- The Paris climate change conference aims at a global agreement to keep global warming to 2°C.
- The Paris conference is to draft a legal instrument applicable to all countries, both developed and developing.
- To restrict warming to less than 2°C, total emissions will have to be kept under a trillion tonnes of carbon. The world has already consumed over 60% of this ‘budget’.
- Paris must determine who uses the remaining 40% of carbon.
- It is in Australia’s national interest to support proactive climate change mitigation efforts.
- Without immediate, decisive action the 2°C goal is unattainable.
The 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. Its aim, for the first time, is a universal agreement that aims to keep global warming below 2°C.
In this interview, University of Western Australia Associate Professor David Hodgkinson discusses the international climate change regime, including the decline of the Kyoto Protocol and the development of a treaty in which both developed and developing countries have emission reduction targets. He also considers what is likely to result from the Paris meeting.
FDI: Could you provide a brief outline of the current climate change regime?
DH: The international climate change legal framework consists of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (referred to as the Convention), its Kyoto Protocol and, from the end of this year, a new international climate change agreement. It is this agreement that will be negotiated at the Paris conference.
The Convention was adopted in 1992 and came into force in 1994, with almost all countries, including the US, participating. It provided a framework for future action and cooperation on climate change. There were no legally binding limits on emissions and no quantitative targets. But nations did commit to mitigate climate change ‘with the aim of returning individually or jointly to their 1990 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions levels’. Such mitigation, however, was based on the idea that developed countries would take the lead on the understanding that they caused the problem and therefore would be expected to contribute more to solving the problem.
The Kyoto Protocol to the Convention was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005. It places quantifiable obligations on nations to decrease their levels of GHG emissions. While most countries agreed, significantly the US never joined Kyoto, and Canada, Japan and Russia subsequently withdrew from it.
The Kyoto Protocol, however, was the world’s primary climate change agreement. Unlike the Convention, Kyoto set legally binding limits on developed country emissions and not emissions from developing states. It did so for the period 2008 – 2012 with the intention of doing so for the period 2013-2020, after which it would be replaced by another agreement that I’ll discuss shortly. It must also be noted that this second commitment period covers barely 15% of global GHG emissions and includes no major emitter.
The reduction commitments for developed countries are expressed as a percentage of the base year 1990. Australia’s target was 108% for the 2008-2012 period; only Iceland’s was more generous. Canada’s was 94%. These were politically negotiated targets with no scientific focus on temperature change reduction. Of the world’s 10 largest emitters, led by China, the US and India, only two – Germany and the UK – had GHG emission reduction targets.
At the Durban meeting in 2011, however, everything changed. The Ad hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action was created with a mandate to negotiate and develop another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force, under the Convention which would be applicable to all countries, both developed and developing. This instrument or agreement is to be drafted in December in Paris to take effect from 2020.
And as a result of COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013, developed states no longer have binding emissions reduction targets (negotiated by all other developed states together) but, rather, all states (developed and developing) have ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ – or INDCs.
The negotiating text for the agreement to be finalised in Paris in December stood at 90 pages after the UNFCCC Bonn meeting in August-September 2015. It was essentially a compilation of state parties’ proposals – it wasn’t really negotiated. This text was subsequently reduced to just 20 pages but has now expanded to 51 pages as a result of the 19-23 October Bonn UNFCCC meeting. The draft text refers to the long-standing target of holding the increase in the global average temperature to 2 degrees C (and possibly 1.5 degrees C).
FDI: How are individual countries likely to react at the Paris meeting?
DH: To hold warming to less than 2° C, the best estimates available suggest that total emissions will have to be kept under a trillion tonnes of carbon. The world has already consumed over 60 percent of this ‘budget’. If current trends continue, the last third will be used up within the next few decades. This is what is fundamentally at issue in Paris, although the matter is never stated this bluntly because, if it were, the conference might as well be called off. After all, who should be allowed to emit the tonnes that remain?
One approach could be to assign these tonnes on the basis of aggregate emissions. Under this approach, very large emitters like the United States might not get any of the dwindling tonnes on the basis that they’ve already used up so much. Another way to allocate emissions would be to grant everyone on the planet an equal share of what’s left. A third approach would be to focus on efficiency. None of these approaches, it should be said, will be implemented.
