UN Climate Agreements

Last week (March 10th-14th) in Bonn, parties to the UNFCCC met under the direction of the Fourth Part of the Second Session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP 2.4). In short, this is the process that is trying to deliver a global deal on climate change over the next 20 months when the world comes together at COP 21 in Paris. The last attempt at such a monumental feat ended in tears in Copenhagen in December 2009.

One might imagine that a process with only a few months to reach a solution on a major global commons issue would be deeply imbedded in the economics of Pigouvian pricing, or at least attempting to see how the global economy could be adjusted to account for this particular externality. However, as we know from the Warsaw COP and previous such meetings that this isn’t the case, rather it is an effort just to get nation states to recognize that a common approach is actually needed.

The pathway being plied in Warsaw resulted in the text on “contributions”, which at least attempts to create a common definition and set of validation rules for whatever it is that nation states offer as climate action from within their own economies. More recently the USA set out its views on the nature of “contributions”. This process is at least trying to get everyone in a common club of some description, rather than having several clubs as has been the case since 1992 when the UNFCCC was created. The diplomatic challenge for Paris will be to find the most constraining club which everyone is still willing to be a member of and then close the doors. Once inside, the club rules can be continually renegotiated until some sort of outcome is realized which actually deals with emissions. This ongoing renegotiation will be for the years after Paris, it won’t happen beforehand or even during COP 21.

But ADP 2.4 in Bonn seems to have gone off-piste. Looking through the Overview Schedule, what can be seen is a series of meetings on renewable energy and energy efficiency. While this may be an attempt to highlight particular national actions as a template for others to follow, it is nevertheless symptomatic of a process that isn’t really dealing with the problem it is mandated to solve; limiting the rise in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

At best, the ADP has become a derivative process, or perhaps even a second derivative process. Rather than confronting the issue, it is instead dealing with tangents. Holding sessions on renewable energy is a good example of this behaviour. The climate issue is about the release to atmosphere of fossil carbon and bio-fixed carbon on a cumulative basis over time, with the total amount released being the determining factor in terms of peak warming (i.e. the 2°C goal). The first derivative of this is the rate of release, which is determined by total global energy demand and the carbon intensity of the energy mix. The second derivative is probably best described as the rate of change of the carbon intensity of the global energy mix, although this can be something of a red herring in that the global energy mix can appear to decarbonize even as emissions continue to rise, simply because demand change outpaces intensity change.

Energy efficiency is perhaps yet another derivative away from the problem. It deals with the rate of change of energy use, but this has further underlying components, one being the rate of change of energy use in things such as appliances and the other the rate of change of the appliances themselves. Efficiency isn’t good at dealing with the immediate rate of energy use in that this tends to be dictated by the existing stock of devices and infrastructure, whereas efficiency tackles the change over time for new stock. That new stock then has to both permeate the market and also displace the older stock.

Focussing on renewable energy deployment and efficiency is a useful and cost effective energy strategy for many countries, but as a global strategy for tacking cumulative carbon emissions it falls far short of what is necessary. Yet this is where the UNFCCC ADP 2.4 has landed. It also seems to be difficult to challenge this, as illustrated by one Tweet that emanated from a Bonn meeting room!!

 Twitter: 10/03/2014 16:47

shameful: US sells concept of “clean energy” (including gas, CCS) at renewable workshop. what hypocrisy / hijacking of process. #ADP2014

Photo Credit: UN Climate Negotiations/shutterstock