- Adam Morton
- The Age, December 6, 2008
GOD only knows what Nick Cave thinks about climate change, but it can't be denied that the expat Australian man of letters can capture a mood. Putting its morbid humour aside, the final track of his album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! seemed oddly appropriate listening while shuffling through the old town in the Polish city of Poznan on brisk mornings this week, part of a throng of 11,000 on the way to the world's largest, and most important, gathering of climate change negotiators.
"More news from nowhere," Cave laments repeatedly. "Things are getting stranger here … Things are getting stranger every year."
It may be unfair to tag Poznan as nowhere — it is an attractive city of about 600,000 people just a four-hour hop from Berlin by train. Previously best known as a medieval trade centre, it is now groaning under the hopes of the world, and the demands of hosting a major summit that must leave leaders prepared to sign a post-Kyoto climate deal next year. Certainly, the local tourist industry is making hay; some hotels have bumped up rates tenfold to more than $A1000 a night. Poznan is simply not big enough to house all the visitors — some delegates have reportedly chosen to commute daily from Berlin, a decision that does nothing to help the meeting's carbon footprint.
More reasonably to the passing observer, and notwithstanding all the hot air that will be expelled this fortnight, "nowhere" is an apt description of the state of global climate talks.
Think about it: the world's leaders have acknowledged the extent of the problem. A year ago about 120 governments including the biggest emitters — the US and China — signed off on a report by the UN's chief science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that found global warming was real, almost certainly man-made and required immediate action to ward off dire consequences. It suggested emissions be halved by mid-century. Developed countries — responsible for more than three-quarters of emissions in the past 250 years — must take the lead. Australia was among those to back the UN's recommended action for the rich: an overall 25 to 40 per cent cut by 2020.
At the summit in Bali that followed, bureaucrats squabbled for two weeks before finally agreeing that yes, OK, they could work together on trying to reach a new deal to tackle this. It was only last-minute concessions that got them that far — any mention of targets for wealthy countries was expunged from the main Bali road map at the insistence of the US.
A year on, the best climate minds from nearly 190 countries are together again. But while the weather in Poznan is unseasonably sunny, relations between opposing blocs of countries gathered in a mini-city sized convention centre remain overcast. There will be plenty of news from Poznan — arguments about who should pay the hundreds of billions of dollars needed in the fight against climate change in developing countries, how to tackle the 20 per cent of emissions caused by deforestation, how to spread clean energy technology to all reaches of the globe — but there will be no deal, and at best only incremental steps towards one. Already, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer is preparing people for the possibility the full text of a new deal may not be thrashed out by the deadline in Copenhagen late next year.
Negotiations continue in this vein — and here is the strange part — despite published scientific projections about the pace and impact of climate change continuing to worsen. The British Meteorological Society's Hadley Centre recently estimated emissions would need to start falling by 3 per cent a year as soon as 2010 to prevent the world warming 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels — seen as the tipping point for the slide into unpredictable, but catastrophic, climate change. It is an impossible ask: even from the 37 industrialised countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol, emissions have risen this decade.
Polls consistently show people want their leaders to take strong action. But a novice stumbling into the first week of game-playing, blustering and cries for help in Poland could be forgiven for thinking they have stepped into a parallel universe, where for some major countries talk and PowerPoint presentations are a substitute for commitments on green energy and building sea walls in low-lying countries.
"The UN negotiations are completely buggered," one senior Australian observer close to the negotiations told The Age before the meeting started, and there is a view among pessimists that the best hope for action is a basic, low-level global deal augmented by a series of bilateral agreements, with the centrepiece being a deal between the US and China.
Consider a short shopping list of events in Poznan this past week:
¦The US is in no man's land, waiting for the man who will be king. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to vigorously engage and cut emissions unconditionally, but he is not represented at the talks. Instead, there are President George Bush's lame duck negotiators, who have worked against the Kyoto treaty and who were heckled for standing in the way of an agreement in Bali. They had promised not to be disruptive of Obama's plans in Poland, but old habits die hard. Some observers are accusing them of continuing to run interference behind the scenes.
