The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) is taking place in the city of Durban, South Africa, from 28 November to 9 December 2011. This new round of climate negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will face the enormous challenge of accelerating the construction of an effective framework to fight climate change. The odds seem to be however extremely dim.

On one side, the world economy is been hit by the worst crisis in decades, which will likely scare off funding commitments for the coming critical years. On the other, negotiations have followed a route towards fragmentation and lack of commitment that threatens to muddle action right when it is most needed. The few agreements on action mechanisms have privileged a narrow view on costs, capacities, and policy instruments, as well as an ill-founded trust in market-based solutions. This route may be simply too misguided and difficult to correct on time, especially considering the evidence on the pace of climate change impacts and the close we could be to really dangerous tipping points.

Dangerous change: long-term feedback mechanisms

Ice sheets, rainforests, and permafrost regions seem to indicate that the responsiveness of the climatic system to man-made emissions is escalating. First, 2010 marked a record year in the melting rate of the ice sheet covering Greenland since 1979. A study by the Cryospheric Processes Laboratory at The City College of New York showed that the melting area has been increasing at about 17,000 square kilometers a year over the past 30 years. [1] The trend confirms previous findings by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). [2] The subsequent reduction of the surface albedo is an important feedback mechanisms affecting climate sensitivity: the smaller the ice sheet, the more solar energy is absorbed by the Earth and the more melting occurs. Climate sensitivity to a given concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) increases in the long term with ice melting, increasing the warming effect of GHG emissions on the climate system. [3]

Second, the Amazon River reached its lowest level in 47 years in 2010, experiencing the worst drought in a century. The second worst drought hit the Amazonian rainforest only five years earlier. The two events have revealed another powerful feedback mechanism. In a normal year, the Amazon rainforest absorbs around 1.5 billion tons of CO 2 ; however, the biomass killed by the 2010 drought had a carbon impact of 2.2 billion tons and could reach up to 5 billion in the next years as dead trees rotten. [4] In other words, global warming threatens to turn rainforests from carbon sinks into carbon sources, in addition to destroy one of the planet's richest ecosystems.

Finally, as several recent studies indicate, [5] another large feedback effect is expected to come from the release of methane frozen in the Siberian Artic shelf as permafrost thaws. Arctic regions hold some of the largest stores of carbon in the form of methane hydrates, about 1.6 trillion tons, twice as much carbon as in the atmosphere. [6] It is precisely those regions that have been registering the faster warming rates. Research by the National Science Foundation has shown that methane is indeed leaking from the Siberian Arctic and that only a fraction of the methane captured on the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming. [7] As Russian authorities have estimated, Siberian permafrost may shrink between 15 and 30% by 2050. [8]

Trends and Targets

There is growing evidence that limiting global warming to 2°C will not be enough and that the emission reduction targets will have to be seriously raised up. This is the more urgent as GHG emissions accelerated since the year 2000 far more rapidly than expected in the worst scenarios of the IPCC. The growth rate of atmospheric CO 2 concentration augmented from 6.4 Giga-tons per year in the 1990's to 7.2 Giga-tons per year in the period 2000-2005. If the trend of the last 20 years' continues, human GHG emissions would increase between 40% and 60% from 2000 to 2050. [9] Although reductions in emissions are expected as a result of the economic crisis, the economy is still highly carbon intensive.

To avoid coming closer to highly risky tipping points in climate change, some scientists assert, the atmospheric concentration of GHG should be allowed not beyond 350 ppm (parts per million) CO 2 by the end of the century, which means that global emissions should be reduced much further than the 50% to 85% reduction in emissions proposed by 2050 as accepted in Copenhagen. As shown by the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, a 350 target could be achievable by reaching zero emissions by 2050. While many would think this effort would trigger an unacceptable economic downturn, the study estimates costs around 1 to 3% of global GDP.

If the Earth's climate sensitivity increases as a result of these feedback mechanisms the uncertainty about the future of human and natural systems would expand to radical levels. At some point along the century, even the achievement of a zero emissions society could result insufficient to hold back global warming once it has gain enough momentum. While many solutions to disengage carbon emissions from productive activities exist, we still lack the political and social rearrangements needed to make them real.

