Hints from (beyond) Panama: What Can Global Warming Negotiations Accomplish in Durban, South Africa? (Part 3)

[This post is part of a three-part series on the state of the global warming negotiations in the lead-in to the Ministerial meeting in Durban, South Africa this December.  This post—Part 3— covers “what really matters” – actions on the ground.  Part 1 outlined the state of negotiations on the key political issues that will dominate the overall narrative in Durban – the “fate of the Kyoto Protocol” and “where are we headed”.  Part 2 outlines the state of play on the implementation of the Cancun Agreements.]

Developed and developing countries accounting for over 80% of the world’s global warming pollution have made international commitments to reduce their emissions.  So we are done right?  Think again.  After all, what really matters is whether countries follow through with those commitments by implementing new laws, policies, and incentives to significantly reduce their emissions.  While most of the commitments from Copenhagen and Cancun are to be met in 2020, we are already seeing some signs of action by key countries (and some emerging questions).  No one is waiting for “the final global agreement” before they act.  Here are some examples.

United States committed to reduce its emissions to 17% below 2005 levels in 2020 and has continued to stand behind that commitment.  To help reduce emissions the Obama Administration has begun implementing new policies and is required by law to implement additional policies which will shape the trajectory of US emissions. For example: 

Will these actions and others get the U.S. to 17% below 2005 levels in 2020?  The general conclusion from recent analysis finds that: emissions will be below 2005 levels for the next 15 years and could be reduced even further if the Administration implemented EPA and other rules in a strong fashion.  But important decisions on power plants and tar sands in the next couple of months will shape the answer to this question.

China committed to reduce its greenhouse gas intensity by 40-45% below 2005 levels in 2020.  The Government has continued to move forward with actions to meet this objective and build a more low carbon economy.  For example:

A recent analysis concluded that China is on track to meet or exceed its target in 2020 if these measures are fully implemented.  All signs show that China will continue to implement measures to shift its economy towards lower carbon sources of economic growth but continued regulations, incentives, and political commitment are critical to helping deliver on these commitments.  Will these and other measures help to address China’s growing coal use and emissions?    

European Union has committed to reduce its emissions by 20-30% below 1990 levels in 2020.  At this stage they have domestic laws and policies to reduce their emissions to 20% below 1990 levels in 2020.  For example:

In the EU there is an intense debate about whether, and under what conditions, the EU should strengthen its target to 30% below 1990 levels.  Signs are emerging that this debate could be finalized early next year as a number of countries and business officials are urging the EU to strengthen its target.  Will the EU make the move?

Brazil has a commitment to reduce emissions growth by 36-39% below business-as-usual levels by 2020—to below 2000 levels.  In December 2010 that target was translated into national law.  In addition, Brazil committed to cut deforestation by 80% by 2020.  Brazil has made significant progress in reducing its deforestation over the past few years.  Over the past 5 years the deforestation rate has been cut by 67% putting it on a strong track to meet its deforestation reduction commitment.  Unfortunately there has been a recent uptick in deforestation rates from the previous years.  And an effort to undermine the Forest Law has raised strong concerns about the ability of Brazil to continue reducing its deforestation rates.  Will Brazil avoid undermining the Forest Law and continue the downward trend of its deforestation rates?  With the country hosting the next Earth Summit in June 2012, it is even more critical that Brazil put its best foot forward and avoid undermining its efforts to combat deforestation.

By Durban, other countries like Australia and South Korea could be much farther along in enshrining significant domestic laws to curb their global warming pollution.  Both are poised to pass new laws by Durban which would further enshrine their actions.  Will other countries – such as Japan and South Africa have new actions by then?

Other signs of hope have emerged, but much more needs to be done.  Since 2004, new investments in renewable energy throughout the world increased by 539%.  As a result, non-fossil electricity accounted for more than 50% of the new capacity added in 2010.  Similar positive trends have emerged in global deforestation where the rate has declined by 39% since 2000.

But we know that these individual actions and global trends aren’t sufficient to addressing global warming.  Much more will have to be done over the coming months and years.  Countries will have to continue to implement changes to their laws, policies, and incentives in order to reduce their global warming pollution.  And we’ll need to create new financial and political incentives for countries to take the next steps and deepen their actions.

The meeting in Durban is about creating global institutions to help address the challenge (see Part 1 and Part 2).  But what happens in Durban isn’t sufficient as the real test will be what actions are taken on the ground.  After all, the atmosphere doesn’t respect pledges and promises – only actions will do.

*Photo credit: Ms.Carrie

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