Even though the science concerning climate mitigation is clear, "political and ethical complexities remain as contested as ever," and a December deal in Copenhagen "is not guaranteed," a new report warns.
If you're looking for proof of the lack of progress, consider this week's climate talks in Bonn, Germany. Key factions are more stuck than ever as the rift between rich and poor nations grows, with just four months to go until the critical UN summit.
The report, called Tripping Points: Barriers and Bargaining Chips on the Road to Copenhagen, says that while it is not impossible to break the logjam, the odds do not favor it. The report appears in Environmental Research Letters, published by the Institute of Physics based in the UK, a not-for-profit scientific institution that publishes more than 50 journals.
Nations would need to negotiate past major "tripping points" and bargaining chips that have so far obstructed success, say the authors. The vital issues are: developed and developing country mitigation; reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD); technology transfer; adaptation; and finance.
Simply put, future mitigation commitments and actions remain the main barrier to reaching consensus on a global climate treaty.
Developing nations continue to gripe over the ambitiousness (or lack there of) of developed countries' proposed mid-term goals. They want legally binding, economy-wide, absolute and strong emission-reduction targets. The EU wants this, too. And as evidence, it has pledged to cut emissions by 2020 to 30 percent below 1990 levels. The problem is that other heavy polluters would have to match that figure for Europe to agree to it. Not likely. The US, Russia and Japan, among others, are seeking far softer approaches to mitigation.
For America's part, the U.S. House passed a cap-and-trade bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, in June. If ACES makes it into law, it would limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to only 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
Japan has embraced an emissions reduction goal of 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 – just two percent deeper than the cuts the nation is currently responsible for under the Kyoto protocol. Russia has set a target level of 10 to 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. That would see emissions rise, not fall, over the next decade.
Most developing nations are seeking voluntary "nationally appropriate mitigation actions" (NAMAS). Naturally, developed nations want some level of obligation attached to those honorary commitments.
How the world will be able to reconcile these differences is anyone's guess. According to the report, we can expect it to unfold like a poker match.
"Agreement on developing country mitigation will be contingent on how governments use a constellation of other issues as 'bargaining chips' to barter for their priorities."
The bargaining chips are as follows:
A mechanism for REDD (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) would involve rich nations paying poorer ones to reduce deforestation.
Just under 20 percent of the world's global warming emissions comes from deforestation and decay of biomass. According to the UN IPCC, reducing emissions from chopping forests in the tropics represents around 50 percent of forest-related mitigation potential.
That makes REDD a vital mitigation tool for poorer nations with vast forests. But it's not a sure thing. The extent to which governments are able to include a REDD scheme in a climate deal will be a function of how its design features "ensure environmental integrity and shape the distribution of costs and benefits." As such,
"design features will be key bargaining chips on the road to Copenhagen, as they will not only dictate the extent to which REDD contributes to mitigation, but also have the potential to distribute benefits in a way that buys concessions in other intractable negotiating areas."
For developing nations, technology transfer could be a deal breaker for their consent to an overall deal.
The main issues on the table: technology financing, what kind of non-finance instruments can be used to promote technology transfer, including intellectual property rights (IPRs) and institutional arrangements.
The biggest sticking point of all is how to transfer technology into something other than pure dollar investments. The developing nations want IPRs relaxed, and incentives for patent holders to transfer patents to developing nations included, among other requests.
Developed countries want to keep the current IPR regime as is.
Currently, most countries are implementing some sort of measures to adapt to climate impacts at home. But a comprehensive global framework for action is still needed, including a possible adaptation fund under the UN.
As it stands, the underlying tripping point is
the lack of mutual understanding or indicators on how to differentiate adaptation actions in response to climate change from development activities.
The other big one? The "potentially explosive" issue of climate refugees.
Financing a global climate deal is the central bargaining chip, underpinning talks in every issue area.
Here are the main hurdles that must be cleared: where will the cash come from? how much are we talking about; where will it be kept; and who will hold the purse strings?
Developing world leaders maintain that hundreds of billions of dollars are needed each year to fund a climate deal. They want that money to come in the form of direct contributions from rich governments. The developed countries prefer that the billions be channeled through market mechanisms.
The UN IPCC's vast report in 2007 ended the scientific argument. Climate change is human-caused and represents a grave economic, social and environment threat to the planet. The question for every climate watcher has since been: will the world act?
Because concessions must be made by all of the 190-plus governments to legally reach a post-2012 agreement, and because the "tripping points" remain completely unresolved, the answer to that question seems to be no.
But surprises may occur, and we should not write off Copenhagen, not until December 18, at least, the last day of the summit. As the authors write:
"The waiting game thus continues and may not be resolved until the wee hours of the last day in Copenhagen when all the bargaining chips will be on the table and parties cannot wait any longer to see who will show their hands first."