The global community is supposed to be negotiating an agreement to contain greenhouse gas emissions to manageable levels. But with less than two months to the Copenhagen climate change conference, the big players are stuck in an elaborate game of chicken.
Maybe that's the nature of diplomacy, but some have already written off the December meeting's capacity to produce a detailed agreement.
Sir David King and Lord Stern are among many luminaries saying no deal is better than a bad deal, and economist Jeffrey Sachs said in September he fears "a toothless agreement that could be more posturing than progress".
Grist.org columnist David Roberts sees the negotiating process so far as akin to "an aquarium full of hamsters connected to rudimentary motors.
"There's a lot of frantic running, a lot of sweat and heat, but in the end, very little light", he said in July.
A more significant assessment came from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in the Age in September. He warned the "draft text contains some 250 pages: a feast of alternative options, a forest of square brackets ... If we don't sort this out, it risks becoming the longest and most global suicide note in history".
Europe's leading climate scientist, Potsdam Institute Director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, said the chance of getting a decent deal at this "most important meeting in the history of the human species" is "pie in the sky" because rich countries like the US are unwilling to sign up to ambitious enough targets. "In a sense the US is climate illiterate", he told the September 28 British Telegraph.
From Rio to Copenhagen
The Rio Earth Summit in June 1992 produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with the aim of stabilising greenhouse gas levels at a level that would prevent dangerous climate change.
In contained no mandatory targets or enforcement provisions, but provided for updates ("protocols"). The intent of the Convention was for industrialised nations to stabilise their emissions at the 1990 level by 2000 (which they failed to do).
The UNFCCC has three categories of signatories: Annex 1 comprises 37 industrialised countries (essentially the OECD and Eastern Europe); Annex 2 is a subset of 23 Annex 1 countries, which agreed to help pay for costs of developing nations; and developing nations.
The Convention adopted the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", which recognised that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases originated in developed countries.
It also noted per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low, and the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet social and development needs. This principle is now under sustained challenge from the Annex 1 bloc, including Australia.
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and came into force in February 2005. It obligates the Annex 1 nations to cut emissions of six kinds of greenhouse gases by 2012 to 5.2% below the 1990 level (but Australia was allowed an 8% increase by threatening not to sign).
Failure to meet protocol obligations seems cost-free. Canada's obligation in the first commitment period (2005-2012) was to reduce emissions to 6% below the 1990 level. They are now 30% above the 1990 level, but there are no enforceable penalties.
Based on the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the European Union proposed at the Bali climate talks in 2007 a framework that included global emissions peaking in 10–15 years and for developed countries to achieve emissions levels 20–40% below 1990 levels by 2020.
The US (supported by Australia and others) strongly opposed this. In a flood of tears and acrimony, the final Bali session sat through the night to produce a compromise that mandated "deep cuts in global emissions", but no specific figures.
The seeds of the current impasse were planted in Bali and nourished in subsequent negotiations.
For two decades climate policy has been focused on policy targets aimed at preventing global warming exceeding 2°C, which is said to be a level of greenhouse gases not exceeding 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2e).
This is also the case for Copenhagen, but two degrees is a politically-determined goal at odds with the science.
The research tells us that a two-degree warming will initiate large climate feedbacks on land and in the oceans, on sea-ice and mountain glaciers and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past significant tipping points.
Likely impacts include large-scale disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheets; sea-level rises; the extinction of an estimated 15–40% of plant and animal species; dangerous ocean acidiﬁcation and widespread drought, desertiﬁcation and malnutrition in Africa, Australia, Mediterranean Europe, and the western USA.
As Schellnhuber pointed out in the British Guardian in September, on sea levels alone, two degrees is catastrophic: "Two degrees … means sea level rise of 30-40 meters — over maybe a thousand years. Draw a line around your coast — probably not a lot would be left."
It's a grand illusion that 2 degrees and 450ppm is a reasonable target — an illusion Copenhagen will not dispel.
Yet an agreement with teeth that would actually limit warming to even two degrees seems most unlikely at Copenhagen.
A new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found the world will warm by 3.5 degrees by century's end — even if every country enacts all the climate legislation it has promised to enact to date.
Nothing on the negotiating table gets remotely near the figure suggested by Martin Parry of Imperial College London and co-chair of the IPCC's impacts working group. He told the Independent in January that a two-degree target "would require cuts of 6% per year starting in 2010."
A big question is how emissions cuts will be shared between nations. The Bali discussion focused on a 450ppm CO2e target, for which the Annex 1 countries would need to cut emissions by 25–40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and industrialising nations would need to cut their emissions growth below "business-as-usual".
