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Climate policy today

The first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012. The World Climate Summit (COP 17), held in early December 2011 in Durban, was the 17th conference made up of over 190 signatory states, aiming to advance worldwide climate protection by agreeing on a second commitment period - with disappointing results.


The Kyoto Protocol limits the emissions of the industrial countries which have agreed to the Protocol. Ranking among the states with the highest emission levels alongside the USA are also China, India, Indonesia, Russia and Brazil, with these countries also having to pull their own weight in the future.


The COP 17 climate conference lasted for almost two weeks in Durban, South Africa. The result was more one of stagnation than of progress. The USA and Canada were the primary causes of expectations being put on hold. The compromise reached at the conclusion in Durban provides for an update to the Kyoto Protocol. The follow-up agreement shall be drawn up as soon as by the next climate conference in Qatar in 2012.


A global climate treaty shall be developed by 2015, becoming effective as of 2020. Even countries like the USA and China are to commit to binding targets for the first time. As of 2020, it is believed that the Green Climate Fund (GCF) will contribute by providing 100 billion dollars (74 billion euro) each year for developing countries. The source of these funds is, however, not yet clear.



Climate Policy and Oceans

by Matthias Berg, COPSAIL


The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described climate change as “the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family” – but even after the 15th UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, a binding agreement for the future and generally determined action for the necessary changes was still missing.


Demonstrators demand results from the 2009 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen.

In December 2009, during the Climate Change Conference, five traditional tall ships set sail during a parade trip on the wintry Baltic Sea near Copenhagen with the inscription “Act now!” This called and urged tens of thousands of climate activists with posters onto the streets who symbolically depicted “The flood is coming” with their blue overalls. It was shown, in a colourful and diverse way that alternative solutions are possible and urgently needed by means of active intervention.


The political negotiations, however, remained virtually immovable. The current climate policy parallels an almost disabled tall sailing ship, upon which the various sails criss-cross each other and cannot be set for a necessary turning manoeuvre, but which the management crew stubbornly holds on a false course. The issue of climate change is multi-layered and very complex, but the urgently required change of course must not continue to be postponed or to fail due to bureaucratic obstacles. Determined action in politics, the economy and civil society is required!


In addition, a tour with a critical view of individual fields of climate policy, a glance at the “wake” of the debate spanning decades, at the clearest “manoeuvres” and the (mostly only planned) “course changes”.


The Principles and Most Important Instruments of Climate Policy

The basic framework and, at the same time, the most important instrument of climate policy is the 1992 (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – UNFCCC). The UNFCCC Secretariat in Bonn, which belongs to the convention, organises an annual conference – the (Conference of the parties – COP. Through this, the 192 signatory states at least have the possibility to, among other things, implement the principles of the convention. “The parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations […] and take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects.”


Possible future prospects: Global CO2 emissions (top) and global warming based on a scenario without climate policy measures (red) as well as a scenario with ambitious preventive measures, which limit the emission of CO2 to one billion tonnes in the first half of the century, decreasing to almost zero. Greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2050 are roughly 70 percent below the level in 1990, according to the preventive scenario. Without climate policy measures, global warming will exceed two degrees Centigrade in the middle of the century. Preventive measures would limit this risk to 25 percent. Source: M. Meinshausen et al. (2009)
Table 1: CO2 emissions per capita and gross domestic product of selected states (rounded from 2005-2009, Federal Statistical Office Germany)

The mitigation of climate change “by addressing anthropogenic emissions” and the removal of greenhouse gases “by sinks and measures to facilitate adequate adaption to climate change” is intended. The burdens of the measures must be adapted to the developmental levels and needs of the signatory states and apportioned accordingly regarding joint, nevertheless different, responsibilities. This is described as burden sharing. This coordination between particularly affected states and the main initiators is one of the largest challenges facing international climate policy.


