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Giving up on international emissions control

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Hands up those who think that there an enforceable, workable international agreement to limit emissions is still possible? Those with their hands up must be die hard climate activists. Although the hopes for such an agreement have been in terminal decline for some years now, a slew of events in the past few weeks would, in any reasonable debate, cause life support for those hopes to be switched off.

Yet hope, or maybe the urge to propagandise, remains eternal in this area, with the optimists pointing hopefully to the European Union apparently agreeing to new, and tougher targets to cut greenhouse emissions in late October - cutting emissions by 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030 - or at least that's what most of the media coverage said it did.

A closer look at the details, however, dispels that illusion. The cuts are binding on the EU as a whole but voluntary for individual countries and, the biggest escape clause of all, depend on other countries agreeing to similar targets at the Paris climate talks next year. There is no real hope of such an agreement. A just concluded meeting in Bonn in Germany, which was supposed to hammer out an agreement for discussion at the Paris meeting, has wound up after six days of exhausting discussion having achieve nothing.


Delegates remained divided on issues such as the legal form of the agreement, whether there will be different levels of obligations for rich and poor nations and how to assess just how much of has to be done in curbing emissions.

As that meeting showed, despite all the screaming about the need to limit greenhouse gases and frequent meetings, international agreements in this area have gone backwards, not forwards. When the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon called a meeting of world leaders in New York in late September to discuss climate change, several key leaders, notably Chinese president Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and our own Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not trouble to attend. Granted that all those leaders sent senior politicians to attend in their place and plenty of notables did turn up, including President Barack Obama and France's President Fancois Hollande, but China and India are two of the world's two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. Of course, the meeting achieved precisely nothing.

Then there is the news about the Kyoto protocol. The world's only legally binding but very limited global (as opposed to European) emissions treaty was due to run out at the end of 2012, but the 144 parties to the treaty agreed to extend it to 2020 at a meeting in Doha in December 2012. As of September, however, according to a letter from the UN climate change secretariat, only 11 governments have formally accepted the commitments of their negotiators at the conference. The original Kyoto, incidentally, was set up so that most of those who signed, including Australia, did not have to do much to achieve the targets. The apparent reluctance of governments to sign up for its extension suggests that the extended deal has fewer escape routes and, as a result, they might have to incur some political pain to meet them.

This is becoming ridiculous. When then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd charged off to the Copenhagen conference at the end of 2009 to meet the "moral challenge of our time" by gaining a binding agreement on limiting emissions, it was still possible for activists to claim that the formidable task could be achievable.

Critics of the time, including this writer, pointed out that obtaining concerted international action against genocide, or against countries that used poison gas on their own citizens was hard enough, what hope did we have in obtaining an enforceable, effective international agreement on limiting emissions? But those objections were brushed aside with comments that we had to reach such an agreement.

Well we didn't, we still haven't and it doesn't look as if we are going to - at least not in the forseeable future.


As previously noted, there is no agreement on just what next year's Paris meeting might discuss, the stop gap agreement to extend the Kyoto protocol made back in 2012 is still nowhere near completed, and every other conference has failed to produce binding agreements.

This total failure to achieve anything like a useful international emissions agreement has uncomfortable ramifications for the now extensive industry pushing hard for expensive ways for Australia to limit its emissions.

The economic case for limiting emissions was always dodgy at best, as anyone familiar with the lengthy arguments over the Stern report produced for the UK government in 2006 will be aware, but the IPCC report issued earlier this year has, to the surprise of those familiar with the commission reluctance to give ground on any point, made that case even more marginal.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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