Background Paper for A New Framework for Carbon Emission Reductions
Background Paper for A New Framework for Carbon Emission Reductions
The dangers of global warming are no longer restricted to polar bears. Climate change is fundamentally influencing many aspects of human life via changes in precipitation patterns, increased occurrences and intensity of droughts and floods, impacts on human health and settlements, food production, biodiversity, and fresh water supply. These trends are likely to exacerbate in the coming decades if we do not drastically change our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the foreseeable future.
A changing climate is nothing new and has happened for millennia. However, the current human-induced global climate change is taking place much more rapidly than before and with levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHG concentrations in our atmosphere unprecedented in the last 650,000 years. In addition, we are experiencing temperatures that are at least among the highest of the past 740,000 years.
Based on thousands of peer-reviewed research publications, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated with very high likelihood that the recent trends in global warming are due to increased concentrations of CO2-equivalents in our atmosphere as a result of human actions. Human-related emissions of CO2-equivalents stretch beyond the simple burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, gas and oil. Changing land-use, such as the cutting down or burning of forests, changes the natural cycle of CO2-equivalents and indirectly leads to more CO2-equivalents to be taken up by the atmosphere. On the whole, tackling climate changes requires a holistic approach.
The vast majority of international organisations reflect the extensive outreach of climate change. The World Bank, the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, to name a few of the most influential, have all assigned special priority to climate change or have taken up climate change as a major cause for concerns. Many, if not all, of these concerns overlap with the objectives of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
This year’s ECOSOC will contribute to the global effort to avert the deleterious effects of climate change by developing a renewed framework for carbon emission reductions. The following sections will outline the impacts of climate change; give future climate projections and desired targets; list recent action and reduction frameworks; and lastly raise some questions to ponder.
2. The impacts
The impacts of climate change are extensive and fundamental to every aspect of life. Ecosystems and biodiversity are also greatly threatened, but these topics are beyond the scope of the ECOSOC. This section will list some of the immediate and direct impacts of climate change on food security, fresh water supply, human health, sea level rise, and migration and conflict.
2.1. Food security
Climate change will affect all four dimensions of food security, but most notably food production and food systems stability. The background paper on Food Price Volatility already outlines the impact of climate change on food prices, but untouched are the effects on global food production. Food production and availability are affected directly by changing ecological conditions as a result of changing precipitation patterns and temperatures. This changes the suitability of land for agriculture, and will lead, albeit initially, to increases in suitable cropland in higher latitudes and declines of potential cropland in lower latitudes. Canada, Greenland and the West-Antarctic peninsula, for example, can experience big improvements in agriculture (green), but, as Figure 1 shows, the rest of the world will rapidly become uninhabitable (yellow) in a world with 4 degrees of warming.
Figure 1: Impacts on cultivable land at +4 degrees Celsius
2.2. Fresh water supply
Fresh water supply is already scarce in some areas, but this problem is expected to exacerbate due to changes in rainfall, sea level rise and droughts. More than one-sixth of the world’s population live in glacier- or snowmelt-fed river basins and will be affected by changing water flows from melting and receding glaciers, or reduced precipitation. In addition, the already dry areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of Latin America, Southern Europe, the Middle East and South-East Asia are expected to receive even less rainfall, triggering more droughts and human suffering.
Climate change contributes to the global burden of disease, malnutrition and premature deaths. Increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns allow for a greater spread of vector-borne diseases. For example, areas vulnerable to malaria and dengue, for example, are likely to increase. Populations with poor sanitation and health infrastructure, and high burdens of infectious diseases, often experience increased rates of diarrhoeal and other diseases after flood events, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
2.4. Sea level rise
Projected sea level rise for the coming century ranges from 50 to 88 cm due to the warming of the sea. However, this projection excludes glacial melt. The Greenland- and West-Antarctic ice shelves together can cause an additional 12 m sea level rise if things go really bad. Human settlements typically locate close to sea and are as such also vulnerable. Think of the millions of people living near the river-delta in Bangladesh, for example. Virtually all the coastal populations can be at risk, but again it’s the low and middle-income countries that are least able to prepare for such a problem due to financial constraints.
