April 16, 2009
Blogactiv wants to help its readers to better understand the world. Climate change is one of the big challenges of this century and it is a complex issue. It is therefore appropriate to give an overview. Eberhard Rhein, who regularly writes on energy and climate, had lectured on the subject in Malta earlier this spring. He has revised his text for publication by blogactiv.eu and you will therefore be able to read the comprehensive text of his lectures in the coming weeks. This is the third of six chapters.
It has taken the international community a long time to realise that climate change is taking place and that man is responsible for it. Even today a considerable number of even educated people refuse to admit the anthropogenic nature of climate change.
It is remarkable how long scientists have ignored to question the effects of rising C02 emissions from power generation and traffic during the last century.
At the beginning of the 20th century a hardly known Danish physicist had raised the issue of what would happen with the ever increasing amounts C02 emitted by industry, power etc. But nobody followed it up.
It took almost a century before the climate issue came to the forefront of the environmental debate.
In 1973, after the first oil shock, the Club of Rome published Denis Meadows:”The Limits of Growth”. For the first time, some one dared to ask how humanity could afford to expand economically without reaching any limits. After all, the planet is a closed system with strictly limited resources, which at some stage would be depleted. As an economist, Meadows did not include the atmosphere in his reflections. He only reminded humanity that the known resources of gas, oil, and even coal would be depleted in a matter of decades or a few centuries. Nobody took him serious. Everyone referred to past experience when resources had always proved to be bigger than projected, due to more refined exploration technologies, recycling and more efficient use of scarce materials.
In the 1980s, the USA and Europe were confronted with the first trans-national environmental shock, acid rains from burning fossil fuels with a rich sulphur component. Some of these emissions were blown across the Atlantic, causing forest damage in Europe.
Sulphuric acid was rapidly identified as the main culprit, and the USA, also under pressure from Europe, agreed to take the necessary action to reduce sulphuric acid emissions from power plants, linked to coal and oil with high sulphur content.
To facilitate the phasing out, the USA invented a system of emission trading, which has been copied 20 years later for tackling the much more dangerous, though not visible green house gas emissions, under the Kyoto Protocol (1997).
But until this day, the USA continues to fight against sulphur emissions. Utilities have obtained extremely long transition periods, as successive US governments have refrained from sharply cutting back the amounts of emission certificates.
The first real global climate threat occurred in the late 1980s, when scientists discovered the “ozone hole” in the South Atlantic, a dangerous depletion of the atmospheric ozone shield that protects life against an excess of UV radiation.
As early as 1973, a Californian chemist had developed the hypothesis that a chemical substance used for cooling purposes, chlorofluorcarbon (CFCs), might have destroy the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. Naturally, the chemical industry disputed this hypothesis most vehemently, until the moment when in 1985 meteorologists were able to prove the existence of an ozone hole in the southern Atlantic.
That was enough to provoke a rapid reaction by the international community, with the USA taking the lead.
The international community quickly realised the need to stop emitting such gases and prohibit their manufacture and use. This was relatively easy: CFCs were produced by a small number of chemical companies in USA, Europe, India and China. It was therefore sufficient to get these countries around a table and negotiate an agreement phasing out CFCs, which happened through the Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the Ozone Layer, the first veritable climate agreement. It entered into force in 1989, just four years after the discovery of ozone hole! By 2006, practically all UN member states had ratified the agreement: everybody benefited from it, only very few had to take action, the cost of which was negligible.
It provides for the progressive phasing out of the consumption and production of CFCs. Up to 2006, the size of the ozone hole continued to grow, and it will take until 2050 until the ozone hole will have completely disappeared, provided China and India will strictly adhere to the rules for implementation. Thus even a tiny defect in the atmosphere generated by a banal chemical substance takes 60 years of commitment, strict monitoring and above all full implementation by the international community to be fully restored!
Though the stakes were tiny in terms of industrial employment, it was necessary to include two provisions into the Montreal Protocol, which have since become permanent features in climate diplomacy: differentiated phasing out, with the industrialised countries advancing and financial compensation for developing countries. The phasing out period foreseen for CFC`s will last until 2030, almost half a century, far too long in view of the availability of alternative cooling gases. The financial compensation was modest ($ 2 billion for 1991-200).
The Montreal Protocol is considered by many as the most effective international agreement to date. That is only partially true.
The agreement has two major flaws:
– The major one is the admission of substitution gases – hydrofluorcarbons (HCFs) – which have an extremely negative climate impact- 10 000 more powerful than C02! – and therefore need to be phased out as a matter of urgency.
– The other one is the snake-like phasing out of CFC`s.
The machinery of the Montreal Protocol continues to operate and will continue to do so for another 20 years or even longer.
This shows the dangers of fiddling around with the earth and the atmosphere.
