Taking (carbon) stock of the Paris climate negotiations in the wake of November 13

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As the citizens of France and the world mourn the loss of life in Paris earlier this month at the hands of misguided fanatics, it is troubling note the parallels between the inability of the global policy community to combat both religious extremism and climate change. Consider the following scenario. A global menace, that has been years in the making, largely created by the industrialised nations, has reached a point where its catastrophic consequences demand an international response. Millions of people in the less developed world are drawn into the conflagration, and hundreds of thousands more are displaced. Yet the intergovernmental regime, and the United Nations in particular, seems powerless to do anything, paralysed by a bizarre set of mutually incompatible interests. Seeing an existential threat to their own way of life, countries that could easily help alleviate the suffering of ordinary civilians squabble amongst themselves, and hide behind their own increasingly militarised borders. This in turn only serves to exacerbate regional tensions as affected populations become ever more desperate to flee the escalating situation, angered and embittered by the lack of action. The inevitable consequences: more conflict, and more people on the move. Spot the difference?

As the twenty-first Conference and Meeting of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change approaches, the scenario outlined above seems ever more likely. The endless round of pre-negotiations referred to as the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), and the two work streams, focusing on the 2015 agreement, and the post 2020 ambition have not yet brought anything substantive to the table. There is still no indication as to whether the now-expired Kyoto Protocol will be replaced by a ‘protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force’. In addition, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions do not look as if they will be enough to limit global temperatures to the 1.5 degrees centigrade increase above pre-industrial levels recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Given the results of the 2013 national assessments of greenhouse gas emissions by sources and removals prepared for the Bonn mid-year negotiations, this does not come as a surprise. But it does come as a bitter disappointment. It is hardly unexpected that Australia, which negotiated an emissions increase for itself above the 1990 base year, delivered on its promise. Given the current Federal Government’s love affair with coal-fired power, it should also be no surprise that the increase should come from the energy sector. But it is none the less alarming when it is taken into consideration that over 1.4 million small-scale solar systems are now installed in homes and business across the country, accounting for 2% of electricity generated. More disappointing, is a comparison with Austria, conveniently located next to Australia in the reporting tables, which despite a previous commitment to reducing them by 19%, exceeded its emissions target by 22% (OECD Economic Survey 2013: 130), despite actively participating in the European Union Emissions Trading System.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? The Clean Development Mechanism, one of the Kyoto Protocol’s ‘flexible’ mechanisms, has registered over 7,000 projects in developing countries, which it claims have led to over 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being ‘offset’ from activities in developed countries, and purchased by companies to meet national carbon reduction targets. However, the fate of the CDM is caught up in the negotiations to take place in Paris. Despite some initial teething problems, its robust project design methodologies, and accounting procedures have injected some rigour into emissions trading. But it is not well loved by NGOs, who claim abuses of human rights in some projects, and it might be argued, by some developing countries, which favour non-market mechanisms (Cadman 2014).

This good news is overshadowed by industrialised country posturing over who pays for the damage inflicted on low-lying countries by sea-level rise from historical emissions of greenhouse gasses. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage has been another of the negotiating streams that seeks to address issues associated with the impacts of climate change, but the idea of compensation was blocked by Australia and Britain in 2013. There seems to be no progress in the wake of this year’s negotiations in Bonn, despite a further meeting in September, and without it, the legitimacy of the climate deal has been questioned. Given that the Syrian crisis has been partly linked to drought induced by global warming, the need for an equitable solution to both the mass movement of people and climate change is all the more pressing.

But it is also easier to blame the climate negotiators for lack of action, than it is to confront the massive complexity that finding a solution poses. With 196 signatories, including the EU as a region, and over 300 institutional elements, agreements, organisations, bodies, and formal and informal groupings it is amazing anything gets done at all. Perhaps a global convention to combat religious extremism is not such a bad idea.

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