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In the latest in a surge of extreme weather events, a mid-November storm twice the size of Texas hammered the west coast of Alaska with hurricane-force winds. The storm pushed further north than low-pressure systems typically do this time of year, gaining energy as it passed over unusually warm water. Loss of coastal ice in recent decades left coastal villages exposed to the brunt of the waves. In Nome, tides rose to seven feet above normal bringing water to the base of some buildings. (Washington Post

You would think that such reports might give the government representatives headed to Durban, South Africa, for the next round of international climate talks an added sense of urgency. So far there’s little sign this is happening.

Thousands of people representing governments, international organizations, and civil society groups will gather in Durban for two weeks starting November 28 for the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention, a.k.a. COP 17. Hopes are not high. The most ambitious anticipated outcome would be a second commitment period for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire next year, and the launching of a Green Climate Fund, to help developing countries cut emissions and adapt to climate changes already underway.

This seems unlikely, and even if these things are achieved they would not meet the target of containing global temperature rise to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, which scientists warn is the maximum increase compatible with avoiding runaway climate change.

The 2 degrees C limit is finally embodied in international agreements, including the 2009 Copenhagen Accord (COP15), the first accord in which the large developing country emitters joined developed countries in pledging to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and the 2010 Cancun Agreements (COP16). But neither accord includes country-by-country emissions limits. The only binding international agreement with country-specific limits is the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol (KP) and it, too, is inadequate to hold heating below 2 degrees C. Under the KP, developing countries would reduce emissions on a voluntary basis, while the United States never signed. 

“The world's number one emitter (China) has no obligations under Kyoto, the number two emitter (United States) is not a party and the number three emitter (India) has no obligations,” Akira Yamada of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Point Carbon News recently.

Since Kyoto is not binding on the three biggest emitters, Japan, Russia and Canada have indicated that they will neither negotiate on the pledges they made unilaterally at Copenhagen, nor put them inside an updated Kyoto Protocol. Norway and Australia recently proposed that a new binding international agreement be wrapped up by 2015. But there is little sign so far that this is more than wishful thinking and, if the International Energy Agency (IEA) is right, would be too late anyway.

Released this month, the IEA’s 2011 World Energy Outlook warns that the world has only five years to adopt bold measures to avoid locking in high-carbon infrastructure such as power stations, buildings and factories. “As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the ‘lock-in’ of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals,” said Fatih Birol, IEA Chief Economist.

Meanwhile, the position of the BASIC group of countries--Brazil, South Africa, India and China--seems to be hardening. People are wondering if this is due in part to the departure of Jairam Ramesh, India’s lead negotiator, who was promoted to a major cabinet position since Cancun. At a meeting in Beijing on November 1, they agreed to a common position calling for industrialized countries to become net absorbers of CO2 rather than net emitters. A background report prepared for the group concludes that in the first half of this century the developed world should absorb 239-474 billion tons of carbon dioxide while developing countries continue to emit. While this may be merely a negotiating stance, it leads negotiators further from agreement on a treaty with the binding emissions limits needed to restrain heating below the 2 degree C ceiling.

So much for restraining emissions. What about climate finance? 

In Cancun an agreement was made to set up a Green Climate Fund to help transfer funding (the Copenhagen Accord called for $100 billion a year by 2020) to developing countries to help them reduce emissions and, more importantly, adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

Since then a Transitional Committee has labored steadily to create the blueprint for a fund that could be launched in Durban. They submitted their report to the COP in November. Despite all their hard work, questions regarding how much funding, how the funds would be managed and disbursed, and where the funds will come from remain unresolved and the last meeting of the Transitional Committee ended in frustration. A new assessment by the Climate Policy Initiative reports that although climate finance, currently at $97 billion, approaches the target, it is mainly re-labeling of previously programmed funding and is not “new and additional,” as called for in the Cancun Agreements. The BASIC country meeting also noted that “only a small proportion [of climate finance] is truly ‘new and additional’--the majority coming from aid budgets or programs that were in existence before Copenhagen.”

Where can “new and additional” funding come from?  Proposed sources include re-directing energy subsidies (the 2010 World Energy Outlook notes that subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption of fossil fuels had jumped to more than $400 billion per year); introducing taxes on shipping and aviation (bunker fuels); or a financial transaction tax. In a CGD paper, Find Me the Money, Nancy Birdsall and Ben Leo review these and other options and investigate the possibility of tapping the IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a sort of virtual currency.

Disappointingly, the G-20, which could have provided desperately needed leadership on climate finance, failed to do so at the Cannes Summit earlier this month. The tepid language in Cannes G-20 communiqué is filled with weasel words: 

“[We] reaffirm our commitment to rationalise and phase-out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption… We call for the implementation of the Cancun agreements… including the operationalization of the Green Climate Fund, as part of a balanced outcome in Durban. We discussed the IFIs report on climate finance… and asked our Finance Ministers to continue work in this field…” 

Hopes are fading that the G-20 could provide the political leadership that has been lacking in the 190+ country UN-led process or more targeted flora like the Major Economies Forum.

If there is any silver lining in these storm clouds, it’s that developing countries are not waiting for the outcome of the negotiations to take action. More than 100 countries have put in place renewable energy goals. A new Christian Aid report shows that it is possible to eliminate Africa’s energy poverty without increasing GHG emissions. And as Saleemul Haq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development has noted in a Guardian blog post, lack of progress in global climate talks stands in stark contrast to the plethora of actions on the ground to combat climate change in many smaller and more at-risk developing countries.

With less than a week before COP17 begins in Durban, South Africa’s focus is reportedly on “adaptation, adaptation and adaptation.” Given the bleak prospects for restraining emissions and mobilizing climate finance, the South Africans would seem to be right!

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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 is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.