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The Durban climate conference concluded last weekend with a successful last-ditch effort to salvage some notion of cooperation.  The outcome would be quite nice if there were no particular urgency about taking action.  As is, it seems to me we are making some progress, but there is no more denying that as a world community, we are letting slip the option to limit the risk of dangerous climate change to the levels previously deemed acceptable.  We are, effectively, taking a bet that impacts will turn out to be at the low end of the predicted range.  This is certainly a possible outcome, and would be excellent news for everyone.  But to my mind, the wager is too risky a strategy.

Negotiations stay alive, Green Fund gets underway

The headline outcome of Durban, of course, was the agreement to “launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.”  The working group charged with negotiating the agreement “shall complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order … for [the document] to come into effect and be implemented from 2020.”  The noteworthy and new part of this wording is that all countries are supposed to be legally bound: including the big developing-country emitters, and the United States.

The conference also agreed a founding document for the Green Climate Fund developed in Copenhagen and Cancun.  There is much to like about the document. The Fund’s Board will work on the Climate Investment Fund model, with parity of votes between developing and developed countries and consensus decision-making.  There will be a direct access facility as in the adaptation fund, and there is an option of paying directly for verified results in emissions reductions.  The World Bank will serve as interim trustee; an essential decision, given the Bank’s leadership in expanding climate investment.  (Incidentally, these design features are very close to the model favored by CGD’s climate list members in a survey conducted before the Copenhagen summit.)  It remains to be seen, of course, where the funding will come from (the goal remains $100bn by 2020).  The Fund has the latitude to work with private capital, and may lend to the private sector directly.  This will give managers some much-needed freedom to go after new investments, and may present interesting synergies with recent thinking on a Green Venture Fund

A welcome re-alignment…

The agreement may signal some welcome political shifts.  It is significant that some of the political impetus for the agreement appears to have arisen from a re-alignment that has been a long time coming: some developing countries, notably in Africa, have begun to embrace their shared interests with the climate progressives in Europe and elsewhere, and have begun to put some open pressure on large developing-country emitters to show additional flexibility.  It will be interesting to see how some large emitters react to this.  Some of them, including of course China, are taking very significant action domestically to slow emission growth, but have not been as bold in international negotiations, in part because of a legitimate desire to insist upon equity in sharing the burden of adjustment.  It seems they face an opportunity for greatness in leading the world on climate action where others have failed, and only have to gain from a shift in their stance.  One also cannot help speculating what the United States’ willingness to agree to the wording of the Durban final document may signal.  Getting a binding agreement ratified by 2015 would require the next administration to at least being talking about climate change again.  Certainly, China’s willingness to negotiate a binding agreement has made life considerably easier for those who would like to bring the United States into the framework.

…but not enough progress to limit risk

Yet, the timeframe envisaged for the agreement is truly bad news.  Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the physicist and climate advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, nailed it in saying that “You could write either one of two headlines: ‘Breakthrough for a world climate treaty’, or ‘License to do nothing for another decade’.”

The problem with the agreement is two-fold: the Durban decision is entirely silent on the size of commitments to be agreed, and the start date for the commitment period is too late to limit expected warming to anything close to two degrees.

The Durban outcome seems to confirm resoundingly an unwelcome truth about us as an international community: we deal poorly with the difficult dynamics of climate change.  The case has been made exhaustively, eloquently, and clearly that we need to act early.  (See, e.g., the IEA’s recent assessment. This is because:

  • There is inertia in the climate system: once in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases have a very long residence time, and the system adjusts to the new GHG level with a delay.  We will therefore only gain better information on the impact of our emissions as we lose the opportunity to do anything about it.
  • There is a lock-in effect in capital stock: as has been said many times, most of the power generating capacity and buildings that will be in place in 2050 have been built, or are about to be built.  Postpone action, and we lose the option to invest in capital that protects the climate.
  • Turning emissions around on a dime would be far more expensive than early action.

As a world community we have not acted decisively.  This gets us into an ever riskier position.  But whatever we do manage to do, if on the margin, helps limit the wager we are taking.  Some things are common-sense: fund the Green Climate Fund.  Do whatever is possible domestically.  Fight to keep climate change part of the political discourse, and to limit misinformation.  Also, I suspect it is time to ask whether it makes sense to step up geoengineering research.  I hate to consider this conclusion: the known engineering options have their own considerable risks; they may not work; some do nothing to prevent climate change effects such as ocean acidification (see this Royal Society report for an overview); governance looks near-impossible to handle; and the topic opens up a whole new dimension of moral hazard, and will allow those who do not like to take climate science seriously to play new games of obfuscation.  I hope to be convinced that we need not go there yet.  But I can’t help wondering if it is time to have a fall-back plan.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.