There are only a few big issues to be resolved at these climate change talks in Doha, and the biggest will be the hardest to achieve — not because it can’t be done, but because the countries involved simply won’t. It is a perfect metaphor for all the problems that plague these talks.

New research released in recent days confirms that the Kyoto Protocol is buried under such a huge surplus of credits that, by the time it winds up in 2020, may offset all the reductions in emissions achieved. Worse, the excess may even carry over into a new treaty supposed to start from 2020, diluting ambition before it is even started.

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It is a flash point in Doha, because developing countries have made extending the Kyoto Protocol a crucial condition for their agreement to work on a new treaty that will be binding on all parties. They have seen a commitment to Kyoto as an act of faith by the developed world. Now they are wondering if it is worth it.

It is now estimated that by the end of 2012, there will be 13 to 14 billion surplus AAUs (Assigned Amount Units) that will be carried over into the next commitment period.

This surplus has been long expected. It comes from generous allocations made to the eastern European bloc as one of the many last-minute compromises struck to seal the original Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The so-called “Australia clause” — which allowed Australia a generous allocation for land use — was another.

Negotiators knew there would be a surplus, but presumed it would be rapidly bought up by the likes of the US. But the US never came to the party, and the surpluses were further inflated by the collapse of the east European economies.

The question has been what to do with this surplus. Until a year ago, the EU had pledged that it would fight to have the credits removed, but has quietly dropped that insistence because it cannot pull Poland — the recalcitrant that has worn climate-spoiling tactics as a badge of honour — into line.

Even if the credits are not traded, they are still carried over, and could allow countries to continue business-as-usual as far as 2034, according to some scenarios highlighted by a new German study — hardly the recipe for a dramatic reduction or an effective treaty to meet the growing scientific call for urgent action to meet the target to restrain warming to 2 degrees.

The Australia clause

It’s worth pointing out Australia’s position in this regard. Australia benefits from the hugely generous “Australia clause” that allowed it to increase its emissions (108 % target), and benefit from a favourable baseline on land use and clearing. Some view these benefits — judged to be around 80-90 million tonnes — as just more hot air. Others have reframed their position, pointing out that it may have been generous, but not all surpluses are bad, because they can formalise a change of practice.

One of the proposals on the table is to restrict the use of excess credits to only those countries that achieve an actual fall in emissions in the second commitment period from 1990 levels. Australia only just makes it — at 99.5 per cent. Australia’s position — panned in the past — is tolerated because the focus is really on Russia, because it could have 7 billion tonnes of its own, and Poland, because it is neutering the impact of Europe.

Obama’s coming-out climate party?

One of the big questions at this year’s talks has been whether President Barack Obama would hold some sort of “coming out party on climate” — as one person put it — after his recent election victory? Given the importance he accorded climate in his victory speech, and the assumption that it could be seen as one of his key legacy issues, will there be a major change in tone in America’s negotiating stance?

Well, maybe not quite yet. Obama’s chief negotiator Todd Stern sought to hose down any optimism in his first appearance today. “I don’t know if I would think about this in terms of different tone here,” he said. “We’ve done quite significant things in the first four years of this administration.”

Stern then proceeded to list a range of regulatory measures that had been introduced in the absence of a federal carbon price — regulation on transport emissions, on power plants, and on buildings and internal appliances, and the big switch from coal to cheaper shale gas.

All up, Stern said, the US was on track to achieve a 16.5 % reduction in emissions just from the policies in place — compared to its stated pledge of  cutting emissions by 17 %. Surely, then, it wouldn’t take much for the US to increase its ambition?

Nope. And therein lies another of the devilish details that make these negotiations so difficult. There’s numerous ways to skin an emissions target, and each can tell a completely different story. Meyer, for instance, noted that the 16.5 % estimate was for CO2 only and did not take into account greenhouse gases. Further, he said, the 17 % target was from 2004 levels, and it represented just a 4 % cut from 1990 levels, the benchmark for most nations. Still, Meyer remains hopeful that Obama will act. “This is legacy issue for him — it is unfinished business.”

Et tu, Brute?

Hedegaard went even further, noting that while the EU had decreased emissions by 18 % since 1990, the US had actually increased its by 10.8 %. The issue around hot air permits sometimes hides the fact that the EU has been successful in decoupling economic growth (small though it has been) from carbon emissions — and it would like to be more ambitious if it could pull other countries along with it.

And Hedegaard noted, there were other measurements of note. The EU’s emissions per capita, she said, now stood at 7.5%. China, she said, had early caught up with per capita emissions of 7.2 tonnes. The US was well ahead, with 17.8. Russia stood at more than 12. Perhaps it was time, she suggested, that these nations, as well as rich emerging nations like Qatar, also made pledges of some sort. There are some who think that may be in the wind. The start of the ministerial round tables that it is hosting from Wednesday could be the perfect opportunity.

“We need to be more ambitious,” Hedegaard said. “But what are these countries doing? We will over-achieve 2012 reduction target, and we are on track for our binding commitment (of 20% below 1990 levels by 2020).” The EU is in fact at 18%, which is why it is prepared to move to 30%, but can’t — partly due to Poland, partly because it needs other countries to move first. Doesn’t everyone say that?

Fossils of the Day

One of the fun things at the annual climate change talks has been the awarding of the Fossil of the Day prizes by the environmental NGOs to the countries considered to be doing the most to derail negotiations. This year, it has a decidedly Anglo-Saxon flavour — with Canada nominated on several occasions, along with New Zealand, which wants out of the Kyoto Protocol but wants to keep trading the credits all the same.

The NGOs even gave the Kiwis the ultimate insight when they won the first placed fossil today: “All this shows that NZ is becoming more and more like the ‘old’ Australia.” Would the Kiwis take that as a compliment or an insult?

*Giles Parkinson reports on energy policy and the environment for RenewEconomy

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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