What needs to happen in the climate change talks in Poznan?

December 2, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

Two new Oxfam papers set the scene for the climate change talks getting under way in Poznan this week. ‘Climate, Poverty and Justicegives an overview, while ‘Turning Carbon into Goldcrunches some numbers on how to raise the kinds of amounts needed to finance adaptation to climate change in developing countries.


First, let’s remind ourselves of what’s at stake: Global warming has already reached 0.8°C over pre-industrial levels. To avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate impacts, global warming must remain well below 2°C. Inaction or low ambition in current UN negotiations means increased risks, faced by poor people first and worst. There is a window of opportunity in which to cut emissions, but it is closing fast.


Even below 2°C, there will be major, often devastating impacts, on the lives of the poorest people, and on poorer countries. For example, with this level of warming, as many as 1.8 billion people will face dwindling water availability. But if emissions are not cut and temperatures rise beyond the 2°C limit, then the world will face catastrophic consequences, dashing any near-term prospect of overcoming poverty. If global temperatures rise to 3°C, up to 600 million more people will face the risk of hunger, and water shortages could affect up to 4 billion people. Worse scenarios arise if temperatures rise beyond 4°C: 300 million facing coastal flooding; many island nations doomed; 1.5–2.5 billion people exposed to dengue fever; and a 50 per cent decrease in water availability from South Africa to Latin America to the Mediterranean.


What sort of a deal would shape up to this kind of challenge? Here are some top line goals:


1. Agree to negotiate a treaty that keeps global average temperature increases well below 2°C. This must include a clear timeline and commitments for reducing global emissions – they must peak in 2015 at the latest and be cut by at least 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Leadership is already coming from the US – in a dramatic departure from current US policy, President-elect Obama has expressed support for immediate steps to enable the USA to reduce emissions by 80 per cent (below 1990 levels) by 2050.


2. Rich countries have the biggest responsibility as well as the greatest ability to pay for the global mitigation and adaptation action required. Shouldering their fair share of the global burden means, for instance, that the EU must go substantially beyond the intermediate target of a 25–40 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 if developing countries are not to face a 15–30 per cent cut in emissions on their own.


3. Richer countries must help developing countries’ mitigation efforts by contributing finance, technology, and capacity-building. This is not aid; rather it is part of rich countries’ fair share of the global mitigation effort. This finance must be additional to development-aid commitments.


With aid budgets already under pressure from the recession, where can we find the additional $50bn a year that Oxfam estimates is needed for adaptation needs in developing countries? ‘Turning Carbon into Gold’ identifies some examples of what the Bali Action Plan called ‘innovative financing mechanisms’, namely:


Auctioning off just 7.5% of the international emissions allowances (known as Assigned Amount Units (AAUs)) allocated to each developed country with an emissions commitment and setting aside the proceeds could yield approximately $50 billion by the year 2015.


Revenues could be generated from sectors such as international aviation and shipping that are currently not regulated under the Kyoto Protocol. Auctioning off emission allowances in those sectors could generate more than $12 billion and $16.6 billion, respectively.


Funds should be delivered through a UN adaptation finance mechanism with a focus on the perspectives and needs of those communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The best way to achieve an adaptation funding mechanism under the UN is to build on the Adaptation Fund as part of a post-2012 climate agreement.


Estimated revenues for year 2015 in USD


Annual revenue at $45/ton allowance price


AAU Auction (7.5% of allowances auctioned)

$52 bn

Aviation Emissions Trading Scheme

$12.4 bn

Maritime Emissions Trading Scheme

$16.6 bn


That’s the scale of what’s needed, but how likely is it that Poznan will deliver? My work on ‘how change happens’ in From Poverty to Power and elsewhere on this blog suggests that technological and economic changes on this scale will always require some kind of shock to force politicians and others to overcome obstacles and take action (remember how Hurricane Katrina shifted the US debate, or the impact of drought in changing Australian policy). The challenge on climate change is to lay the groundwork by shifting public and elite attitudes through research, argument and campaigns so that relatively small or medium shocks suffice to catalyse action, and we do not wait until a true climate cataclysm to act, by which time it will be too late for much of the developing world (and quite possibly for anyone else living within a few metres of sea level).


December 2, 2008
Duncan Green