Policy & Market


Surprise rise in global emissions brings greater urgency to climate talks in Bonn

The 14th session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Co-operative Action under the Convention (second part) (AWG-LCA 14) is not a title to send the blood racing.

But the meeting next week in Germany — part of the wider UN framework talks on climate change — could not be more heart-poundingly important.

It is another pivotal staging post in the quest to produce a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. And the session at the Maritim Hotel in Bonn, comes amid a flurry of new statistics, painting a dismal picture about escalating carbon emissions.

Previously unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA), out this week, show greenhouse gas emissions grew by a record amount last year, to the highest level in recorded history: 30.6 gigatonnes (Gt), up 1.6Gt on 2009.

This is significant — not just because the figure comes from a highly conservative, hydrocarbon-friendly organisation such as the IEA — but because the world is still recovering from the biggest economic recession and downturn in energy-demand since the 1930s.

It makes you ask what on earth would have happened if there had been no banking crisis and economic slump?

Either way, these emissions put the world back on its “business as usual” path that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had previously warned would mean a 50% chance of a dramatic rise in global average temperatures of more than 4°C by 2100.

The IEA, assembled by Western oil-consuming countries after the 1973 oil crisis to counter Opec, believes the world needs to be at 32Gt in 2020 to avoid massive economic and social disruption.

We are extremely close to this point already, and yet 80% of electricity power stations likely to be in use at the end of the decade are in place (and hydrocarbon-fuelled) and pouring out more than 11Gt of CO 2 annually.

Meanwhile, Switzerland has joined Germany in insisting it will scrap all (low-carbon) nuclear plants. And, as Ben Backwell noted in Recharge last week, national financial bailouts in Europe are demanding cutbacks in subsidies to renewables.

Yet still a debate rages in countries such as the UK and US about whether we can “afford” to pump public money into green technology.

The Bonn climate talks are meant to discuss the need for a second phase to the Kyoto Protocol, whose original agreements run out in 2013.

Russia, Japan and Canada told the recent G8 summit at Deauville they that would not sign up to a second round of carbon cuts under the Kyoto Protocol at UN talks this year.

The US has also reiterated it will remain outside the treaty, European diplomats have said.

Opponents say they want a completely new agreement that would bind developing countries such as China and India, but environmentalists are worried that this is just a delaying tactic aimed at slowing any kind of global deal.

EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard also seems to have given up on pushing emissions-targets from 20% by 2020 to 30%. In the light of the latest IEA numbers on CO 2, maybe that is realistic.

Britain has opted for the goal of a 35% reduction by 2022, but latest statistics from the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change show nearly a 3% rise in 2010 alone.

Norway — not a member of the EU but a leader in the carbon-cut race by virtue of imposing its own 30% reduction by 2020 — saw an increase of 5% in emissions last year, according to new figures.

Interestingly, and deeply worryingly, Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the IEA, told The Guardian: “The significance of climate change in international policy debate is much less pronounced than it was a few years ago. It is difficult to say the wind is blowing in the right direction.”

Which is all very ironic for a renewables industry struggling to make its voice heard above a more politically savvy hydrocarbon lobby, urging ministers worldwide to “dash for gas”.

Oil companies are keen to present liquefied natural gas or shale gas as the answer to everyone’s prayers. Indeed, these are lower carbon alternatives to coal-fired power stations, but they are still adding to the CO 2 burden.

One can take some relief from the fact that Lord Stern, the architect of the influential Stern Report on climate change, is alarmed at the current state of play — but not overly pessimistic.

He is convinced that the five-year plan to 2015 published in March by China, while outside of the Kyoto Protocol, is making strides on cutting CO 2. He says it is time the rest of the world starts seeing the move to a low-carbon economy as a growth opportunity and not a curb.

Here is a short message for the 14th session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Co-operative Action under the Convention (second part) (AWG-LCA 14): time is running out.