¦Europe is hampered by infighting, mostly brought on by the global financial crisis, but also a result of trying to get 27 nations to agree on the fine detail of an emissions trading scheme. While Britain is ramping up its targets, Italy and a bloc of East European nations led by coal-dependent Poland want more favourable deals for their own industries before signing off a plan to cut emissions by 20 per cent if the rest of the world does little, and 30 per cent if a new deal is reached.
¦The developing world is under pressure and fed up. With the International Energy Agency projecting 97 per cent of emissions growth by 2030 will come from the developing world, rich nations are increasingly calling on poorer states for the first time to take on binding commitments to limit the pace at which their greenhouse footprint expands. Even Europe, long the champion of rich nations taking first and ultimate responsibility for stopping the damage, has called on China and India to rein in their emissions growth by up to 30 per cent. Japan — likely to miss its Kyoto goal and not planning to reveal its 2020 target until next year — caused acrimony by proposing that a developing countries forum be split into three, basically so the biggest polluters, again, read China, could take on targets. China and India refuse to give ground. Their attitude remains: "You were responsible for historic emissions. We're dragging ourselves out of poverty. Why should we show our hand before you?"
South African Environmental Affairs Minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk made the most overt public attack on the rich, setting aside diplomatic niceties to urge Australia, Japan, Russia and Canada to first put up substantial 2020 targets if they expected their poorer cousins to come to the table. India challenged the European Union on the summit floor, saying it was a myth that economic growth would continue at a similar rate when action was taken to cut emissions.
According to Climate Institute research and policy director Erwin Jackson, India and Russia may provide the biggest stumbling block to a new deal. An observer of climate talks for 20 years, Jackson says India is usually lumped alongside China as a developing nation that should be acting, but is a different case due to its much greater poverty. An estimated 400,000 Indians still lack electricity, and its diplomats react less than diplomatically to suggestions it should even consider targets.
Russia is bound by the Kyoto agreement, but will meet its target easily after its electricity infrastructure and industry collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Now it speaks only of wanting "aspirational targets", amid suggestions its leaders are comfortable with the prospect of its cold climate warming a degree or two, regardless of the amount of methane it will release from melting Siberian permafrost. Both Russia and India are canny players in the negotiations.
'IT'S THEIR unpredictability that is the problem," Jackson says. "Russia is like a sleeping bear — everyone forgets about them until the last minute."
Then there is Australia. In a pre-conference submission it called for countries to put their 2020 targets on the table, then rejected its own advice when Climate Change Minister Penny Wong delayed Australia's announcement until after the Poland conference.
Australia's bureaucrats in Poznan also faced accusations of game-playing after Australia called for two separate tracks of negotiations — one between Kyoto Protocol countries looking at targets and the other taking in the mostly poorer nations who are not — to join as one group. This is eventually inevitable if a deal is to be worked out, but the timing shortly after Australia delayed its target infuriated China.
On the flipside, Australia won some praise for being one of the few wealthy nations to acknowledge a call from China and the group of 77 developing nations for the rich to dedicate 1 per cent of GDP to help them develop clean energy technology and adapt to climate change that is already locked in. (Just acknowledging, not agreeing to —such are the incremental nods and winks of international diplomacy.)
The general tenor, though, is a far cry from the Bali summit just a year ago, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd received a standing ovation after ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and Wong impressed the conference with her mastery of the issues just nine days after accepting the climate portfolio. She will return to the world stage along with other ministers next week.
Despite calls from governments, environmentalists and scientists for greater action, there is growing expectation Australia will commit to a target of a 5 per cent to 15 per cent cut, an acknowledgement it must also deal with business concerns. The Chinese delegation at Poznan says this will not be enough: 25 per cent must be the minimum commitment for all developed nations. "That is our position because it comes from the science," a spokesman says.
But UN climate chief Yvo de Boer, while refusing to be drawn on what Australia should do, suggested there may be some wriggle room for a lower target to be acceptable given Australia's emissions-intensive economy.
"It is physically impossible for all industrialised countries to end up within that (25 to 40 per cent) range; some would be outside it," he told The Age.
Ultimately, the talks remain a Mexican stand-off — a case of who will blink first.
The lack of activity in the summit's formal negotiations is partially masked by an endless stream of summit side events and stalls, ranging from a dancing floor that generates electricity to sober discussions about the rising danger of drought, higher sea levels and mass starvation.