The bottom line is that individual countries will determine their individual reduction targets that will not be negotiated.
In this regard, the US has long proposed that nations set their own emission reduction plans and targets rather than working towards a common target, and thus abandon the Kyoto format. The US Special Envoy on Climate Change, Todd Stern, has said that he finds it ‘hard … to imagine a negotiation with dozens and dozens and dozens of countries actually negotiating everybody else’s targets and timetables’.
FDI: What can you tell us about Australia’s target?
The Australian Government has stated that it will implement an economy-wide target to reduce GHG emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Although the Commonwealth states clearly that its target is unconditional, it then states conditions. For instance, Australia will implement the 28 per cent target “should circumstances allow”, taking into account opportunities to reduce emissions and factors such as the costs of technology.
As the Climate Institute says, Australia is responsible for 1.4 per cent of global emissions. Looked at in isolation, this figure can make it appear as though Australia’s emissions are not significant enough to merit reduction. But this is not the case.
Australia is the 13th highest overall pollution contributor. Australia’s emissions are more significant than the UK, Italy or France. Australia also has the highest per capita emissions in the OECD, with 26 tonnes of greenhouse gasses being emitted per person every year. Our emissions intensity is also high, at around 640 tonnes per unit of GDP, primarily due to the energy sector’s reliance on coal. In comparison, the UK, a country with emissions slightly less than Australia’s has an emission intensity of around 220 tonnes per unit of GDP.
Total global contribution is not the only consideration when measuring the need for climate action. Australia’s contribution to global pollution is disproportionately high in a number of ways, as I just mentioned, and therefore requires significant action to reduce emissions. Compared to other countries Australia is also a very wealthy nation with a high level of capacity to reduce emissions.
Australia, therefore, is both highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and economically privileged by virtue of its consumption and export of emission intensive fossil fuels. We also know more about putting a price on carbon (and taking that price away – twice!) than any other country.
FDI: What are the virtues of bottom-up approaches rather than the over-arching, top-down approach of Kyoto?
DH: Some argue that a shift from a top-down, ‘Kyoto-style’ architecture for international climate action to an approach involving smaller agreements, is required. This would involve states (and/or sectors), or to sub-national actors (provinces, councils, cities) taking action where they can, resulting in a more decentralised arrangement in which particular issues are discussed and negotiated.
Professor Dan Bodansky of Arizona State University, an authority on international environmental law, says that ‘since an agreement among the major emitters is unlikely anytime soon, we should seek progress where we can, through whatever means and in any forums that are available’.
Likewise, David G. Victor, a professor at the University of San Diego, argues that the UN is not the right place for serious diplomacy and that’s its choice represents bad strategy. He proposes smaller forums, or carbon ‘clubs,’ and a shift in talks ‘from focusing exclusively on controlling emissions to dealing with the reality that lots of climate change is inevitable’.
In light of the approach likely to be taken in Paris, however, I think that these arguments might now be harder to make.
FDI: What is the current and future situation with the adaptation funding promised for developing countries?
DH: 100 billion USD a year from 2020 onwards was promised by developed countries at the 2009 Copenhagen meeting as adaptation funding for developing states. But almost everything about the funding remains unresolved, including where it will come from and what sorts of projects it will go towards. So far, developed states have committed only about ten billion dollars to this Green Climate Fund; this includes three billion dollars that the Obama Administration has pledged but, because of congressional opposition, may not be able to make good.
FDI: Could you explain what climate change discussions refer to as “the gap”?
DH: In order to hold warming to less than 2°C, my understanding is that global emissions would have to peak more or less immediately and then drop to nearly zero by the second half of the century. Alternatively, they could be allowed to grow for a decade or so longer, at which point they’d have to drop even more quickly, along – it is said – the sort of trajectory a person would follow falling off a cliff. In either case, it’s likely that what are known as ‘negative emissions’ would be needed. This means sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and storing it underground—something no one, at this point, knows how to do. The practical obstacles to realising any of these scenarios have prompted some experts to observe that, for all intents and purposes, the two-degree limit has already been breached.
