Things we could only have dreamed of – and all that sand

By Cindy Baxter 26/11/2012

Flying into Doha yesterday for the next round of international climate negotiations, landing in what seems to be a pile of white sand in the middle of nowhere, with high rise buildings sticking out of it. Is this where we’re going to stop climate change?

In a word, no.  Not by a long shot.  These talks, the 18th conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992, will not stop climate change.

For me, the last few weeks have seen a number of  “things we could only have dreamed of” moments.  Back in 1991 when we were negotiating the UNFCCC, the meetings were peppered with almost daily International Chamber of Commerce press conferences where the likes of climate cranks Fred Singer, Patrick Michaels and Richard Lindzen questioned the science.  Big business and global institutions either ignored the issue – or were working to stop any agreement.

Fast forward to the last few weeks.  First came a report from Price Waterhouse Coopers, warning of warming beyond anything we can control, and expressing concern over inaction on dangerous climate change, calling for governments and business leaders to stop holding back low carbon development and to start thinking about how to adapt to the climate impacts that we’re already committed to.

Next up was a World Bank report on what a 4degC warming world will look like.  Because this is where we’re heading. Gareth has already written about it.   But I had to pinch myself. This was the World Bank. Yes, the bank stills invests in fossil fuel projects, but it’s going to look increasingly stupid if it’s commissioning this sort of work.

Then the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, with these words buried in its text:  “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal.”

That’s the IEA doing what Bill McKibben calls the “carbon math”.  It says:

“Almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time.”

This is a massive turnaround for the IEA who, ten years ago, would no more write a report like this than fly to the moon. We used to dread the IEA reports:  they were the fossil fuel industry’s biggest cheerleader and completely ignored the climate reality.

The IEA of 2012 questions how realistic the 2degC warming limit is, given these figures. It also pointed to the 30% rise in fossil fuel subsidies from 2101 – 2011 (a massive US $520 billion) with only $88 billion going to renewable energy.

Lastly came the UNEP Emissions Gap 2012 update which answers the questions on 2degC, saying it IS still possible to do so, but the longer we leave taking hard action, the more costly it will be.

The UNEP report looks at what more we have to do to bring emissions down to a 2degC warming trajectory,  identifying and quantifying the gigatonnes of C02 (equivalent) that we still need to reduce.   And that gap, says UNEP, is getting bigger, not smaller. By a factor of around 30% since last year.  Things aren’t looking too good.  Like the fossil fuel subsidies, we’re going in the wrong direction.

All of this, you’d think, would make Governments wake up.

You’d think.  This is where the “things we could never have dreamed of” begin to turn into “worst nightmares” as we realise the Governments don’t seem to take any notice of these quite daunting warnings.   Perhaps it’s fitting that there’s so much sand here – there’s a lot of heads about to go into it for the next two weeks.

What are we likely to actually get in Doha?

In all likelihood, not very much, for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the meeting’s President, Qatari deputy prime minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, has extensive links with the fossil fuel industry: he’s a former OPEC president and was seen partying at a London oil conference earlier this month.

Many  appear to be basing hope on one soundbite in Obama’s election victory speech and his response to a climate question in his first press conference.  Maybe I’m being too cynical about it – and I hope to be proven wrong.

US Climate Envoy Todd Stern has said that the 2degC conversation is making it difficult for the negotiations. Read: the US doesn’t like to have its paltry pledge of 4% cuts at 1990 levels by 2020 put under the spotlight.

Will Stern stop talking down 2degC in light of his President’s apparent gearing up on the issue? Or will there be a signal that things are changing?

Kyoto’s second commitment period will also be a key focus here:  this is the meeting that agrees who’s in, who’s out and how the rules need to be changed and updated from the first commitment period and, indeed, how long that commitment period is.

New Zealand’s exit from Kyoto will not be welcomed by, among others, our Pacific Island neighbours, who stand to fare the worst in the 4degC warming world we’re heading to.  NZ’s backdown is a blow to those who have been waiting 20 years for the industrialised world to take action.

One problem is that there are few New Zealand media who understand the dynamics of these talks, allowing Tim Groser to spin pretty much anything he wants. Take this RNZ story, where Groser says that he wants to push for a global deal.  Sounds great:  he’s up for a Big Game.

Thing is, negotiations for that deal are happening anyway: it’s what was agreed last year in Durban.  If Groser really wanted a global deal, he’d be urging NZ to stay in Kyoto. Because the stronger signal that industrialised countries give to the developing world that they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is, the more it will force the likes of China and India to agree to a global deal.  Pulling out will only prolong a stalemate, and Groser knows that. Shame he’s not being held to account.

New Zealand doesn’t want to be forced to increase our emissions cuts.  Yet we want to let our industry continue with business as usual, and deal with our ridiculously weak ETS by trading the emissions they got for free from the Government in the first place. Heaven help us if we actually had to CUT emissions.  So we’re going to see the Government continuing to try to bend Kyoto rules to suit our needs, so that we can have our cake – and eat it too.

The other key issue is the Green Climate Fund – but right now there appears to be not enough money to pay for the staff to oversee the rules and framework that governments have been working so hard on.  Problem is that it’s much easier to talk about the rules than it is to commit the much-needed funds for the poorest countries to adapt to the already inevitable climate change and switch to clean energy.

So let’s see what happens in the next two weeks.  Will it be a result we could only have dreamed of? Or will those heads be firmly stuck in the sand?