This is enhanced by the historical responsibility of the industrialised countries, as they have already emitted large amounts of the greenhouse gas CO2 to build up their prosperity since the beginning of industrialisation, and many developing countries are only right at the start of industrialisation. They have, of course, the same right to strong industrial development – however, the similar coupling of their economic development with an increase in their levels of emissions, as happened in the industrialised countries, would lead to a catastrophic global increase. The industrial nations are obliged, in this case, to act according to their total emissions up until now.


There is, however, even without the historical responsibility, a very large difference between the financially strong industrial countries with very high CO2 emissions per capita (see Table 1) and the particularly strongly affected countries, which often only have limited financial resources available for effective countermeasures (e.g. Bangladesh, India). Strategies and measures are required to mitigate emissions and to adapt to the consequences of climate change such as the rising sea level and (more frequent) droughts. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Climate Advisor to the German Federal Government, therefore demands the implementation of the dual strategy: “Avoid that which is uncontrollable and control that which is unavoidable”! In his opinion, science clearly produced the evidence for climate change. Inevitably, the knowledge must be acted upon. ( complete interview with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber <pdf>)


During the third Conference of the parties (COP 3) in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, the basic principles for the Kyoto-Protokoll, which later became legally binding, were agreed upon. This contained the first – and only, until now – binding joint reduction objectives: reducing CO2-emissions in industrialised countries by -5.2% by 2012, in comparison to the 1990 levels.


The oceans absorb a large proportion of the greenhouse gas emissions and prevent faster climate change. At the same time, climate change and the absorption of CO2 changes the oceans’ buffering capacity. Acidification of the oceans alters the biological conditions; warming of the oceans can lead to methane gas being released. Therefore the oceans play an important role in the interaction of climate change and climate policy. (The Future Ocean )


Historical Information on Climate Science and Climate Policy

Decisions on climate change require a basis in scientific knowledge – the reactions or binding implementations, however, often occur with a very long time delay.


Even as early as the end of the 19th Century, the Swedish Nobel Prize winner, Svante Arrhenius, calculated that if the CO2-content of the air were to double, the global temperature would increase by 4-6°C. The basic accuracy of his 1896 calculation is today considered an established fact, although the corresponding temperature increase is indicated to be 2-4°C. In the middle of the 20th Century, the German meteorologist, Hermann Flohn, warned that industrial burning had become the key factor of human climate effects, which “very recently [1941!] is receiving increased attention. […] This means, therefore: the carbonic acid production, occurring since industrialisation, disturbs the equilibrium and leads to a continually increasing carbonic acid content in the air. […] Through this, human activity becomes the cause of climate change that spans the earth, whose future significance can not be anticipated.” (Flohn, H. (1941): Die Tätigkeit des Menschen als Klimafaktor. In: Zeitschrift für Erdkunde,, Pg. 13-22)


Similar statements can be found in the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - IPCC, published in 2007 and relevant for current climate policy decisions. These comparable figures on climate change have been scientifically proven by numerous studies after over half a century: among others, the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “alters the energy balance of the climate system”, and warming of the climate in the last century by +0.7°C is present “without a doubt”. (IPCC 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policymakers.)


The IPCC was established in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and produces summaries of current scientific knowledge, known as Assessment Reports, every 5-6 years. Leading climate scientists provide political decision makers with an overview of the state of knowledge relating to climate change with these reports, in a concentrated and comprehensible form. The first IPCC report in 1990 caused the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) to be adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992).


In Autumn 2006, the Stern-Report brought climate policy particularly strongly into the world public eye. In a study on the economic consequences of climate change, the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, described the climate crisis as a very serious threat to humanity and as the greatest failure of the market in history. He showed that investing now into climate protection is significantly cheaper compared to the costs of the consequential damages forecast.


At COP 13 in Bali, 2007, the “Bali Road Map” was adopted as a process to finalising a binding agreement for the period after the Kyoto Protocol. The results of the IPCC report were directly taken up into this, and it was determined, that in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP 15) a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol should be adopted.


