The men in suits tackle our future

It seems the Australian government believes the UN climate process isn’t so important these days. [27 November 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Qatar’s opulent National Convention Centre in Doha, venue for this year’s UNFCCC meeting

The Persian Gulf is getting into its cooler phase at this time of year, in the mid- to high-20s, which makes it a very tolerable venue for the delegates to this year’s annual global climate talkfest in Doha, capital of Qatar.

But the meeting itself — the 18th conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which got under way yesterday — is likely to be anything but cool.

The world’s top carbon emitters, the US and China, are lining up against each other on the issue of whether the big developing countries, led by China, should share equally with developed nations the responsibility for reducing emissions to acceptable levels.

The UN position on this has always been no — the main responsibility rests with the big historical emitters (including Australia), and countries like China, India and Brazil should not be held equally accountable for their emissions until they have achieved “developed” status.

Fifteen years after this was expressed in the Kyoto Protocol, China’s emissions per person have just passed Europe’s. This is fuelling the Obama administration’s push to draw China into the rarefied orbit of the developed world, with its higher level of responsibility to act.

The US is also at odds with China in its bid to raise the profile of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), a group of 17 of the world’s larger national economies including Australia. China sees such a move as threatening the central role of the UN negotiations.

In this at least, Australia seems to be leaning toward the US. At Doha, for the first time in many years of UN climate meetings, a cabinet secretary (Mark Dreyfus) will lead our delegation. Climate change minister Greg Combet says he has higher priorities.

Whatever may be Combet’s other priorities, this is not a good look. A delegation led by a lowly-ranked minister signifies a low expectation about the outcome. What a come-down from Copenhagen, where world heads of state shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and traded insults!

There’s another thing warming the Doha pot. Three years after Copenhagen was told the world was “on the brink”, dire warnings about our future have come from none other than those suited bastions of global corporatism, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

IMF economic modellers Michael Kumhof and Dirk Muir used IMF’s advanced Global Integrated Monetary and Fiscal Model to map the world economic future if the present low growth rate of oil production continues. Remember, this is entirely independent of whatever happens to our climate.

The paper’s cautious language belied its message. Briefly, Kumhof and Muir say that with no cost-effective substitutes for oil to hand, supply constraints could have an “extremely large” impact on the global economy, with effects ranging “from dramatic to downright implausible” if two or more likely scenarios unfold together.

The outlook is very messy indeed when climate is added into the mix, which is where the World Bank comes in. This is the same World Bank that in 2008 was the number one lender for the construction of coal-fired power stations. Paradoxically, for many years it has also championed climate science.

The bank’s new leader, Korean-born Jim Yong Kim, contracted Germany’s Potsdam Institute to examine what the planet would be like with warming of 4C, the likely outcome if we don’t reduce our carbon emissions substantially. In fact most models suggest this is a conservative figure

The World Bank released its study ten days ago, and it’s not pleasant reading. Noting calculations that current UN emission pledges will bring up to 4C warming, Kim described the report’s findings as “devastating”.

The study found that a world 4C warmer would feature “unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services”.

According to the report the world’s poorest regions with the least capacity to cope and adapt will be hardest hit. Weather in the tropics will be far beyond historical extremes experienced by humans and the rest of nature, with very severe effects on agriculture and ecosystems.

Tropical and subtropical regions (including northern Australia) will suffer increasing drought. Sea-level rise in the tropics is likely to be 15 to 20 percent above the already-high global mean. Tropical regions will also suffer a disproportionate impact from increases in cyclone intensity.

Science’s biggest concern is the rising rate of emissions. The study finds that we’re adding about 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. Its level is now at 391 parts per million, higher than it’s been for at least 15 million years.

In the absence of new effective measures, says the World Bank report, by 2020 our emissions will be 41 billion tonnes, a rate of accumulation even faster than today’s record-breaking rate of 1.8 ppm a year. That’s orders of magnitude greater than anything known from the geological record.

In 2005 the eminent UK economist Nicholas Stern called climate change “the greatest market failure ever seen”. If that’s what it was then, what kind of mess are we in now?

This is the problem facing the Doha delegates. And we’ve sent a junior minister to represent us.

• Tasmania’s landmark forest agreement and Australia’s ratification of “Kyoto 2” together open a door to pricing forest carbon and bringing it into the discourse on forest management. There remains much to do, but one day timber may not be the only money spinner from our trees.

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