Climate change: the last chance

Oliver Tickell
6 February 2007

Climate change is real, its potential effects are catastrophic, and yes, it really is caused by humans. This is the core message of the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published on 2 February 2007. The main scientific findings - including the possibility of a 6.4 C temperature rise by 2100 thanks to positive feedbacks in the world's climate system - have been broadcast across the world. A global consensus is forming as never before, that humanity has to do something about climate change before it gets completely beyond our control.

Oliver Tickell is a journalist and campaigner on health and environment issues. He is the architect of the "Kyoto2" Initiative.

Also by Oliver Tickell:

"Making preservation pay"
(Ecologist, February 2007)

But what exactly are we to do? This is the point at which both the consensus breaks down and our thinking seems to run into the sand. Even organisations who rank global warming as the world's number one environmental challenge are surprisingly short on ideas.

In Britain, for example, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wildlife Fund are united in having no particular policy or even opinion as to how an effective global agreement might be structured. Instead they call for a(largely unspecified) "government action" to reduce national emissions, and exhort us all to do our bit by insulating our attics and cancelling foreign holidays.

It is undeniable that we should all - as individuals, as countries or as companies - try to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions. But in the absence of an overarching regime for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions globally, one person's hard-won reduction in emissions may just become someone else's cheaper, more wasteful use of energy.

Kyoto and beyond

The existing regime for greenhouse-gas regulation is the Kyoto protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signed in 1997. However it has proved entirely unsuccessful as an instrument for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, which have risen, unperturbed, on an even path since 1997.

This is unsurprising. Under the Kyoto protocol only the "Annex 1" industrialised countries have targets to limit their greenhouse-gas emissions, and not by very much; and Annex 1 countries who are missing their targets can meet them through various "flexibility mechanisms" such as the clean development mechanism (CDM).

Thus industrial countries can buy "certified emissions reductions" (CERs) arising from CDM projects to reduce emissions in non-industrial countries, to offset against their own emissions. However most CERs come from rapidly industrialising countries such as India, Brazil and China - precisely where greenhouse-gas emissions are rising most steeply. It is argued that their emissions would be rising even faster without the CDM projects. But this is hard to prove; indeed the CDM investments have contributed to those countries' economic growth, and so may have actually raised their use of fossil fuels.

Clearly if the world really wants to cut greenhouse emissions, it has to move far beyond the Kyoto protocol, and sign up to an agreement which is truly global in scope, fair to all participants, and imposes hard limits on emissions year by year. A package of proposals entitled "Kyoto2" sets out to do exactly this.

Here are some of its key features:

  • define a series of global caps on annual greenhouse-gas emissions for the decades ahead
  • each year, auction tradeable greenhouse-gas production "rights" up to the cap, denominated in tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e)
  • require all producers of greenhouse gases to render rights pro rata to their production in any given year
  • in the case of emissions from fossil fuels, apply the controls to the production of the fossil fuels themselves, since this takes place at a small number of large points of production
  • other industrial sources of greenhouse gases (which produce emissions over and above those of the fossil fuels they consume) include airlines (high-altitude emissions of nitrogen oxides, steam and particulates); cement works (CO2 from calcination); and manufacturers of "potent industrial greenhouse gases" (Piggs, such as the HFCs used in refrigeration and air-conditioning). These industries would have to render rights matching their production, just like fossil-fuel producers.

Also in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change:

John Elkington, "After Stern: let’s get technical"
(2 November 2006)

Saleemul Huq & Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change: from science and economics to human rights"
(7 November 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test After Stern: let’s get technical"
(10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools "
(21 December 2006)

Caspar Henderson, "The president’s new clothes "
(24 January 2007)

John Elkington & Geoff Lye, "Climate change’s right and wrong fixes"
(2 February 2007)

The funds raised from the rights auction - which could reach $1 trillion per year - would be invested in combatting both the causes and the consequences of climate change.

It is hard to envisage any other mechanism that could raise comparable amounts of money. The UNFCCC talks in Nairobi on 6-17 November 2006 stalled on the very question of financing adapation to climate change; barely a few billion dollars were on offer from developed nations, when hundreds of billions will be needed every year as cities flood and whole regions are blighted by flood and drought. We also need funds to invest in developing and promoting the solutions, propelling the global economy into an efficient, low-carbon future, while making sure that the poor are protected from rising energy prices.

A new global regime

The proposals raise many questions. For example, how to get fossil-fuel producing countries on board? One answer would be to use some of funds raised to buy out fossil-fuel resources - and especially those of high carbon fuels such as coal and oil tar - "in the ground", and permanently safeguard them from exploitation, so returning funds to the countries concerned.

As for fossil-fuel companies, they might object to a new "tax" on their production. However at least the Kyoto2 approach would create a "level playing-field" for fair competition and create much-needed market certainty helping them to make long-term investment decisions.

Who would run rights auctions and run the various climate funds? Ultimate accountability would rest with the UNFCCC, but there would be fierce competition for the business among international agencies anxious to play their part - including the World Bank (and its Global Environment Facility ), the UN Environment Programme, the regional development banks, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Another approach would be to give the responsibility to a strong new World Environment Organisation - encompassing the UNFCCC, the FAO, the UN convention on biological diversity (1993), the Montreal protocol  (1989), the London convention (1975), and other global environmental conventions.

I certainly do not expect the Kyoto2 proposals to be the last word on a new global regime for regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. But I do believe that something resembling them, or built at least built on the same principles, will be needed if the world is to reverse the tide of rising greenhouse-gas production. Fail to act at this crucial time and - as the IPCC made abundantly clear on 2 February - the future we are creating for our children and grandchildren is bleak indeed.

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