Doha reflects weakening ambition

The 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP 18) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Doha (Qatar) during the period November 26 to December 7. It is relevant to note that the UNFCCC came into existence in 1992, and 20 years have elapsed since the global community articulated its desire and commitment to deal with the challenge of climate change on a global basis. In an effort to provide meaning to the intent of the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the 3rd Conference of the Parties in 1997, but in keeping with its provisions, it was ratified by the requisite number of Parties in 2004 and came into existence in 2005. In the Protocol, actions were required by specified Parties to be completed in the first commitment period which is to end this year. Hence, a great deal of discussion and debate has taken place leading up to the Doha CoP on extending the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012 into the next commitment period.

This, indeed, was agreed on and the Parties decided on a set of amendments to the Protocol, which would apply from January 1, 2013. However, several key countries that are parties to the UNFCCC will have no targets for reducing their emissions in the second commitment period of the Protocol. These include Canada (which has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol), Japan, New Zealand and the Russian Federation. Other developed countries have quantified emission limitation or reduction commitments for the period 2013-2020 as agreed on at the Doha meeting. Several observers have commented that the current set of commitments cover only countries that account for 15% of the total global emissions of greenhouse gases. This, they have highlighted, indicates very weak resolve and ambition among the global community a full 20 years after the UNFCCC came into existence.

Hence, an important thing would be whether negotiations under the UNFCCC are really coming to grips with the scientific realities of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which mobilises thousands of leading scientists from across the globe, has come up with a series of findings that should be the main driver of ambition in arriving at goals and targets. It would be useful to recall some of the major findings of the IPCC in the various reports it has brought out, specifically the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) that came out in 2007 and the two special reports that were produced in 2011.

On regional impacts, several important findings were put forward in the AR4. For instance, with respect to Africa, it was stated that by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition. By 2080, an increase of 5-8% of arid and semi-arid land in Africa is projected under a range of climate scenarios. The cost of adaptation could amount to at least 5-10% GDP.

The IPCC's Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation has found a warming trend in daily temperature extremes in much of Asia. It is likely that there have been statistically significant increases in the number of heavy precipitation events (e.g., 95th percentile) in more regions than there have been statistically significant decreases, but there are strong regional and sub-regional variations in the trends.

During the period from 1970 to 2008, over 95% of deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries. Middle-income countries with rapidly expanding asset bases have borne the largest burden. In small, exposed countries, particularly small island developing states, losses expressed as a percentage of GDP have been particularly high, exceeding 1% in many cases and 8% in the most extreme cases, averaged over both disaster and non-disaster years for the period from 1970 to 2010.

Based on established IPCC emissions scenarios without additional mitigation measures, a 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions, except in the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, where it is likely to become a 1-in-5 year event. It is also likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe. This is particularly the case in the high latitudes and tropical regions, and in winter in the northern mid-latitudes.

Neither adaptation nor mitigation alone can avoid all climate change impacts; however, they can complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change. Many impacts can be reduced, delayed or avoided with mitigation, as the IPCC stated in the AR4.

The AR4 assessed a range of economically viable and technologically feasible mitigation options. The IPCC found, for instance, that mitigation opportunities with net negative cost have the potential to reduce emissions by about 6 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year in 2030. Realising these requires dealing with implementation barriers. Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes.

In the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, the IPCC found, for instance, that deployment of renewable energy (RE) has been increasing rapidly in recent years. Various types of government policies, the declining cost of many RE technologies, changes in the prices of fossil fuels, an increase of energy demand and other factors have encouraged the continuing increase in the use of RE. The levelised cost of energy for many RE technologies is currently higher than existing energy prices, though in various settings RE is already economically competitive. Monetising the external costs of energy supply would improve the relative competitiveness of RE. RE can help accelerate access to energy, particularly for the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity and the additional 1.3 billion using traditional biomass.

The level of ambition among negotiators arriving at an agreement should appropriately be driven by an assessment of the serious impacts of climate change and the need to avoid them, as well as the attractiveness of reducing emissions early and adequately.

Tags: climate change, Dr R K Pachauri, Kyoto Protocol, UNFCCC, Renewable Energy Sources