No Recognisable Turning Manoeuvre: the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen

The UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in December 2009 was the largest COP until now, with a total of more than 15,000 participants, including delegates from 193 nations, represented by 80 heads of governments, among others, as well as observers from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), environmental protection associations and approximately 3,500 journalists. The high expectations on the conference were impressively displayed in the large level of coverage in numerous media forms, including the World Ocean Observatory with the focus on the significance of the oceans and seas.


The considerable media attention was part of the great potential for a strong rerouting by an ambitious treaty – but this “good wind” was not utilised. In the end, the delegates only “took note of” the Copenhagen Accord and recognised (among other things) merely the objective, that is not legally binding, to avoid an increase in temperature of over 2°C by reducing emissions. At least with this, the first-time objective is specified (which can be an important basis for future negotiations) – but this is only a firm establishment of the objectives from the framework convention in 1992, as here measures were demanded with which “a dangerous anthropogenic disturbance of the climate system is prevented”. Academic researchers assume the 2°C goal as such a safety barrier (threshold value). The effects of climate change for values above this threshold are viewed as very dangerous, as the danger considerably increases, above critical values, that irreversible tipping points in the ecosystems are exceeded, causing unprecedented changes.


Yvo de Boer, UNFCCC Executive Secretary from 2006 to June 2010, described the climate negotiations as a very lengthy process. At a preparatory conference in 2010 in Bonn, for the 16th Climate Summit in Mexico in the same year, he – who has surely been one of the most important and experienced participants of the negotiations in the last years – viewed it as “very unlikely” that a binding treaty would be decided upon at the coming conference (COP 16) in Cancun, Mexico. He does, however, expect a Kyoto-follow-up treaty in 2011 in Durban, South Africa (COP 17).


Tipping elements have been identified as components of the Earth system which can be fundamentally changed by small disturbances. If one or more of these elements were to tip – especially in the course of continuing global warming – the remarkably stable environmental conditions of the post-glacial period could irrevocably end.

Pilots and “Klimapiraten”: Critical Observers, Advisors and Climate Activists

Many thousands of employees from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other observers and advisors who are politically involved in environmental protection followed the negotiation process of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen very closely. They often met with restrictions and were excluded from negotiation centres, or only permitted to participate in small numbers. Outside negotiation centres, tens of thousands of climate activists displayed a very strong presence with various actions.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, representative of Indigenous People´s African Coordinating Committee, Chad

The Climate Action Network (CAN) and the “Klimapiraten” with their “allies” are impressive examples of the very differently organised associations. In 1989 a total of 63 organisations from 22 states joined together as the Climate Action Network. Today the Network has approximately 450 corporate members, mostly NGOs, and among which a strong presence is made, among others, by the development organisation OXFAM and GERMANWATCH e. V., an association standing up for North-South equalisation.


The negotiations at all UN Climate Change Summits were thoroughly analysed on location and partially also accompanied in an advisory capacity. In addition, the Network brought various sides of the climate issue into public focus by actions such as human chains or conferences, and promoted a global dialogue.


For example, one-day conferences of Germanwatch, Brot für die Welt, and others, took place several times in Bonn, during the annual UN pre-conferences. Whereas in the UNFCCC process in June 2010 once again, in many negotiations, only a very low dynamic was visible, those directly affected were impressively denouncing the global injustice of climate change at the Germanwatch conference: “Climate change is already a great threat to Africa, whereby Africa is one of the continents producing the lowest amounts of CO2” (Hindou Ibrahim from Indigenous People of Africa Coordinating Committee, IPACC).


The traditional ships on their climate sailing parade by Copenhagen. (Photo: Klimapiraten)

The previously mentioned sailing parade during the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was principally organised by the , who wished to draw attention to urgently required rerouting with the traditional ships, and demanded decisive action during the negotiations. Simultaneously with the Klimapiraten from Greifswald on the ships LOVIS and PETRINE, the Paz Verde student group set sail to Copenhagen with three ships from Flensburg and Kiel.