3. The emissions
The human impact on the changing atmospheric composition of greenhouse gases is two-fold. The first and most straightforward has been the increased burning of fossil fuels to create energy or produce goods. Think about combustion engines in a car, but more importantly also the generation of electricity, steel, cement and other energy intensive commodities. A second major factor is land-use, land-use change and forestry (usually denoted as LULUCF), which accounts for changes in the natural carbon cycle and the carbon stored in trees and land. Deforestation and forest degradation, through agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, logging, fires etcetera, account for nearly 20% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions, approximately equal to the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector. Through the loss of forests, the natural carbon cycle is disrupted, freeing the carbon stored in trees and reducing the natural uptake of CO2-equivalents, thereby causing an exponential increase in CO2-equivalents to be taken up by the atmosphere.
The growth rate of carbon dioxide concentration has been larger during the last 10 years (1995–2005 average: 1.9 parts per million (ppm) per year), than it has been since the beginning of direct atmospheric measurements (1960–2005 average: 1.4 ppm per year). In January 2012, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is 392 ppm, much higher than the average concentration of 200-300 ppm as depicted in figure 2. Historically, the CO2 concentration varied naturally, giving rise to warmer periods and ice ages, but the influence of mankind has drastically changed this cycle.
Figure 2: Historic carbon dioxide variations
The IPCC concluded that to avoid dangerous climate change global GHG concentrations should stabilise around 450 parts per million at maximum, which would give rise to an expected increase in temperature of 2-2.4 degrees Celsius. Although this would likely avoid a possible catastrophic effect of climate change, a reduction to 350 ppm is advocated to be safer. However, at current rates and on our current emissions growth path, we are far off from reaching even the 450 ppm target. In fact, by 2100 we can witness CO2 concentrations of up to 983 ppm for the ‘business as usual’ scenario and according to recent emission data we are still en-route to achieving that despite the two decades of contemplating and implementing emission reductions.
4. Recent action
4.1. Rio Earth Summit 1992: UNFCCC
The UN Conference on Environment and Development, colloquially known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Unprecedented for an UN conference not only in its size, but also in the scope of its concerns, the Rio Earth Summit’s aim was to help rethink economic development and pollution of the planet. One of the treaties produced in Rio is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which has the objective to "stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system […] within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change; to ensure that food production is not threatened; and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”
In their actions to achieve these objectives, the signatories of the UNFCCC are guided to protect the climate system for present and future generations on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities. By highlighting the common but differentiated responsibilities, the UNFCCC recognises that developed countries account for 76% of cumulative emissions. Developed countries are therefore chiefly responsible for the current high level of GHG emissions as a result of over 150 years of industrial activity and as such should carry a heavier burden in achieving the common goal.
4.2. COP3 Kyoto & the Kyoto Protocol
One of the most important outcomes of the UNFCCC thus far is the establishment of the Kyoto Protocol during the third Conference of Parties (COP) in 1997. The signatories to the Kyoto Protocol are divided over Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 countries on the basis of the common but differentiated responsibilities principle. Non-Annex 1 countries are the least developed countries, developing countries and the League of Arab states, and are (in theory) less capable and responsible for emissions. The Annex 1 countries consist of the OECD countries and the economies in transition such Russia, and several Eastern and Central European states. The simple difference being that Annex-1 countries are given legally binding reduction commitments for 2008-2012 of on average 5.4% against their 1990 baseline emission levels. A subset of the Annex 1 countries is the Annex 2 group, consisting mainly of the OECD nations. These are required to make payments to the Green Climate Fund, which allocates financial resources to non-Annex 1 countries in order to facilitate technology transfer and adaptation necessary to mitigate climate change.
Also within the Annex 1 countries there is differentiation of emission reduction targets on the basis of historic emissions and projected future growth. To increase transparency, each Annex 1 country is given a number of emission permits on the basis of its reduction targets. These permits are tradable so that market dynamics ensure the most cost-effective form of emission reduction.