Negotiating the future: a bottom-up model or rationalizing failure?

When confronted to the scientific evidence about climate change, the advances in a global framework for regulating GHG emissions look completely out of time. The truth is that climate negotiations have been stuck for a long time and the few advances look weak against the magnitude of the challenge.

Climate negotiations reached their highest point with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. The Protocol was criticized in its early days for its many flaws: its conservative and insufficient (even by the incomplete science of the day) targets, its weak and contradictory enforcement mechanisms, the heavy reliance on market solutions without attention to market failures, and the huge blanks about how to translate the principle of shared but differentiated responsibility into concrete mechanisms of action. Yet it formulated important guidelines like the precautionary principle and put together a blueprint of regulation that matched direction and commitment with action mechanisms into a single legally binding body.

The U.S. refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol pushed the climate negotiations into a spiral of fragmentation and ambiguity. Negotiations on extending the Protocol after 2012 had to be separated from those on mechanisms of action, under the argument of preserving a negotiation floor while advancing the construction of a cooperation framework. The Bali Action Plan specified these two set of issues to different Working Groups. But later on as divided positions on commitments became more entrenched, the trust on the effectiveness of decision-making based on consensus became under siege, opening the way to parallel and opaque negotiations that finally exploded in the COP15 in Copenhagen. The rules of multilateralism, severely damaged in the abrupt closing of Copenhagen, were restored to some extent in the COP16 in Cancun (December 2010), the accords on emission reduction commitments were sacrificed and substituted by voluntary reductions. The decision on extending of the Kyoto Protocol was delayed for Durban, where it will most probably be declared dead. At the best, some of its remains will be recovered is a watershed form.

The current state of negotiations has been labeled as a realistic, bottom-up, de-centralized approach, that proceeds step by step from solid building blocks, instead of a top-down, fully constructed accord. The rhetoric is at least inaccurate (the Kyoto Protocol took actually years to build up). At worst, it is just a rationalization of plain disorder and lack of agreement. And it is especially a dangerous way of reasoning because the action mechanisms that allegedly play as building blocks are not as solid as they are presented.

Mitigation mechanisms

Mitigation mechanisms are allegedly aimed at making our energy and productive structures more “flexible,” in order to gradually introduce low-carbon practices and technologies. Three of them had been already delineated in the Kyoto Protocol: Carbon Emission Trading Schemes (ETS), Joint Implementation (JI), and the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM). A set of new tools has been added in the last COPs: a Green Fund (to be managed by the World Bank), an agreement on technology transfer cooperation and, in the last COP, an agreement on REDD+ ( reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). There are uncertainties about the continuation of CDMs, but the other mechanisms will most probably continue to be adopted as a result of negotiations.

It should be stressed that ETS, JI, CDM, and now REDD+ are not aimed at directly reducing GHG emissions. Instead, they seek to reduce the costs of reducing emissions through market mechanisms, by providing polluters with access to cheaper mitigation options through compensation solutions. But these corporate-, and business-friendly strategies are full of flaws and most likely reproduce the business-as-usual way of doing things. First, they rely on an unfounded trust on the working of unregulated markets that is purely ideological, not based on sound science or empirical facts. [10] Second, in the face of the huge uncertainties and catastrophic risk involved, strategies based on performance, efficacy, and prevention of risk criteria are more adequate. Third, these mechanisms may actually slow down mitigation at a global scale, at least in their current form, by delaying long-term coordination of innovation investments, by lowering down prices if mitigation advances rapidly, and by introducing fake emissions and offsets.

The European Emission Trading Scheme, the most developed carbon market in the world, produced during its first phase an oversupply of permits that led to ridicule prices (down to 1 euro per tons of CO 2 ). It still delivered extraordinary profits. While in the second phase (2007-2012) it introduced a bidding system to allocate permits, a rectification of the cap, and other controls to reduce uncertainty, the market kept an average of € 25 per ton between 2007 and July 2008, but then collapsed with the economic crisis down to €13. Carbon markets have also spread regionally in the US, covering up to date about 23 states and a third of the US emissions. These markets learned from their European counterparts and started by auctioning permits and setting down gradually increasing caps to reduce uncertainty, yet prices have not go beyond $13 USD also as an outcome of the crisis. Moreover, US markets also plan to allow offsets, which could introduce s trong uncertainty about reductions, difficult to verify.