With the so-called COPsail they set a clear sign for the requested “Act Now!” Their CO2-neutral trip to the Climate Change Conference on the ships ZUVERSICHT and CAROLA from the Verein Jugendsegeln from Kiel along with the HANSINE from Bremerhaven shows how successful even smaller initiatives can be. The strong symbolism of the ship parade received great attention in newspapers, on the radio and on television, right up to the ARD-Klimaschau (a German television programme). On the outward journey an overnight trip through thick fog at the Great Belt was a particularly impressive experience. The crew mastered the difficult manoeuvres in increasing winds by flexibly adjusting to the natural conditions at the time. Aside from political changes, climate protection requires nature to be treated with respect – the corresponding raising of awareness can be highly promoted by sailing.


A Dangerous Course: The Future of the Seas – too warm, too high, too acidic

The oceans constitute important buffers in the global carbon cycle. They have absorbed roughly a third of the carbon dioxide emissions caused by humankind and are therefore strongly affected by the rise in greenhouse gases via the increased CO2-input and acidification. In addition, they have a high importance to climate policy as gigantic CO2-sinks.


The oceans absorb a large proportion of the greenhouse gas emissions in the global carbon cycle and prevent faster climate change. At the same time, climate change and the absorption of CO2 changes the oceans’ buffering capacity. Acidification of the oceans alters the biological conditions which may have considerable effects; warming of the oceans can lead to methane gas being released. Therefore the oceans play an important role in the interaction of climate change and climate policy. (Source: The Future Ocean)

A special expertise in 2006 by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), clearly shows that man has caused large processes of change in the oceans which are unparalleled over the last millions of years. The oceans are directly influenced by climate change: “The future of the marine environment will decisively depend on whether the man-made disturbance of the climate system is able to be limited to a tolerable level.”


Similarly, in the same year marine environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of the famous ocean explorer and underwater film maker Jacques-Yves Cousteau) warned forcefully: “Global warming is a very real and merciless enemy, and one which is growing stronger, of the seas, coral reefs and all countries on the coast which more-or-less depend on the water to live. In order to hopefully prevent catastrophes which are looming already today […] we must achieve consensus around the globe regarding changes to industry and lifestyle.” (Cousteau, J.-M. (2006): Wunderwelt der Meere. In: National Geographic Deutschland, Pg. 48-57)


A Change of Course with a Definite Compass: Safety barriers for Climate Protection

Especially caring measures against uncontrollable change are necessary to protect the seas and the climate, which is directly connected to the seas. For this, climate policy must produce clear framework conditions, as it is applicable, according to WBGU: “Decisive and anticipatory action is now required, so that the world’s oceans do not exceed critical system limits.” Safety barriers for ocean protection are also called for, as the effects of an increase in temperature of over 2°C, a rise in sea level of over 1 metre and a reduction in the pH value of more than 0.2 units in comparison to the pre-industrial value are considered to be intolerable.


Possibilities of the so-called Geo-Engineering are also being explored as countermeasures to climate change, with which individual components of the climate system being specifically targeted. This includes, among others, measures to increase the function of oceans as CO2 buffers, for example, by artificial iron fertilisation via volcanic ash input. The increased iron content of the surface water should encourage algae growth and thus enable higher CO2 absorption levels. Key problems of such intrusion in the ecosystems are the side effects which are mostly almost impossible to predict, and that fertilisation is in no way a “universal remedy”, as stressed by Andreas Oschlies, a researcher at the IFM-GEOMAR (Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel), in an article for the Climate seeks Protection campaign.


In order to be able to fulfil the maxim of mitigation and adaptation, it is necessary to act quickly and drastically. This requires clear signals and a willingness to take action from both the civil society and the economy, to create the basis for fast implementation of bold measures.


The necessary turning manoeuvre cannot be solely initiated by policy alone and it needs support and pressure from many areas of the “team”. However, the necessity of drastic rerouting is recognised and audibly demanded by many “crew members” – now it is imperative for those who have a large amount of responsibility to act decisively with a binding and ambitious treaty, and who can and must bring the “tall sailing ships” of difficult and extremely complex climate policy onto a new course of action!