26 November 2006

The new climate kid on the block?

By Andrew Boswell

Thousand of delegates have just met for the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) international climate talks in Nairobi - held for the first time this year in sub-Sahara Africa.

There is a global awareness, post-Stern review, that urgent action is required to stabilise the planet's climate. Many hoped that negotiations to steady levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (ghgs), by mandatory annual reductions in emissions, would start at Nairobi.

However, the result can be very different when delegations from 190 countries meet for a UN conference - and so it was in Nairobi. Mainstream discussions centred on tweaking the current UNFCCC convention and its Kyoto protocol. Many disappointed delegates were left wondering if an international institution like the UN can act fast enough on climate change, and if not, who will?

To be fair, Nairobi did result in a fairer deal for Africa with Kofi Annan's announcement of a 'Nairobi Framework' to enable greater participation by developing countries in Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects. This is the scheme under Kyoto in which developing countries develop projects to mitigate or adapt to climate change, gaining carbon credits that can be traded with rich nations. So far sub-Saharan Africa only has three CDM projects out of over 300 globally. The Nairobi Framework aims to correct current inequities in CDM project distribution and bring badly needed development investment to African countries. This was Africa’s prize for hosting the conference.

However, this is a fund largely for adapting to climate change and ignores the urgency of preventing a climate disaster in Africa in the first place. It is a classic case of treating the symptom rather than healing the underlying the cause of the disease. The Department of International Development (DfID) has estimated that 40% of such development projects are 'climate sensitive' – that is their benefits may be wiped out by climate change. This indicates the necessity of urgently treating the cause – massive fossil fuel burning and deforestation.

The second Nairobi announcement takes the prize for myopia. Whilst climate science, and Stern, indicate that we have less than 10 years to act, the 2007 UNFCCC talks are to "review" Kyoto. Yet, Kyoto is just a temporary stepping stone before a new 'with teeth' long term climate stabilisation regime. It is far more important to start discussions on what follows Kyoto than waste a whole UNFCCC year reviewing a treaty that needs to be radically altered or completely replaced anyway.

The result is there is no timetable for post-Kyoto negotiations and they are unlikely to start until late 2008. This is too late and will leave a gap between end of Kyoto in 2012 and the start of new treaties.

Countries like the UK, Germany and Japan were concerned, but should speak out stronger and demand that the UNFCCC start post-Kyoto talks in 2007. The urgency is very great. The new UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would make a great start to his term of office if he convened a special UNFCCC meeting on post-Kyoto before the one scheduled for next December.

Could salvation come from an unexpected quarter – also the source of one quarter of the world's fossil fuel emissions – the US, post mid-term elections? Things have been moving at the State level for some time: California recently introduced the first emissions reductions Bill, and a number of States cooperate with neighbours in regional Greenhouse Gas initiatives.

US environmentalists, I know, now hold high hopes since the recent mid-term elections. There are now no less than 5 climate change Bills in Senate including Senator Jim Jefford's Bill specifying 80% cuts by 2050. The bill's co-sponsor is the highly regarded Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the incoming Chair of the Senate's most influential environment committee.

Whilst nothing is likely to hit the statute book under the unilateralist Bush regime, all the legislative donkey work can be done now in Congress and Senate, for fast track approval post-Bush 2009.

It is politically incorrect in most circles that I move to even wonder this, but might a newly 'multilateralist US' then set the pace for the international climate negotiations? Climate bills in the US (and UK and EU) with mandatory and deep reductions move the right way towards a Contraction and Convergence framework that sets out a path for long-term stabilisation of the climate over several generations, and is based on a per-capita level of safe emission. Recent research from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows it is essential for survival - annual emissions must peak within the next few years and fall by 70-80% globally by 2050 to avoid devastating climate change.