Three Flexibility Mechanisms within the Kyoto Protocol allow for trading these permits so as to minimise the cost of reducing emissions and achieving the reduction targets:
1. International Emissions Trading allows for trading of permits between Annex 1 nations that have legally binding commitments;
2. Clean Development Mechanisms are emission reduction projects undertaken in non-Annex 1 countries and generate emission permits that can be traded with Annex-1 nations;
3. Joint Implementation allows for any Annex 1 nation to invest in an emissions reduction project in another Annex 1 nation or “Economy in Transition” as a means to fulfil their reduction obligation.
4.3. COP15 Copenhagen & REDD
There were great hopes for COP15 in Copenhagen to establish a new emissions reduction framework initiating in 2012 when the first period of the Kyoto Protocol would elapse, but such a grand bargain failed to materialise. However, the parties were able to shake hands on the aspirational goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius, as suggested by the IPCC. The Copenhagen Accord also paved the road for the establishment of the Green Climate Fund, where a collective commitment of $30 billion by developed countries in 2010-2012 would aid developing countries achieving the goal of reducing their emissions. The Accord also calls for a mechanism to channel incentives for reduced deforestation.
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. REDD creates additional value of standing forests by attaching a price to the carbon stored in trees. As such, maintaining forests will become more valuable than cutting them down. The amount carbon in a forest is assessed and quantified and on this basis developed countries pay developing countries offsets for their forests. If cost-efficient carbon benefits can be achieved through REDD, increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations could be slowed, effectively buying much needed time for countries to move to lower emissions technologies.
4.4. COP17 Durban & the Green Climate Fund
At the 17th COP, the parties agreed on a roadmap; to adopt a universal legal and binding agreement on climate change as soon as possible, and no later than 2015. Additionally, at COP17 the parties succeeded in approving the Green Climate Fund. Most countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol signed up for a second commitment period. In practice this means that mainly the EU has binding emission targets. Although Canada initially ratified the Kyoto Protocol and fully supported international agreements, the discovery of tar sands (sands containing petroleum) made them drop out: staying in the Kyoto Protocol would hurt their economy.
In the context of sustainable development, the Green Climate Fund will promote the shift towards low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways by providing support to developing countries to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the impacts of climate change, taking into account the needs of those developing countries particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The Green Climate Fund will play a key role in channeling new, additional, adequate and predictable financial resources to developing countries and will catalyze climate finance, both public and private, and at the international and national levels. In addition, the Green Climate Fund is to provide support for initiatives such as REDD and National Adaptation Plans of Action, in which developing countries outline the actions required to adapt to upcoming climate change.
5. Bloc Positions
The United States (US), although recognising the dangers of climate change, are one of the few countries that haven’t ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The US is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases and has the fifth highest amount of per capita emissions. The United States are willing to sign up to a new agreement, but only if the BRICs do so, too. In addition, they are against the idea of paying money to developing countries, most notably to China where it borrows most of its money, but they are willing to pledge some funds.
Brazil , Russia , India and China (BRIC) are rapidly developing, but are also making efforts domestically to tackle climate change challenges. They are advocating that, to maintain their growth, they should focus on reducing emission intensity of their economies, not absolute emissions.
The European Union seeks to regain its leadership in tackling climate change in terms establishing an international agreement and domestic emissions reduction policies. The EU emphasises the needs to raise global ambition and ability to tackle climate change.
5.4. Developing countries
The Africa Group , most Asian countries and other developing at the negotiations are gradually moving closer to the EU’s position and are similarly calling for a binding agreement on emission reductions. A low reduction target would be in their favour as their economies are very vulnerable to climate impacts. However, emission reductions are currently beyond their economic means and out of line with targets for economic growth, therefore they require substantial financial and technological aid. A strong divide between Asia and the EU, however, stems from the different level of development: instead of looking at aggregate emissions, the still developing Asian countries attach a high value to the principle of per capita energy consumption, which is rapidly growing.
