About $1 billion in Japanese funding that Japan claimed was part of a UN initiative to help developing countries take action against climate change went, unnoticed, towards Japanese companies for the construction of three coal-fired power plants, the Associated Press reported Monday.
Coal-burning power plants are the world’s biggest source of atmospheric CO2, a key driver of global warming.
U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres was apparently unaware of where those funds wound up until it was brought to her attention by the AP. Figueres told the AP that "there is no argument" for supporting coal-powered projects with climate money, and that "unabated coal has no room in the future energy system."
The slip-up highlights major gaps in oversight when it comes to funding climate projects in developing countries. The three power plant projects, built in Indonesia by Japanese companies, were listed as “climate finance.” But the U.N. has no formal definition of what constitutes legitimate climate finance, nor does it have a watchdog agency to ensure climate dollars end up in appropriate places.
Japan allocated the funding to Japanese companies under U.N. loans described as “thermal power plants,” with no indication that they were coal-fired projects.
The funding came from a pot of money established by the U.N. in 2009, when wealthy nations pledged to accumulate $30 billion in climate finance over the following three years. At the time, Japan agreed to provide about half that sum. Meanwhile, the recently-established Green Climate Fund, which has similar goals to help poorer nations adapt to the warming climate, also has no watchdog agency or formal definition of climate finance, according to the AP. President Obama recently pledged $3 billion to the fund.
Japan denies any wrongdoing in the case of the coal plants, and it appears the country has not broken any laws or treaties, since there was never a formal definition of climate finance.The revelation comes at a particularly embarrassing moment for the U.N., while international climate negotiators are meeting in Lima, Peru, to forge a draft agreement to slow global climate change.
This article was corrected to clarify that the nearly $1 billion were not specifically U.N. funds, but rather Japanese funds that Japan claimed at the U.N. were part of its contribution to a U.N. initiative on climate finance.
World leaders are gathering in Lima, Peru, for the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. A primary goal of the meeting is to build the foundation of a new climate agreement—to be struck in Paris next December and take effect in 2020—that can have a meaningful effect on global emissions.
In advance of the meeting, governments have shown new political will to address climate change. Several major economies, for example, have recently come forward with targets to curb emissions. In October, the European Union committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
In November, the United States and China—the world’s largest emitters—jointly announced that the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China would peak CO2 emissions around 2030. China subsequently also committed to cap its annual coal consumption through 2020, after which its use of coal is expected to decline.
At the same time, more than 20 countries have come forward to financially support the Green Climate Fund, a new multilateral fund that will help developing countries shift to pathways of low-carbon and climate-resilient growth. The fund now has more than $9.5 billion in commitments. The United States pledged $3 billion—the largest national pledge to date—during the G20 summit in November.
The spate of recent announcements has invigorated the U.N. negotiations for several reasons. First, the announcements from the United States, China and the European Union on reducing emissions indicate that the Paris agreement could have genuine participation from the world’s major economies.
Second, strong financial pledges build trust among the parties. In the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, developed countries agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 from public and private sources to help developing countries rein in emissions and adapt to climate change. Recent commitments from the United States and others to the Green Climate Fund indicate that developed countries intend to ultimately fulfill the Copenhagen pledge.
Third, the fact that the United States and China jointly announced their targets indicates that the antagonism between developed and developing countries that has burdened previous negotiations—and still poses a real threat—may be lifting. It is also notable that developing countries are beginning to join developed countries in financially supporting the Green Climate Fund.
Progress on a new climate agreement will depend on parties coming together to resolve the following issues, which will be under discussion in Lima.
Whereas the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 required emissions reductions from only developed countries and therefore covered only a fraction of world emissions, the Copenhagen Accord counted 141 countries as participants but lacked the ambitious mitigation targets necessary to adequately limit warming. The Paris agreement—in contrast to both Kyoto and Copenhagen—is meant to couple participation and ambition.
In order to promote participation, parties will determine their own national targets. In order to promote ambition, other countries and civil society will be given the time and information necessary to examine the targets, which is thought to encourage parties to submit their best efforts.
Parties are expected to submit their intended targets—known as intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs—in advance of the Paris meeting to allow a so-called sunshine period for discussion. Major and emerging economies are expected to submit INDCs in the first quarter of 2015.
A primary task for the Lima negotiations is for parties to decide what “upfront information” countries should include with their contributions. This will enable others to appraise and compare targets, measure progress and assess targets collectively against the goal of limiting warming within 2°C over pre-industrial levels. For example, required information might include the base year used, the sectors covered, the gases covered, expected participation in international carbon markets and the national policies expected to facilitate emissions reductions.
Since a common timeframe for national targets would facilitate assessment, parties will also discuss whether the first commitment period should be through 2025 or 2030. The United States has recommended 2025 to give parties an earlier opportunity to strengthen their targets for the next period. In contrast, Japan has recommended 2030, in order to signal to investors that world governments have a sustained commitment to transition to a low-carbon economy.