‘The 2°C goal is effectively unachievable’ as David Victor, and Charles Kennel, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, put it in the journal Nature.
A recent paper by James Hansen and others argues that cumulative emissions of a trillion tonnes of carbon (associated with the 2 degrees target) would spur eventual warming of 3 to 4 degrees. Such warming, they say, would have disastrous consequences. Put another way, such a target is ‘well into the range of “dangerous human-made interference” with climate.’
David Roberts of Grist.org puts things more starkly:
We recently passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere; the status quo will take us up to 1,000 ppm, raising global average temperature (from a pre-industrial baseline) between 3.2 and 5.4 degrees Celsius. That will mean, according to a 2012 World Bank report, ‘extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise,’ the effects of which will be ‘tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions,’ stalling or reversing decades of development work. ‘A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided’, said the World Bank president.
That is where we are headed. It will take enormous effort just to avoid that fate. Holding temperatures under 2°C, again, the widely agreed upon target, would require an unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it is even plausible.
Kevin Anderson, of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, also criticizes these model assumptions. He says that models have often included unrealistically low estimates of current and future emissions growth, unrealistically early peaks in global emissions, and unequitable estimates of emission curves in developing countries (implicitly assuming stunted development).
And, as Roberts says, add to all these considerations the high rate of decline in emissions necessary after global emissions peak. It used to be that a 2 percent annual global emission reduction was considered the maximum feasible (without serious economic contraction). Now models routinely show 4 or more percent annual reductions, a rate of emissions decline that has never been achieved by anyone, anywhere, ever, much less consistently over 50 years.
FDI: Your conclusions?
DH: As Adrian Parr, author of The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics, notes, climate change poses a range of different problems:
- The scientific problem: How can the significant amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere causing the earth’s climate to change be lowered? How can the climate be stabilized such that global temperatures rise no more than 2°C? That ship, however, may well have sailed.
- The economic problem: How can the economy decarbonize while addressing global economic disparities?
- The social problem: How can human societies alter their climate-changing behaviour while adapting to climate change?
- The legislative/legal and policy problem: What laws/regulations can be introduced to reduce emissions and assist people, species, and ecosystems vulnerable to climate change?
Climate change is the most significant threat to humanity and the natural world. Yale economist William Nordhaus refers to humanity entering the ‘climate casino’: economic growth is producing perilous changes in the climate and earth systems, leading to unforeseeable and dangerous consequences. He believes humanity is rolling the climatic dice, with likely perilous outcomes.
We benefit now from carbon emissions, but the costs are borne by future generations – and the present benefits are often modest, the future costs severe. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, in his review of Nordhaus’ book, The Climate Casino, notes that Nordhaus gives relatively little weight to the interests of future people – he uses a high ‘discount rate.’ Nicholas Stern, however, with a low discount rate, asks the present generation to make urgent sacrifices for the sake of future generations.
Ultimately it’s our view about future generations that will determine climate change policy in Paris and beyond.
About the Interviewee: Associate Professor David Hodgkinson is the co-author of Global Climate Change: Australian Law and Policy (LexisNexis/Butterworths, July 2008), editor of the loose-leaf service, Australian Climate Change Law and Policy, and author of Strategies for Airlines on Aircraft Emissions and Climate Change: Sustainable, Long-Term Solutions (2007), as well as other books, papers and journal articles. He is also, with Rebecca Johnston, both a partner of aviation and aerospace law firm HodgkinsonJohnston and an executive director of EcoCarbon, a not-for-profit association. David is also an Associate Professor in the Law School at the University of Western Australia. He was formerly Director of Legal Services at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the organisation of the world’s international scheduled airlines, based in Montreal and Geneva.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree with First Class Honours, a Bachelor of Laws degree and a Master of Philosophy degree (with a thesis on treaty interpretation). He has taught constitutional law at universities including the Australian National University, and has taught international law and international relations at other Australian universities.
Earlier in his career he was Senior Legal Research Officer at the High Court of Australia. He is the recipient of an Evans Grawemeyer Fellowship awarded by the Australian Government for research and activities aimed at improving the global order.
Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual interviewee, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.
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