means there’s more interest in climate change on the international stage now than there has been since the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, although heaven knows what it will amount to.

So are we doomed to repeat history? Or is there perhaps a new sense of realism in international climate policy? As we approach the end of what has been an action-packed year for climate politics, it’s probably too soon to call. But it feels like the inevitable raising of expectations in the run up to next year’s Paris meeting is being tempered by the dawning realisation of how bloody hard all of this is going to be.

Here’s a quick review of the main events of the year in international climate politics.

IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific rather than a political endeavour.

But it also acts as a key hook on which journalists and politicians hang their narratives. This year saw the publication of three major IPCC reports – one on the impacts of climate change and what adaptation measures are possible, one on how we can mitigate climate change, and a wrap-up synthesis report that reprised the main messages of the IPCC’s work.

The main messages were very straightforward: The planet is warming, and human activity is the cause. Unless we cut greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will warm by something like four or five degrees celsius relative to pre-industrial times, by the end of the century.

It was a message covered extensively in the media. But perhaps more significantly, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report quickly became adopted as the scientific foundation for a wider international conversation about climate change.

That’s perhaps not surprising, given that is what the IPCC reports are supposed to be for. But it’s worth noting that the IPCC has been continually referenced in the key climate moments of 2014.

Summits

Indeed, it was a year of climate set pieces – some expected, some that came out of the blue. All contributed to a sense that there is more of that intangible ‘momentum’ around than there has been for a while.

In September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon invited world leaders to gather at the UN to discuss how to reinvigorate global cooperation on climate change. Delegate after delegate rose to commit their country to taking action on climate change.

The statements made were perhaps long on aspiration and short on detail. But the summit did appear to give the international negotiations a shot of energy and to reinvigorate the climate movement, with 400,000 people marching in New York, in what the organisers called the “largest climate march in history”.

Speeches from US president Barack Obama and Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli provided focal points for the event. Obama argued that climate change “will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other [issue].” He hinted that there were more progressive policies to come from the US, which earlier in the year announced a plan to cut the emissions of the US power sector 30 per cent on 2005 levels over the next sixteen years.

Gaoli reiterated China’s goal to cut carbon intensity around 40 per cent by 2020 – the first time a senior government source has made such a statement, although the flexible language  made it hard to tell at the time exactly what the commitment meant.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out.

The US and China

A couple of months later the world woke up one morning to find that the US and China had come to a bilateral agreement committing both countries to limiting their emissions, in different ways. It was unexpected, to say the least.

China pledged to ensure its emissions peak in 2030 – which is really a very significant public statement from a country that has always been reluctant to be seen to accept the idea of limits on emissions. It also promised to aim to produce 20 per cent of its energy from low carbon sources by the same date. The US pledged to cut emissions by up to 28 per cent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels, slotting neatly into existing US targets to cut emissions by 17 per cent by 2020, 42 per cent by 2030 and 83 per cent by 2050.

Arguably, the commitments made by the two countries were no more ambitious that existing measures – in the case of the US – or what may well have happened already in the case of China.

China’s promise was significant in part because of the impact the “China will never do anything on climate change” argument has had. This year saw that argument proved comprehensively wrong. The US-China deal shows the world’s two largest emitters are willing to negotiate.

That doesn’t magic away greenhouse gas emissions, and it won’t change the US’s inability, or unwillingness, to sign up to any binding international climate treaty. With the Democrats about to lose control of the Senate, Obama is pushing right out to the limits of his executive power to take steps on climate change. But it provides some significantly different mood music for the Paris talks next year.

The EU goes to 30 per cent

It wasn’t just China and the US that signalled their willingness to take policy measures to address climate change, although it was less surprising that in October the European Commission announced new climate and energy targets for the European Union.

The headline target was to cut EU emissions by “at least” 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030. The EU also agreed targets to get at least 27 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and to cut energy use by at least 27 per cent against business as usual.

Overall, the EU 2030 framework left some campaigners disappointed. It was more ambitious than expected in some areas and less ambitious in others – in other words a messy compromise.

But given the challenge of securing agreement among 28 EU leaders, that is probably no surprise. For all the potential loopholes, the package is still relatively ambitious on a global scale – so it does mean the EU will go into 2015 in a position to argue for more ambition from others.

India’s new government

The world’s third largest emitter saw a change of government in 2014. Narendra Modi was elected promising to revive India’s economy and connect more than 300 million citizens to the electrical grid. As a consequence, India’s electricity demand is likely to more than triple in the next thirty years, according to the International Energy Agency. That would mean India’s energy-related emissions more than doubling by 2040.

But Modi is a fan of renewable energy investment as a means to drive economic growth and create jobs. He has also ordered a scientific review of how climate change may impact India, and his personality and popularity suggests he could play a leading role in international climate negotiations. Or that’s what some campaigners hope, at least.

We’ll know a lot more early next year, with India due to announce a joint agreement similar to the US and China’s climate deal.

Australia remains recalcitrant

It’s probably fair to say that Australia has now taken the mantle of the world’s climate policy laggard.

Domestically, Tony Abbott has set about dismantling large parts of the country’s climate policy, from scrapping the carbon tax and implementing a plan that’s inadequate to meet Australia’s emissions reduction goals.

Australia was also holding out on contributing money to assist poor countries with mitigating and adapting to climate change, until it performed a u-turn at the Lima climate conference, pledging $166 million over four years. But the money will come out of its existing foreign aid budget, and is a relatively small amount, compared with other pledges.

At Lima, Australia argued that any new international climate deal should be legally binding. That may sound like a good thing. But Australia seems to be banking on the US and China rejecting such a deal, meaning the argument is likely a piece of political monkey-wrenching.

Lima

Which brings us neatly to Lima. The cap to the year in climate politics came with the now-traditional and slightly unedifying spectacle of hundreds of negotiating teams meeting for the UN climate talks. Taking place in Peru, the talks concluded with the meeting’s chairs unveiling a 43 page document that lays the foundations for a new global climate deal.

The Lima Call for Climate Action recommits all countries to making emissions cuts, and reiterates the need to limit global temperature rise to less than two degrees celsius. But it leaves the most controversial issues of international climate politics to be dealt with at a later date. As a consequence, some campaigners predictably branded the text as disappointing.

There was some incremental progress. however. By Lima, countries had pledged a little over $10 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a financing mechanism to help poorer countries pay for adapting to and mitigating climate change. And the talks avoided what would have been an embarrassing failure to come to agreement.

Lima sets the stage for what will follow in 2015. Negotiators will convene again at Bonn in June. Climate change is also likely to appear on the agenda of many international meetings between now and next December, as the deadline for a climate deal looms into view.

What does it amount to?

Ultimately, all of the political moments in the world aren’t going to decarbonise the global economy. So are there signs of more tangible progress?

Well, there are some. Earlier in the year, accountants PwC concluded that the carbon intensity of the world’s economy is falling. That means we are using less and less carbon to produce each unit of global economic activity.

Sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, as the global economy continues to grow, total global carbon emissions are still rising. On current trends, the planet could warm by as much as four degrees celsius by the end of the century, says PwC. Factoring in the moves from China and the US, we might expect to see a little less – around three degrees of warming, according to analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a thinktank.

Words, agreements and ‘soft power’ on the global stage will get the world closer to agreeing a global climate deal. It may even happen in 2015 – although don’t hold your breath for legally binding commitments. The future is looming large, but it remains curiously difficult to change the direction we’re heading in. There’s a difficult task ahead for politicians yet.

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