Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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The annual UN climate summit, this year held with some irony in Doha, Qatar, has come and gone.  Where does that leave us?  Let’s look at a few key action areas.

Binding emissions reductions?  The only legally binding international commitment to reduce emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, was renewed at the last minute for eight more years, till 2020.  It reinforces pledges of emissions limits for a small group of countries.  But because emissions cuts from developing countries were never included, and  Japan, Canada, and New Zealand have withdrawn, the Kyoto Protocol now only covers 15% of global emissions.

What will happen in 2020 when the renewed Kyoto Protocol finally expires?  The best case scenario is that a new global agreement will be reached by 2015 and come into force by 2020 with commitments to cut emissions by all countries – not just the “developed” countries covered by the Kyoto Protocol .  But this game plan, called the Durban Platform, just kicks the can down the road to 2015, with the risk that the outcome in 2015 will be the same as the massive disappointment seen in Copenhagen in 2009.

What About Climate Finance?  Debate continues about the level of current funding, the sources of funding and the operations of the Green Climate Fund.

What About Adaptation?  The conversation has shifted with the inclusion of a new clause in the negotiating text that stipulates a commitment to the principle (though not the details) to compensate poorer countries for the “loss and damage” suffered from climate change.  Like a proposal that CGD president Nancy Birdsall and I outlined in a policy paper that rich countries have an obligation to provide adaptation funding to poor countries, the text embodies a pledge to provide funds to poor countries vulnerable to climate impacts.

The proposal was strongly opposed by the US and some other industrialized countries, which made sure that no new funding mechanism was established and that neither the term “compensation” nor any hint of legal liability was included.  While the text omits details such as where funds will come from and how they will be transferred, proponents  consider this a milestone because it is the first time the evocative phrase “loss and damage” has been reflected in an international agreement.  Some worry, however, that unless negotiators quickly find a way to deliver a significant increase in climate funding, the new text could lead to “years of increasingly intense recriminations.”

What About Forests?   Progress in containing emissions of greenhouse gases from forests – the socalled REDD+ program -- lost momentum in Doha over disagreements between developed and rich countries about how to monitor and verify progress in reducing emissions from forests.  This may not be all bad news.  REDD+ has been criticized for concerns about accurate measurements and monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, unclear forest definitions, leakage (an increase in carbon emissions in one country as a result of an emissions reduction by another) and for not respecting local communities’ rights and equity.  An even broader concern is that REDD+, which only applies to forests, would only address a small percentage of emissions from land-use change.

While the REDD+ outcome in Doha may represent one step backward for forests, some experts think that it may result in two steps forward for also dealing with greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use changes more broadly.  They see an opportunity to bring agriculture and other land use changes into the Durban Platform.

This so-called landscape approach would integrate forests with agriculture, food security and broader sustainable development goals. Forests are under growing pressure from urbanization, increasingly meat-rich diets, population growth and a booming demand for timber and agricultural products.  If successful, the landscape approach could lead to increases in agricultural productivity which could in turn reduce pressures to convert forest land to agriculture. So maybe the silver lining to the blocked progress on REDD+ in Doha can be an approach that both recognizes the critical role that agriculture itself can play in reducing emissions and also rewards productivity gains that take the pressure off of forests.

What About Energy?  While the Doha meeting did reaffirm the Copenhagen goal to contain warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the IEA’s New Policies Scenario suggests that the window to achieve this goal is closing fast – possibly by 2017.  Some experts, including former NASA scientist and UK Environment Advisor Sir Bob Watson, think that we have already blown the deadline to avoid dangerous climate change.

One thing that is clear is that we’ll need “plenty of carbon-free electricity” to meet the 2 degree goal.  Yet the IEA projects that energy demand and CO2 emissions will continue to rise ever higher and fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy source worldwide, pointing to a long?term average temperature increase of 3.6 °C by 2035.  Oil security expert Michael Levy suggests that gas prices will likely remain low due to a current glut and oil prices will fall as a result of the shale oil boom.

Rising energy demand and low fossil fuel prices add up to bad news for renewable energy.  While prices of solar and wind power have been falling, renewable energy technologies are still struggling to compete with fossil fuels.   And subsidies to fossil fuels expanded considerably last year despite international efforts at reform. Global fossil?fuel consumption subsidies totaled $523 billion in 2011, almost 30% higher than in 2010, whereas financial support to renewable energy was only $88 billion in 2011.

While we cross our fingers and hope for the best in 2015, the urgent policy agenda in the meantime is clearly to push for a (high) price on carbon (carbon tax anyone?) and removal of fossil fuel subsidies.  This can help to catalyze the technology revolution needed to bring us the carbon-free energy we need, as explained in CGD’s recent publication, Greenprint.