There will be continued discussion in Lima about whether countries should prepare contributions for the Paris agreement that address not only the mitigation of carbon emissions but also adaptation and finance. The United States has stressed that mitigation should be the focus of the INDCs; many other nations and blocs, such as Brazil, the Africa Group and the Like-Minded Developing Countries, which include China, India, Indonesia and Venezuela, have called for a broader scope.
Differentiation between developed and developing countries
All parties to the UNFCCC support the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, or CBDR, which means that countries have a shared responsibility to protect the climate, but each country’s level of responsibility varies with its historical contribution to global warming and its current capacity to address it. However, the question of how CBDR will be represented in the Paris agreement—and how it will function in the agreement—is unsettled and contentious.
In 1992, the UNFCCC separated countries into categories: Annex I Parties are economies that were then industrialized or in transition, and non-Annex I Parties are economies that were then developing.
It remains to be seen whether the Paris agreement will use a sorting mechanism such as the annexes to assign different types of obligations on mitigation, adaptation or finance to different groups of countries. Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, warns against taking CBDR to mean that the annexes should be operational in the new agreement. “Such a separation,” he said, “would be inimical to ambition and would undermine the political cohesion we need to build an effective and durable climate system.”
But many parties still propose using the annexes as a sorting mechanism. These include members of the Least Developed Countries Group, the Africa Group and the Like-Minded Developing Countries.
Brazil has recommended a reconfiguration of the annexes in which countries would be conceptually sorted into three concentric circles. In the innermost circle, developed and Annex I Parties would commit to absolute, economy-wide mitigation targets. In the next ring, developing countries would commit to economy-wide targets that are relative to national gross domestic product, business-as-usual emissions trends or population size. In the outermost ring, the least-developed countries would commit to objectives on reducing emissions that are not economy-wide.
The idea is that countries would move toward the center circle over time.
Parties will continue to discuss which collective goals to include in the Paris agreement as they refine the draft text in Lima. Whereas the UNFCCC already recognizes the goal of limiting warming within 2°C over pre-industrial levels, the Paris agreement may also include a goal on global emissions reductions, such as net-zero emissions by 2050 or a 40 percent to 70 percent reduction in emissions from 2010 levels by 2050. Parties will also discuss whether to include goals on facilitating adaptation or new goals on finance.
The legal nature of the Paris agreement, including the national contributions, is under continued discussion. Stern has warned that making the mitigation contributions legally rather than politically binding would discourage both participation and ambitious national targets. Similarly, New Zealand has proposed that submitting and reporting on the progress of mitigation contributions should be legally binding but that the content of the contributions themselves should not. The European Union, in contrast, has called for legally binding targets in order to create an agreement with robust accountability.
Gwynne Taraska is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress and the research director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.
Tech & Science
We are now officially in arm’s reach of “dangerous” levels of global warming.
United Nations negotiators are meeting this week in Peru to forge a much-anticipated draft agreement to curb global climate change. They’re brimming with optimism after the recent climate agreement between the U.S. and China, which had eluded negotiators for years.
But amid the hope is a much darker reality: Years of stalled talks and baby steps toward action have all but ensured that we will pass the previous do-not-pass benchmark of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by 2100. Now, The New York Times reports, the negotiators’ objective is to stave off atmospheric warming of 4 to 10 degrees Fareinheit, or roughly 2.2 to 5.6 degrees Celsius, by the end of the century, at which point, experts say, Earth may “become increasingly uninhabitable.”
Scientists say moving into that range of warming would result in a significantly different world. For example, four degrees Celsius of warming is enough to melt most or all of the world’s ice. As climatologist and former NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies chief James Hansen put it in a paper published in the journal Nature last year:
“Four degrees of warming would be enough to melt all the ice.... You would have a tremendously chaotic situation as you moved away from our current climate towards another one. That’s a different planet. You wouldn’t recognise it.... We are on the verge of creating climate chaos if we don’t begin to reduce emissions rapidly.”
Steven Sherwood, a professor at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, and author of another study looking at the implications of four-degree warming, came to a similar conclusion.
“4C would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous,” Sherwood told The Guardian. “For example, it would make life difficult, if not impossible, in much of the tropics, and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet.”
The volume of water in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets alone would raise sea levels by 65 meters, or roughly 213 feet, if released. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 150 feet tall. Coastal regions and island nations would all but disappear. Long before then, freshwater sources would become inundated by saltwater.
The U.N. released a report in November that concluded 2 degrees of warming could be avoided only if global emissions peak within the next 10 years and then plummet sharply, going down by half by 2050. A deal of that magnitude is not even on the table. In fact, the agreement being drafted in Lima this week will not be enacted until 2020.
Meanwhile, officials at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that 2014 will likely be the warmest year on record. Welcome to a very different type of climate discussion.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the 4-10 degree warming range cited by the New York Times was in Fahrenheit, not Celsius.
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