In the wake of Doha

Professor Brendan Mackey, Griffith Climate Change Response Program
Professor Brendan Mackey, Griffith Climate Change Response Program

By Professor Brendan Mackey,

Director of the Griffith Climate Change response Program

The 2012 U.N. climate change treaty negotiations in Doha have concluded with little to show on the mitigation front. We are no closer to solving the root cause of the problem: reducing fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide to a small fraction of the ~30 billion tonnes we currently emit each year. Unless we collectively achieve this mitigation goal, the planet will continue to heat, ice melt, sea levels rise, extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, and we face increasing harm to humans and nature, along with growing risks to all aspects of our economy.

In the wake of Doha, many political commentators, including major newspaper editorials, are now calling for the U.N. talks to be abandoned and for the big polluting countries to work out some kind of deal among themselves, arguing along the lines that the time has come for climate change action rather than talk. Alas, if only our world were so simple. The reality is that international relations remain dominated by short- term national self-interest, narrowly defined. Ethics — doing the right thing and avoiding harm to others including future generations — is typically understood as relevant in international affairs only up to the point it becomes inconvenient.

If human-forced climate change is to stop then we have to cease using fossil fuel. If we wish to limit global warming to around 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels then the collective human endeavour can only emit a total of about 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 60 years. If we are prepared to live with more than 2 degrees C warming then a larger amount of carbon dioxide can be emitted over a longer time period. Whatever the climate change goal, in the absence of a U.N. negotiated legally binding mitigation agreement we will be relying on voluntary commitments between the world big carbon emitters to solve the problem. Without agreement on the emission reduction target and timetable, and how the permissible emissions are to be allocated among the world’s nations, we will have to hope that the fortuitous aggregate outcome of voluntary actions by some countries magically delivers the solution.

Abandonment of the U.N. negotiations would also leave the issue of financing climate change loss and damage in developing countries to the largesse of wealthy nations such that adaptation becomes a matter of charity. Furthermore, it is politically naïve to think that the majority of the world’s population will sit by idly and leave the future of their planet to the “big boys” to play with. It would be a retrogressive step of enormous proportions to abandon the rule of law to an anarchistic-like approach and mere voluntarism. In any case, even reducing say 80% of fossil fuel emissions will not solve the problem as the remaining 20% will still over-run natural sinks leading to ongoing increasing in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations which would interfere with the global climate system for thousands of years. Mitigation is a global problem whose solution demands the cooperation of all players, big and small.

Nevertheless, U.N. climate change negotiations are in desperate need of a re-refocussing on the three primary mitigation questions which, by analogy, come down to (1) what is the size of the “global carbon pie” (the total permissible CO2 emissions) , (2) how long do we have to eat it (the year at which we achieve zero emissions), and (3) how do we divvy up the pie (allocating the permissible emissions among 7-9 billion people in 193 sovereign states)? One approach to answering these questions is called “Contraction and Convergence” (C&C) based on the total carbon budget and schedule, national allocations based on the per capita principle, with the added “justice lever” of a negotiated point in time at which national per capita emissions converge (see If agreement could be reached on these three questions, then the foundation would be in place to continue negotiations on the vast array of secondary (albeit important) issues concerning actions to reduce emissions, adapting to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, financing and technology.

At some point, theRealPolitikof international relations must meet theRealEcologikof what the Earth system can absorb. Re-focussing U.N. negotiations on the three primary mitigation questions could provide the breakthrough the world community is seeking, enabling negotiations to conform at a basic level with what planetary boundaries prescribe while delivering, to quote Aubrey Meyer the founder of C&C, “climate justice without vengeance”.

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