But the 40% (which Schellnhuber says is a minimum) has been dropped by most developed economies (including the US, the EU and Australia). The European Union is pushing 30% and Japan 25%, but the US won't go near either.
A second issue is that the Annex 1 countries now demand the large industrialising economies (such as China, Brazil and India) take on obligatory targets. They say these nations represent the fast-growing emissions sector and no longer fit under the Kyoto Protocol's structure of underdeveloped nations.
China's actual emissions are now roughly the same as those in the US, but per capita only one-quarter. India's per capita emissions are less than one-tenth of those in Australia.
These demands have gone down like a lead balloon, especially when those making the demands have themselves failed to put commitments on the table that will go anywhere near two degrees.
Some of the most vulnerable nations, grouped as the Alliance of Small Island States, want global targets for 2020, aimed at "well below 1.5°C" because they understand their countries will simply be submerged or unliveable with the two-degree target.
The 43 island states — about 20% of the UN General Assembly — have advocated stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations "well below 350ppm CO2e". The least developed countries bloc, which are particularly vulnerable to global warming because they lack capacity to adapt, now also support this demand.
Most of these groups are not keen on carbon offsetting schemes that transfer pollution reduction responsibilities from the high per-capita emitters to underdeveloped nations, because they rightly judge such schemes become a substitute for hard-core cuts in domestic emissions by the Annex 1 nations.
The carbon trading and financial transfers systems — established at Kyoto at the insistence of the US delegation led by Al Gore — and including the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) — worry many people because they act like the sale of indulgences by the medieval church, absolving the buyers for their immoral actions.
But the Europe/US bloc has put carbon trading at the core of its emissions reduction strategy, while the two largest emitters of carbon outside the developed world, China and India, are the main beneficiaries of CDM financing.
Yet in November 2008, the US Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that emissions trading had failed to accomplish its basic objective.
It said, "the use of carbon offsets in a cap-and-trade system can undermine the system's integrity, given that it is not possible to ensure that every credit represents a real, measurable, and long-term reduction in emissions"
It also said, "while proposed reforms may significantly improve the CDM's effectiveness, carbon offsets involve fundamental trade-offs and may not be a reliable long-term approach to climate change mitigation."
In other words, there are a lot of snouts in the trough that cannot be budged.
The GAO report goes to the heart of the matter: carbon offsets and long-term emission reduction strategies may simply be incompatible.
If further evidence is required, consider that Australia is pushing to redefine the CDM to include so-called "clean coal" carbon storage and sequestration and "efficient" coal-fired power stations.
Other nations like Japan have tried to promote nuclear power as a "clean" technology as a way of diverting funds to prop up their failing nuclear industry.
Where's the money?
A key component of any deal is money and technology sharing and transfer. Any agreement will depend on how much will be paid to help those without the material capacity to both adapt to global warming and mitigate by building new, low-emissions economies.
Here the negotiations are also bogged down, about the mechanisms, and how much should be on the table. The Kyoto signatories agreed developed countries would provide "new and additional" funds to help "developing countries … particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting the costs of adaptation to those adverse effects", but little has materialised.
Australia is yet to commit to funding clean technology to help the poorer countries adapt to climate change, and has joined other developed nations in demanding that developing nations itemise their proposed adaptation actions before discussing what level of climate-aid will be given.
Developing countries have refused, and can rightly point to recent practices such as Australia's $150 million International Climate Change Adaptation Initiative. Much of the money was never seen by the intended recipient nations, but flowed to the World Bank and other NGOs, leadership programs and research, or was spent domestically in Australia.
Observing the journey to Copenhagen, it's easy to understand the view of the US's leading climate scientist, James Hansen.
He told an audience at Stanford University in November last year: "We've reached a point where we have a crisis, an emergency, but people don't know that … There's a big gap between what's understood about global warming by the scientific community and what is known by the public and policymakers."
In a December interview with Saarbruecker Zeitung Schellnhuber agreed that "we are on our way to a destabilisation of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realise".
What would dispel this doubt would be a clear indication by the major participants that they would negotiate based on what the science tells us we must do, accepting that even those who have conquered the political game in their own nation do not have the capacity to negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry.
Copenhagen, or more likely a clean-up summit next year, can succeed if the scientific imperatives take centre stage.
We face a climate emergency that requires emergency action. Pretending that the current approach to international negotiations can solve the issue is part of the denial about the climate catastrophe that awaits if the game isn't played very differently, very, very soon by politicians and people who have the capacity to exhibit truly transformative leadership.
[David Spratt is a co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action A shorter version of this article first appeared on Newmatilda.com