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Bridging the gap: political science in Durban

durban.2.JPGWith the first week of the United Nations’ climate negotiations coming to a close, the discussion here in Durban has taken shape. As expected, much will depend on the outcome of a fierce debate over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, but that question has blossomed into an existential free-for-all covering ambitions, intentions and firm schedules that will tie everything together. In other words, negotiators and environmental groups are once again talking about the need for a binding international treaty.

Driven by science and the fear that they are most at risk, small island states and the least-developed countries are pushing for an immediate resumption of formal treaty negotiations. The United States cites the existing framework and says that there is no need to implement a treaty before 2020. Europe is once again seeking the middle ground, arguing for a schedule (Durban Roadmap, anybody?) that would put the world on track for a new round of legally binding emissions reductions within a decade.

“A legally binding instrument is needed as soon as possible, but no later than 2020,” Tomasz Chruszczow, the European Union’s lead negotiator in Durban, said Friday.

This follows a year of negotiations focusing on political agreements, non-binding commitments and near-term goals, initially laid out in Denmark in 2009 and then affirmed last year in Mexico. Under that framework, developed countries have agreed to ramp up funding to US$100 billion annually by 2020, and in return, developing countries — particularly those with rapidly emerging economies — have agreed to register their own commitments to reduce emissions.

Driving the discussion is the ever-mounting scientific evidence of global warming’s impacts.

Talk of climatic threats to agriculture in Africa and beyond is commonplace, as are references to extreme weather. Scientific assessments also indicate that present government commitments fall woefully short of what governments say they want to do, which is limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. A full accounting of this discrepancy, as well as some solutions, are available in the United Nations Environment Programme’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report.

The short story is that the world now emits around 48 gigatonnes of carbon each year, and most integrated assessment models that combine climate and economics suggest that emissions need to drop to around 44 gigatonnes by 2020 to maintain a likely chance (66%) of remaining under 2 degrees. Add up all of the current commitments, however, and you have a gap of 6–11 gigatonnes. It’s known as the “gigatonne gap”, and it serves as a kind of negotiating baseline for many countries and environmentalists.

“There is no single pathway,” counters Jonathan Pershing, the United States deputy climate negotiator. Sooner is of course better, Pershing said Friday, but it is possible to make up the gap with more aggressive reductions down the road. “There are many many options.”

This might be true, but everybody agrees that the longer we wait, the more expensive it will get. Indeed, the integrated assessment models suggest that at some point, it will become so expensive that it will be practically — if not technically — impossible. For that matter, environmentalists and many negotiators say that what is holding the world back on more aggressive emissions reductions is not the means to get the job done, but the will.

“There’s nothing technically preventing us from doing any of this,” says Keya Chatterjee, director of International Climate Negotiations for the environmental group WWF in Washington DC. “There are no technical barriers; they are all political barriers.”

More on all of that next week as negotiators work to avert disaster and identify a politically palatable path forward — and some money to make it all happen.


  1. Report this comment

    Walt Peterson said:

    I saw an article recently that showed that atmospheric CO2 has been dropping since a high of 2000 ppm during the Jurassic Era, and that indicated that current relatively low CO2 levels have contributed to the Ice Age that characterized the Pleistocene Era. Does that mean if we don’t stop carbon emissions that the Ice Age will cease, and that if we do the Ice Age will continue with another Glacial Epoch? If so, which is preferable?

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    John Harrison said:

    What options is Jonathan Pershing referring to? What evidence is there for these many options? This is a very easy media soundbite to make but compared to the months of analysis by so many authors and organisations contributing to the UNEP assessment, for a negotiator, the argument presented here is rather weak.