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Climate Change Outpaces U.N. Talks

By Sandi Halimuddin

Yesterday, as the United Nations’ annual climate-change mitigation convention, otherwise known as Conference of Parties 19 (COP), commences in Warsaw, Poland, the shadow of the devastating typhoon in the Philippines looms large. The Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), which so far has caused in 1,700 deaths, according to early Tuesday reports by CBS, is a sobering reminder of the scope and severity of climate change.

The coincidental timing of COP 19 and the Haiyan (Yolanda) storm is eerily reminiscent of last year’s COP 18 in Doha, which took place following Hurricane Sandy, the most destructive storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. One year later, climate-change related tragedies continue to devastate—and climate change mitigation negotiations continue to disappoint.

The UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a non-binding agreement to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and address the adverse effects of climate change, has been marked by political gridlock and marginal progress at best, especially in recent years.

The expectations for COP 19 are low, but in light of recent events it’s apparent the stakes are higher than ever. Human behavior continues to fuel and accelerate extreme climate change at a frightening pace. In 2012, atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions resulting primarily from burning fossil fuels, reaching a record high of 393.1 parts per million, or 141 percent of pre-industrial levels, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Last year at COP 18, the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that sets binding targets for industrialized countries to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, was successfully renewed following the 2008-2012 commitment period. While developing countries are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol legally binds developed countries to stop global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In 2012, 37 industrialized nations and the European Union signed on to the Kyoto Protocol second commitment period 2013-2020. The renewal of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012 was commendable: participating parties agreed to a target to contribute less than 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, not all parties participating in the first commitment period renewed vows under the Doha Amendment. Canada withdrew from the treaty in 2011, and other key players such as Japan, New Zealand, and Russia have not been active during the second commitment period. In a highly controversial but unsurprising move, the United States never ratified the Protocol.

Ultimately, COP 18 participants were unable to make progress on key issues. Specifically, they failed to reach an equitable agreement on sharing responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions between developed and developing nations.

While this admittedly complex and controversial negotiation process is routinely defended as a step in the right direction, it’s dangerous to continue complacently accepting non-results. Current international agreements are not enough. The slow pace and progress of negotiations belies the seriousness of climate change.

Even if Kyoto Protocol participants successfully deliver respective pledges to reduce emissions, 2020 greenhouse gas emissions will be 18 to 27 percent above the 2 degrees Celsius target, according to a recent U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) report titled “The Emissions Gap Report 2013”. The report also states that an inability to close the emissions gap by 2020 due to delayed actions will induce higher rates of climate change at higher costs. 

However, authors of the UNEP report are optimistic about the potential to reach the 2020 goal through “increased ambition,” or the international community’s will to collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 2-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It’s not an easy task; while developed countries are historically the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, developing countries bear the more pressing burden of climate change. The divide between developed and developing countries in international talks is counterproductive, often leaving poorer nations without sufficient funds or means to mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

At previous COP meetings nations aired their differences. At COP 19 it is time to bridge those differences. If there is any hope for the nearly written off COP meetings, major strides by all participants must be made at Warsaw to secure a post-2020 agreement and capture more ambition pre-2020.

Although the UNFCCC benefits from universal range, the success and credibility of COP in upcoming years will be undermined by half-hearted participation of major industrialized countries suffering from misguided exceptionalism, like the U.S., where domestic politics undermines international ideals. While critics of the Kyoto Protocol may argue that U.S. climate change mitigation efforts can be tackled more effectively independent of the UNFCCC, ultimately national efforts are not enough. Climate change is an international problem that demands an international response. Future participation of the U.S. in a legally binding international effort can raise international ambition necessary to actually close the emissions gap by 2020 instead of merely talking about it.



Sandi Halimuddin is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal. 

[Image courtesy of Compfight]






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