Up to date, CDMs have registered an average of about 500 million tons of CO 2 reductions annually, which is not negligible. But CDM and REDD+ have additional issues like additionally and permanence. There is simply no way to know if those projects would have taken place under other support schemes, reducing overall mitigation efforts. Few CDM projects actually include some component of technology transfer, which largely limits their sustainability and replicability, and contribution to capacity building. [11] CDM have not reached the most needed countries but those more able to compete for resources, enlarging inequality among developing countries.

The lately adopted REDD+ measures are even more exposed to failure. This set of schemes will promote carbon offsets through reduced emissions from reforestation, forest degradation, conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks, and sustainable management. In addition to measurement, additionally, and permanence issues, there are well founded concerns that REDD+ would end up promoting activities that imply the loss of rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, unintended subsidies to large scale industrial forestry, loss of ecosystem diversity through land conversion to industrial plantations.

In their current shape, these mechanisms will hardly provide the kind of systemic impulse and coordination needed, for example, to push forward an accelerated transition of energy systems. They will neither prevent the continuation of activities mostly responsible of deforestation and soil degradation, namely, land use change and industrial monoculture and forestry, and illegal logging.

Negotiations and power balance

Climate negotiations may be experiencing a lock-in into initial mechanisms and ways of approaching the problem that will not suit the emerging evidence on climate change. The fragmentation of negotiations only contributes to this emerging rigidity and institutional inertia. Society, on the other hand, is growing in both awareness and generation of alternatives.

The conservative bias of the climate negotiations, which is expected to dominate again in the Durban Conference of the Parties, reflects not only the concentration of international power in a small group of countries, but also the estrangement of the political elite, in both developed as in developed countries, from broader groups of their societies. The political coalitions that could bring them to the negotiation floor still need to be built u




[3] Lenton. T. et al. (2008), “Tipping elements in the Earth's climate system” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S , vol. 105, no. 6, pp. 1786–1793, pnas. 0705414105. On-line document: www.pnas.org_cgi_doi_10.1073_pnas.0705414105 ; Hansen, J. et al. (2008), “Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS modelE study,” in Atmospheric and Chemistry and Physics no. 7, pp. 2287–2312;

[4] Lewis, S., P. Brando at al. (2011), The 2010 Amazon Drought, Science, vol. 331, no. 6017, p. 554. On-line abstract: .

[5] See for example Schaeffer, K., Zhang, T., et al. (2011), “Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to global warming,” in Tellus , vol. 63, issue 2, pp. 165-180; Lawrence, D. M. and A. G. Slater (2005), “A projection of sever near-surface permafrost degradation during the 21 st century, in Geophysical Research Letters , vol. 32, L24401, doi:10.1029/2005GL025080.

[6] Tarnocai, C., J. G. Canadell, E. A. G. Schuur, P. Kuhry, G. Mazhitova, and S. Zimov (2009), Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region, Global Biogeochemical Cycles , vol. 23, GB2023, doi:10.1029/2008GB003327.

[7] Shakhova, N., I. Semiletov, et al., (2010), “Extensive venting to the atmosphere from sediments of the Siberian Arctic Shelf,” in Science , vol. 327, no. 5970, pp. 1246-1250, doi : 10.1126/science.1182221.

[8] “Russia may lose 30% of permafrost by 2050: official”, AFP, Sunday, 31 July 2011

[9] Raupach, W. R., G. Marland, et al., (2007). “Global and Regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A., pnas. 0700609104. On-line document: www.pnas.org_cgi_doi_10.1073_pnas.0700609104 ; Rogner, H., D. Zhou, et al., (2007). “Introduction.” in Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, et al., (eds), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, US.

[10] For a throughout critique of Carbon Trading Schemes see Lohman, L. (2006), Carbon Trading. A critical conversation on climate change, privatisation and power , Development Dialogue no. 48, September, What Next.

[11] See for example a recent report by the UNFCCC Group on the CDM: .

  • Francisco Aguayo, UNU-MERIT, Maastricht, The Netherlands