The number of meetings is matched only by the jargon — enough to fuel another season of the The Hollowmen. A speech is an "intervention", side meetings are "bilaterals" even if more than two groups turn up . The goal for the conference is to reach a "shared vision" for co-operation, though this is tempered by talk of "burden sharing". Some are less inclined than others to swallow the double speak. Saleemul Huq, a scientist from low-lying Bangladesh who heads the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, told a news conference: "If they want to talk about burden sharing, they can come to Bangladesh and share the burden with us."
A major sticking point that must find some resolution in Poland is working out who, at a time of global financial crisis, is going to stump up the cash needed to help developing countries act. Aid agency Oxfam estimates the commitment must top $US50 billion ($A78 billion) a year. It proposes forcing rich nations to pay for a fraction of their international emission permits, but focusing on the aviation and shipping industries, which mostlyoperate outside the reach of greenhouse schemes.
"The large amounts of money required can be generated without necessarily putting extra burdens on governments," Oxfam Australia climate change campaigner Julie-Anne Richards says.
Another proposal often floated is using revenue from the sale of carbon permits to business, but Australia won't do this under its current emissions trading plan — all revenue goes to helping households and businesses with rising costs.
De Boer doubts the developing nations' proposal for the rich to pay 1 per cent of GDP into a special fund is feasible, pointing out the world is already failing to meet its millennium goal commitment of 0.7 per cent being set aside to eradicate poverty and fight AIDS and child mortality.
The US is already signalling it is not in a position to pay. Former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who will lead a Senate committee to Poland next week that will report back to Obama, has warned that the financial crisis is likely to prevent it investing heavily.
It is a major problem. "Some industrialised countries will not be willing to sign up to a commitment if they don't also know that some developing countries are willing to take real, measurable action," de Boer says. "Those developing countries will not be willing to take real and measurable action if the money isn't on the table. All industrial countries would have to contribute to a financial package that allows developing countries to engage — that's a given for me. How those countries generate (the money) for that is up to them."
Regardless of the domestic turmoil Obama faces, many insiders remain cautiously optimistic that things will come together next year. Obama is the great hope for a deal in Copenhagen, and this summit is largely running in his shadow. The President-elect's videolinked speech to a recent Californian climate change conference, in which he reiterated his determination to act despite the economic downturn, buoyed hopes. Mostly, so has his ongoing commitment to an 80 per cent cut in emissions by 2050, and a 14 per cent cut below today's emission levels by 2020 (usually expressed as a return to 1990 levels).
But he is not immune from criticism. Both China and India this week said he was not going far enough.
One of the arresting presentations made on the conference floor this week illustrated why without making any mention of the US. Dr Ian Fry, the Australian who acts as international environment officer for the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu, did what hardly any other government is doing — talked about the science. Introducing himself as a "sacrificial lamb" speaking on behalf of the poor, he emphasised the growing belief among scientists that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees does not go far enough, and would cost 90 per cent of the world's coral reefs and trigger glacial melting. Low-lying Tuvalu would disappear into the ocean.
The only answer, he says, is to aim for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 380 parts per million — roughly where we are now — and limiting the warming to 1.5 degrees. And he warned against commonly accepted rules that let rich countries meet targets by paying plenty for cheaper cuts in poor countries while doing little at home.
"Clearly, our objective must be the goal of reducing absolute emissions by (wealthy nations). We should not be developing a suite of rules that give us paper reductions."
His talk was followed by a Canadian presentation that mostly outlined the steps it was already taking.
De Boer has seen all this before and is not above being worn down by the negotiations, having shed tears during the protracted final stages of the Bali debate. He says the year since Bali has been a good one "for confidence building and getting proposals on the table", and notes things can happen quickly: many of the targets accepted in Kyoto were more ambitious than those proposed at the start of the conference.
But he wants industrialised nations to take the lead as promised as the summit works towards giving officials a mandate to turn an 82-page working plan into a concrete proposal. Poznan is a stepping stone to Copenhagen, but must deliver progress once ministers arrive next week if a deal is to be achieved in a year, he says.
"The process really needs a kick up the backside and to get down to serious negotiation."
Adam Morton is environment reporter.