The start on climate policy after 1990
In 1988 WMO and UNEP have created IPCC, the indispensable scientific basis for all national and international climate policy. This was a milestone in international climate science and policy. Without its scientific evidence humanity would be nowhere today. During the past 20 years the panel, composed of world-renowned meteorologists and climatologists has become the undisputed scientific authority for all issues related to climate. It links all scientific climate centres so that any new research results will immediately be cross-checked with those available elsewhere.
It has formed three working groups on mitigation and climate change, climate impact, adaptation and vulnerability.
Almost in parallel, at the Rio de Janeiro UN Conference on Environment and Development 1992, the international community has negotiated the “UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” (UNCCC). It is a short text containing principles for the protection of the atmosphere, but no specific commitments for action. No surprise that it has been ratified by all UN member states!
It had one major consequence for future climate policy:
The negotiation of an operational agreement aiming at limiting the emission of green house gases, which became the Kyoto Protocol (1997).
The era of climate policy, including the term, thus counts less than 20 years, an extremely short time span for what historians will one day define as the most critical era in the history of mankind. Climate change is likely to mark the future course of human history more dramatically than any other event, even if humanity decides to tackle it resolutely in the coming decades.
If humanity were to fail with tackling climate change in time, which is quite probable, humanity will be heading for disaster.
Legally, the Kyoto Protocol is an operational annex to the “UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”. Its negotiation was relatively rapid, less than five years, considering the novelty and complexity of the subject matter.
Its main objective is to stabilise the level of green house gas concentration in the atmosphere and thereby preserve sustainable climate conditions on the planet.
To that end, the protocol calls upon humanity to reduce green house gas emissions, above all C02, below 1990 levels, the year chosen as reference. For the first period of application ending 1908-2012, it limits the obligation to cut emissions to only 45 industrialised countries, which, in 1990 (!), accounted for about two thirds of global emissions.
It sets a very modest average reduction target of only 5 percent below 1990 levels to be reached by 2012 latest, differentiated according to parties.
The EU volunteered to reduce by 8 percent, the most ambitious commitment, considering its lead in energy efficiency and alternative energies, from nuclear to wind.
In essence, the Protocol follows the approach the international community had adopted for solving the ozone problem 10 years earlier: graduated commitments according to countriesˆ abilities, long transition periods, with two novelties : the possibility of buying and selling “emission allowances” taken from the US acid rain provisions of the 1980s and allowing countries and companies to partly acquit their commitments also by investing abroad in measures of energy efficiency and renewable energy (not nuclear power), if that were equally effective than at home but cheaper.
Despite its good intentions the Kyoto Protocol has failed in reversing or at least stopping the inexorable rise of green house gas emissions. Since 1997, global emissions have risen faster than ever before.
– The USA did not ratify the text. This has fundamentally weakened its effectiveness. Until 2006 the USA was by far the biggest emitter. Without its participation, the burden sharing stopped functioning. Its absence served as a pretext for countries like Canada and Australia not to take any serious commitments (carbon leakage).
– Russia ratified only in 2005, eight years after signature. This enabled the protocol to enter into force, but it also allowed Russia not to take any commitments for reduction, though Russia is among 10 biggest emitter countries.
– The emissions of emerging countries, above all China, surged much more rapidly than negotiators had anticipated in the early 1990s. This was probably the single most important shortcoming of the agreement, but something for which negotiators should be pardoned: who could have foreseen China’s ultra-rapid ascent towards an economic and political giant in the mid-1990s!
– The absence of an effective monitoring procedure, providing for penalties in case of persistent non-compliance with the commitments taken was only the last straw.
– As a result of these factors the Protocol proved incapable of reducing green house gas emissions. Instead of keeping them stable, as projected, global C02 emissions surged by about 40 percent between 1990 and 2006, essentially due to big emitter countries like China, USA, India and Canada. But even those of Japan continued to rise by 15 percent. Due to the excessively fast global economic growth they are bound to rise further until 2012, with a slight dent in 2009-2010.
From 1990 onward, climate policy has been in the hands of the UN bureaucracy.
The UN “Framework Convention on Climate Change” (UNFCCC), negotiated in 1992 in the wake of the Rio Conference, constitutes the over-arching legal instrument for everything that has so far been achieved in international climate policy.
Since then, its Secretariat has had the main responsibility for steering international climate policy. Its achievements fall far short of what would have been needed to effectively change the dangerous path towards a warmer planet on which humanity proceeds. But could it do more against the lukewarm attitude not to say outright open opposition from the international community?
Before going into the nitty-gritty of the Copenhagen negotiations we need to focus on the two essential issues for any successful climate policy, the availability of the appropriate technologies and policy instruments.
Concretely: How can a country reduce its green house gas emissions? Can it rely on alternative technologies for replacing fossil energy? If such technologies are available how can it induce business and consumers to shift to those technologies instead of using coal, oil or gas?
Eberhard Rhein 07.04.09Author : Eberhard Rhein