Over the past decades our environmental concern has increased substantially, and with good reason. China and India are on the rise, and shortly another 2.5 billion people will aspire to ‘western’ lifestyles, swelling mankind’s carbon footprint to the size of a yeti’s. Even if OECD countries were able to decrease CO2-equivalent output this would barely offset the global increase as a result of growing developing countries. The danger this poses lies certainly not merely in the fact that we would face rising sea levels and higher temperatures. No, the 2 billion people living below poverty level will be the ones facing the real devastating effects, who then face even harsher circumstances and greater difficulties in living their lives. To make matters worse, the people that are most affected are also the ones that are not only the least responsible but also have the least ability to promote the required change.
Historically, developed countries account for over 75% of cumulative global emissions and it is without a doubt that developed countries should therefore get a higher burden. On the other hand, in the light of development, for a sustainable emissions reduction agreement to aid us throughout the next century, we should also take into account equitability. If we have finite global emission reductions, every person should have an equal right to per capita emissions. As such, countries could be assigned emission allowances on the basis of population and gradually the global cap could be reduced. Because the developing nations have initially lower per capita emissions and developed countries initially higher emissions than the per capita cap, there is a benefit for developing countries to trade their surplus allowances with developed countries that are short. This is also called Contraction & Convergence.
A good framework should outline when the desired peak of global emissions should occur by weighing off against each other the costs and benefits of acting early or late. In addition, the framework should address the aspired targets and milestones over the course of the framework, as well as the mechanisms for emission reductions. Do we extend the Kyoto Protocol’s flexible mechanisms (i.e. emission permit trading) or do we assign a tax to CO2? Permit trading is easier to implement politically and therefore has the potential to have more parties sign up to and ratify such an agreement. In addition, permit trading requires an absolute and total ‘cap’ on emissions, which is beneficial if we want to achieve a certain emission target such as 450 ppm. A tax on the other hand is more cost-effective, is more flexible in its adjustments, and has a stronger impact on emission reductions. While each has its pros and cons, a new emissions reduction framework should have clarity on whether it will or will not continue with the infrastructure set up by previous COPs. In any case, the underlying mechanism of any new commitment of the international community should be that public and private institutions are assigned a ‘cost’ for their CO2 emissions such that producers and consumers can take this into account and, to avoid high costs, will control their CO2 emissions accordingly.
The Kyoto Protocol, although for some countries renewed to a second commitment period, is about to expire and soon the world will be without an international agreement on curbing CO2 emissions. It is now up to the ECOSOC to agree on a renewed commitment that is able to achieve the common goals with differentiated actions. The new framework should address the following questions:
• But how do we achieve equitable reductions?
• Should every country have binding emission reductions?
• And how do we decide what each reduction target should be?
• What (per capita) reduction target should we aim for?
• And when should the largest amount of reduction take place?
• How should emissions reductions be facilitated?
• COP17 (2011) Green Climate Fund report of the Transitional Committee
• FAO (2008). Climate Change and Food Security: A Framework Document
• FAO, UNDP and UNEP (2008), UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries: Framework Document
• Freestone, D. (2009), The International Climate Change Institutional and Legal Framework: An Overview
• Helm, D. (2008). Climate Change Policy: Why Has So Little Been Achieved?
• IPCC (2007). Fourth Assessment Report Working Group 1: Summary for Policy Makers
• IPCC (2007). Fourth Assessment Report Working Group 2: Summary for Policy Makers
• IPCC (2007). Fourth Assessment Report Working Group 3: Summary for Policy Makers
• Stern, N. (2006). The Economics of Climate Change
• The Royal Society (2010). Climate Change; A Summary of the Science
• WRI (2005), Navigating the Numbers: Chapter 6 Cumulative Emissions
8. Useful links
• Contraction and Convergence (useful film summarising the concept): http://www.candcfoundation.com/pages/whatis.html
• COP15 Copenhagen Summary
• COP17 Durban Summary
• World Bank (2010), CO2 emissions per capita