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Global warming: Now for the hard part

Global leaders agreed – yet again – that reaching a new climate deal is crucial to fight global warming. But will there be action to give substance to the talk?

The Durban summit produced an unexpectedly strong commitment among participants to reach a global climate-change agreement. But there is no guarantee a pact will materialise and present measures do little to convince that China and the world’s other big polluters are managing to successfully combat carbon emissions.

Negotiators at the UN-backed meeting in South Africa said they would start work on a new legally binding climate deal, to be effective by 2020, which, crucially, will require developing as well as developed countries to reduce carbon emissions significantly. Just getting the US, China, India and other big emitters to consider an all-embracing pact has been heralded as a huge achievement, given the discord that characterised the run-up to the summit.

The dispute centred on the long-running debate over who should pay most to tackle man-made climate change. Poorer, industrialising countries are eager that developed countries, responsible for most emissions so far, should shoulder the bulk of the cost, while the US and others argue that today’s big developing-world polluters should pay their way.

But despite the optimism, the measures to be included in a global agreement have yet to be thrashed out, leaving open the possibility that it could yet yield a diluted and toothless final text. And whatever its strength, if there is to be a treaty in place by 2020, its content must be agreed by 2015. History suggests that this will not be easy.

"Negotiators at the Bali conference in 2007 set a deadline of the 2009 Copenhagen summit to reach an agreement. That did not deliver on the full original aspirations and there is a risk that will happen again," said Carina Heimdal, editor, Crediting mechanisms and emerging carbon markets, at consultancy Thomson Reuters Point Carbon. "An agreement may be reached in 2015, but it may not be very meaningful in terms of reducing emissions globally," she added.

Many climate scientists continue to stress that action taken after 2020, however tough, may be too late to prevent a dangerous rise in global temperatures.

Emissions still on rise

What is clear is that, if the countries where emissions are increasing fastest – China, India and other industrialising countries – are to rein in that growth, they must increase their efforts substantially.

China has embarked on a series of emissions-curbing measures, increasing renewable energy use and paving the way for the launch of local carbon trading markets. It recently ordered seven provinces and cities to set caps on greenhouse-gas emissions in readiness. The government said it will reduce carbon intensity – the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of GDP growth – by 17% in the 2011-15 period and by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020. But such targets may make only a small impact on global warming.

"The target is intensity based, so the effect depends on how fast the Chinese economy grows. Even if they meet the intensity targets, China’s emissions would still double by 2020 [on 2005 levels]," said Heimdal.

China is still building coal-fired power plants at a rapid rate, contributing to a 10.4% carbon emissions rise in 2010, says BP. With the country’s coal consumption growing by more than 10% in the first nine months of 2011 over the same period in 2010, there is little sign that China is weaning itself off the most polluting of fossil fuels.

In the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2011, it forecasts that, even if China implemented the green policies it had promised at that point – under the agency’s new policies outlook (NPO) – the amount of electricity generated from coal was likely to rise to more than 5,200 terawatt hours (TWh), almost double the 2009 level and more than half of all power generated. India’s output from coal was forecast to increase by more than 2.75 times in the same period to around 1,430 TWh.

But there are signs that the countries likely to be the world’s largest future emitters are hastening efforts to alter their energy mix. Both China and India have said they will invest heavily in building nuclear and gas-fired power capacity in a bid to cut down carbon emissions – and, in the case of nuclear, reduce increasingly costly energy imports.

A government official told China Daily in December that the country plans to add around 300 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity, to the existing 40 GW over the next 20 years – around three times higher than the IEA’s NPO forecast for 2030. That could cost $125 billion a year, but if achieved in conjunction with a huge renewable-energy expansion could make a big dent in emissions growth: how much would depend on the rate at which energy consumption increases.

Some tangible measures also come out of Durban. The establishment of a Green Climate Fund of up to $100 billion from rich countries to help developing nations adopt tougher emissions measures was agreed. Exactly where the finance was coming from was not.

Private-sector funding and market-based mechanisms to finance a programme on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – crucial because trees absorb carbon dioxide – were agreed to in principle. But again, the details have yet to be finalised and such measures could take years to implement.

So little came out of Durban to oblige countries, developed or industrialising, to act on emissions cuts before 2020, other than, perhaps, a strengthened shared belief that more should be done, faster.

The summit did agree to extend 2005’s Kyoto Protocol – which set emissions targets for industrialised countries – into a second commitment period in 2013-17. But that does not come with more ambitious targets and still excludes the US, which never ratified Kyoto, and countries that have since pulled out, including Japan, Russia, and, in December, Canada. EU countries remain the developed nations with the most ambitious climate-change measures and targets in place.

The Kyoto extension ensures the UN’s clean development mechanism (CDM) remains in place. The CDM allows polluters from industrialised countries to earn tradable carbon credits by financing clean-energy projects in the developing world.

A plan to include carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects in the CDM also won support at Durban, but the slow speed with which the technology is being proved and developed makes this a largely token gesture. "There’s limited project potential for CCS projects under the CDM, but it’s still a positive signal," Heimdal said.

Canada’s cold feet

Withdrawing from Kyoto in December, the Canadian government argued that, having failed to cut emissions as pledged by 6% below 1990 levels (they rose by 30%), Canada would have been forced to buy billions of dollars of compensatory emissions permits that it couldn’t afford. But analysts note that, given compliance committee’s lack of legal powers, Canada could have missed its targets, not bought compensatory permits and still avoided financial penalty.

In mid-January, a Canadian law professor launched a lawsuit against the government questioning the legality of the withdrawal, which highlights the potential for a loosely formulated agreement to lack credibility – something those drawing up the new climate-change agreement must avoid.

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