22nd Oct 2016

World climate talks 'going backwards,' EU says

  • Climate change is melting glaciers that millions depend upon for fresh water (Photo: Marina and Enrique)

A global climate deal is further away than ever, with discord among nations reaching a new low at talks in Bonn over the last week and with the EU warning that discussions are not so much advancing as going into reverse.

"These negotiations have if anything gone backwards," said Connie Hedegaard, the European Union's climate action commissioner, on Friday (6 August) following preparatory UN talks in the German city ahead of a summit in Cancun, Mexico at the end of the year.

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"This imbalance is not helpful and could seriously endanger the prospects of securing the successful outcome the world needs from the Cancun climate conference next December."

The US for its part also accused some developing countries of backing away from their support for the Copenhagen Accord, the three-page statement of principles cobbled together in the dying hours of the UN climate talks in Denmark last year by a minority of states, but never formally adopted.

On Friday, US negotiator Jonathan Pershing said: "At this point, I am very concerned."

"Unfortunately, what we have seen over and over this week is that some countries are walking back from progress made in Copenhagen, and what was agreed there."

Washington wants major emerging economies to commit to serious carbon reductions in line with the promises made by their wealthier counterparts and says that the developing world is still placing too much emphasis on sharp cuts by the global north instead of all states.

Most developing countries however argue that with the rich north largely responsible for historical emissions, it is unfair to limit poor countries' ability to industrialise in the way that Europe and America did in their time.

The quid pro quo on offer was that the poorer nations would limit their emissions but only in return for substantial "climate finance" - funds to pay for them to make the expensive shift to a low-carbon development path.

But climate finance too has proved to be a major bone of contention.

Under the Copenhagen Accord, wealthy countries committed to "mobilising" $100 billion a year in a mix of public and private financing by 2020 for these purposes and $10 billion a year by 2012 in "fast-start" cash. While some nations argue that this is far lower than the World Bank's estimated $400 billion a year it will cost to make the green shift in the global south, others have preferred to take the guaranteed cash on the table rather than wait for a payday that may never arrive.

Mr Pershing described the climate finance demands of some nations as "staggering sums out of line with reality."

But recent reports from aid NGOs have shown that even the lower sums committed to last December are failing to materialise, with, in the case of the EU, member states attempting to just re-channel existing development money and re-christen the same cash as "climate finance," while roughly a third of the bloc's annual contribution for fast-start funds is coming from loans rather than direct aid, further indebting poor countries.

Carbon emissions cuts also are insufficient, complain in particular small island nations, many of whom fear sinking beneath the waves as a result of climate change.

UN scientists say that wealthy countries must trim emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to avoid catastrophic global warming. However, according to the UNFCCC, a UN climate secretariat, the pledges made in Copenhagen last year will deliver reductions of just 12-18 percent. When loopholes are taken into account, this figure drops to just nine percent, according to research by the Stockholm Environment Institute, a Swedish government research body, and the Third World Network, a think-tank close to developing nation governments.

In response to the impasse, some developing nations in Bonn articulated a new approach - an equitable sharing out of the remaining "carbon budget" the planet has left.

The world has a "carbon budget" of 750 gigatons of emissions by 2050. These nations argue that, like a bank account with a limited amount of cash, what carbon space is left in the kitty should be shared out fairly based per person, rather than per nation, but also taking into account historic emissions.

While wealthy countries represent just 16 percent of the world's people, they take up 74 percent of the carbon space, noted Bolivia's negotiator at the talks, Pablo Solon.

"With the current pledges on the table, we have calculated that the [rich] nations are going to spend the whole [carbon] budget of the next 40 years in the next 10 years," he said. "It is like a salary. If you spend it all in the first week then you have nothing left for the rest of the month."

The EU's co-chief climate negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger, however described the concept as "a cul de sac. It leads nowhere."

The text on the table has now expanded to 34 pages up from 17. Talks with the aim of an international binding agreement began in 2007.

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