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Our Insights 7 Dec 2011

Of King and Countries

By Geoff Lye

Fourth in a series of posts about and from COP 17. Others in the series can be found here: one, two, four, five, six, and seven.

People who know me also know that I am a great believer in serendipity. As I was driven this morning to the city’s Botanical Gardens for The Durban Dialogue organised by B4E, I spotted a Nando’s restaurant and immediately thought of Sir David King who, when he arrived in Oxford to direct the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, agreed to meet me at their temporary offices. These were, as he explained to me as I called for directions, ‘behind Nando’s’. Amazingly, and serendipitously, standing near the registration desk a few minutes later was David himself. With surprise and delight, I told him of the Nando’s connection. He looked underwhelmed.

To show more serious intent, I asked his assessment of progress to date. He suggested getting agreement on the Green Climate Fund as the only critical goal to have COP 17 deliver – the jury is still out, but with some encouraging signs. COP discussions today will include the possibility of a tax on shipping’s bunker fuels (maritime emissions account for 3.3% of the global total and are growing fast). A report by WWF and Oxfam earlier this year estimated that a $25 per tonne bunker fuel tax could generate $25bn a year by 2020, noting that more than $10bn of this could go to the climate fund.

More generally, however, David King remains continuously optimistic on the bigger picture: given my depressing reports so far, talking to him lifted my spirits. As I was flying down here last weekend, I reflected on comments he made at Myles Allen’s recent inaugural professorship lecture in Oxford. In essence, he argued that the Copenhagen Accord has stimulated an extremely positive response in terms of voluntary reduction goals by a huge number of countries. Building on this in a BBC interview last week, he said:

‘Not only is it [Kyoto] redundant, but more can be achieved from voluntary national commitments. What we have is 85 nations with very good voluntary commitments. These nations include China, which is on track to reduce emissions by 2020. And the list of nations in that grouping is expanding all the time. Since we abandoned the effort to make US sign up to Kyoto, we have seen an enormous amount of progress. I hope that the process in Durban does not get bogged down in wrangles over Kyoto and does get involved with putting flesh on the bones of this very good Cancun process’.

In the same interview, Jonathon Porritt took a very different view. You can judge whose side you are on, by listening in here.

I have argued in other blogs that we need to accept that the UNFCCC will not deliver the scale and pace of change necessary to keep below the 2 degree threshold; and that unilateral actions by countries, cities, communities and corporations are essential to success. It is important, therefore, to assess whether the individual country goals in the Copenhagen Accord go far enough. My understanding is that the latest list of countries making voluntary commitments account for close to 90% of emissions (the good news). Given that each country has chosen its own baseline year, scale of reductions (in some cases absolute in others in terms of GHG intensity), it is difficult to calculate the cumulative effect (if all commitments were met) on the likely level of global warming which would result. An early estimate by the Netherlands (PDF) suggests that they are still inadequate to keep within the 2 degree ceiling (the bad news). And the current recessionary climate has pushed the climate security issue way down the political and broader societal agenda (very bad news).

Greenpeace – active inside and outside the conference – calling for leaders not to be swayed by business interests

Given what we might see as the ‘laissez faire’ reality of the UN process, Myles Allen’s lecture included some great insights into how the science of attribution of liability for climate damage is progressing at an accelerating pace. I have repeatedly observed how it is only a matter of time before carbon intensive companies will follow asbestos and tobacco companies into court. Early legal actions have had limited success, but directors of companies that have chosen not to take responsible climate actions since the scientific evidence became irrefutable in the mid-90s are increasingly exposed to liability claims as damaging weather events and patterns become more frequent and the statistical confidence around cause (emissions) and effects (climate change) improves even further. I am talking about this at an event tomorrow. Watch this space.

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