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Posted by on Dec 17, 2014 in Blogs |

COP 20: Constructive or A Waste Of Time?

COP 20: Constructive or A Waste Of Time?

Credit: Flickr User Boris Rasin. Conference of the Parties (COP) conferences have been frequently labelled failures, as a post-Kyoto agreement has yet to be designed. The Lima conference in December 2014 is set to be no different, with delegates admitting that no agreement will be made this session even before the conference begins. Such a stance is intended to allow the groundwork to be set to finally bring together an agreement in Paris in December 2015. The framework to be written at next year’s conference would come into force in 2020. This delay is necessary as it is expected that parties submit their own national targets, and nations are using this session to provide information on their intended targets for next year’s framework.

Since Kyoto was established, governments have focussed on national commitments in order to meet the targets rather than address international negotiations for future frameworks. However, the Kyoto Protocol has been heavily criticised, as it is not legally binding or enforceable. This was exemplified when Canada dropped out of the Protocol in 2011 after failing to meet emissions reduction targets in order to avoid large fines.

A framework which holds nations accountable to emissions reductions targets is vital. National agreements and getting nations to set their own targets have limited effectiveness. This is because a self-preserving state would not set themselves overly challenging targets in order to avoid the embarrassment of failure or the restrictions particularly stringent targets might impose on fossil fuel based economic growth. Given that containing temperature increases within the 2OC threshold is now considered unlikely, strategies to achieve more ambitious targets must be implemented. However, governments would not self-inflict the restrictions necessary.

This is an example a classic case in Game Theory: the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the collective action problem. The equilibrium reached in the Prisoner’s Dilemma is not optimal, as players do not cooperate. In the case of climate change this would mean sub-optimal levels of pollution, with players representing countries. Countries are either willing to commit resources to reduce emissions, or free ride and do not make commitments, shirking the costs of abatement. The uncertainty surrounding the exact tipping point results in free riding being a more popular choice: reducing emissions immediately is costly, whereas continuing the business-as-usual level emissions and leaving the cost of abatement to other nations is cheaper for that country. However, as climate is a public good, the collective action non-cooperation problem must be addressed. Retaliatory strategies which penalise countries for not cooperating is a feasible solution, which can be achieved through enforced international treaty participation with sanctions on signatories who do not meet targets.

The threat of sanctions would lead to low self-determined targets being set, in order to avoid sanctions. An example of insufficient targets is the recent agreement between the US and China in November 2014. In the agreement the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, and China would peak emissions around 2030. China also committed to cap annual coal consumption in the year 2020.

While the pact is promising and the media has lauded the agreement, the content of the pact is not ambitious given that the US and China are the world’s top emitters, contributing about 42% of the global total in 2013. Dr. Canadell, head of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Global Carbon Project, explains the insufficiency of the American half of the pact: “At the current rate of emissions – of about 10 billion tonnes of carbon a year – we have less than 30 years to fully decarbonise.” Carbon emissions must peak globally by about 2020 and then begin to fall about 3% annually for decades; “Both commitments don’t seem to be too consistent with the goal to remain under a 2-degree increase,” Dr. Canadell said.

Comparatively, nations are more than willing to give money to the cause, with the recently developed UN Green Climate Fund as an example. The Fund is intended to help developing countries shift to low-carbon, climate-resilient growth, set up in November 2014. It has already received $9.5 billion in commitments. The US has made the largest national pledge of $3 billion in November at the G20 summit.

There have been alternative suggestions made for the post-Kyoto framework, which would avoid the problems of self-determined targets. A submission from the European Union Member States proposed making both emissions reduction accounting and compliance legally binding. Although this may dissuade some nations from signing the future agreement, Canada dropping out of Kyoto has shown that an agreement must be legally binding.

In conclusion, although the current conference in Lima will not produce a framework, it has been carefully designed to lay the groundwork for a framework which will be determined at next year’s COP. However, permitting countries to set their own targets is fundamentally flawed. While allowing nations the flexibility to determine their own targets is intended to encourage ambition and participation, maintaining the critical threshold of 2OC will require more than the agreements which countries are willing to self-inflict, such as the pact which China and the US have made. On a positive note, the unprecedented US-China pact and the willingness of countries to contribute to the UN Green Climate Fund is extremely promising for the future of global climate change efforts.

Image sources:

COP 15 protest march, Flickr User Kris Krüg.

Climate Change Debate, Flickr User Boris Rasin.

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