2.2 A brief history of climate change policy
Awareness of climate change as an issue facing mankind, and action to address it, are relatively recent phenomena. The importance of the atmosphere in maintaining the temperature at the surface of the earth, the role in this of carbon dioxide's and methane's absorption of solar radiation, and the potential for global temperature increases as a result of industrial activities releasing carbon dioxide were first identified by Fourier, Tyndale, and Arrhenius in 1827, 1859, and 1896, respectively, in France, Britain, and Sweden. It was not until the late 1970s, however, that the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) began to express concern that human activities - notably the emission of carbon dioxide - might lead to serious warming of the lower atmosphere. Scientific concerns about global warming grew during the 1980s, and in 1988 (a year when North America faced an intense heat wave and drought) these spilled over into political concerns, and the WMO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to investigate and report on scientific evidence on climate change and possible international responses to climate change.
The IPCC has been central to the subsequent debates and processes around the development of climate change policies. Its first assessment report (in 1990) fed into the drafting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1991. This was signed by 166 nations at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and came into force in 1994. The UNFCCC did not contain any specific national or international targets to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but it contained key points or principles that have been foundational in subsequent international climate change debates and processes. It set out the following.
- An objective of stabilising the climate to prevent 'dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system' in a time-frame that would allow natural systems to adapt without major damage to food systems and economic development.
- The need for countries to monitor and limit their greenhouse gas emissions and for different national limits, taking account of countries' different responsibilities and capacities.
- Particular concerns for developing countries - and especially those most vulnerable to damaging climate change impacts, such as small island states.
- The importance of precautionary measures to respond to the severity of climate change threats, despite real scientific uncertainties regarding climate change processes and impacts.
In the absence of specific targets, the UNFCCC fell short of the aspirations of many environmentalists. However, it was an important step in establishing foundational principles to guide subsequent negotiations over national reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. These culminated in a Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. This was the third Conference of Parties meeting (COP 3) where delegates agreed what is known as the Kyoto Protocol. This established developed country emissions targets for 2008-2012 and three main mechanisms for meeting them:
- an emissions trading scheme (ETS which allows international trade in emission allowances)
- Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), allowing developed country signatories emission credits for investing in emissions savings in developing countries. The only Kyoto mechanism that allows for investment in developing countries is the CDM.
- Joint Implementation (JI), allowing emission saving investments in other industrial (Annex 1) countries, including emerging economy countries, to be credited to signatory developed countries, promoting more cost-effective emission saving than could otherwise be achieved.
However, a number of countries (notably the US and Australia) subsequently refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement, arguing that developing countries also need to limit their emissions. These arguments were supported by major public debates questioning the scientific basis for climate change predictions - with substantial investments by the oil industry, in particular, in lobbying groups questioning or denying climate change.
By 2007, 2008 and 2009 the existence and dangers of climate change were increasingly recognised with
- growing scientific evidence and understanding of climate change and its impacts, and increasing representation of this in the press (the publication of the IPCC fourth assessment report at the end of 2007 played a critical role in this)
- public awareness and concern about unusual weather patterns (for example, the extreme heat of the 2003 European summer; Hurricane Katrina and other storms around the world; floods, droughts, and fires in Europe, the US, and Australia)
- political change (notably in the US Administration, and in Australia)
National governments face major difficulties agreeing national contributions to international reductions in global emissions of greenhouse gases. On the one hand there is widespread recognition that drastic emissions reductions are needed. However,
- governments (and most importantly their electorates) do not want to bear the costs of such reductions in terms of increased energy costs, investments in new technologies and infrastructure, and lifestyle changes
- there are fears that countries with higher emission allowances will benefit from competitive advantages in international trade, while countries with lower emission allowances will suffer disadvantages and hence suffer economically
- rich (developed) countries with high emissions per capita face very large economic and social adjustment costs if they are to make substantial reductions in their emissions
- poor (developing) countries have lower current emissions per capita, but do not want either to be denied opportunities for economic growth and increased standards of living associated with increasing emissions, or to be forced down a more costly and slower development path constrained by keeping down greenhouse gas emissions
- poor (developing) countries need large financial and other resources to enable them to adapt to and cope with climate change impacts; in this they are looking to richer (developed) countries to provide a substantial part of these resources - as richer countries are better able to provide the necessary finance, and are primarily responsible for the greenhouse gases that have caused and continue to cause climate change
Differences in countries' perceptions are sharpened by the awareness in developing countries that developed countries have been and continue to be the major greenhouse emitters that caused the climate change problem, they currently benefit from and are trying to defend high levels of emissions per person, and are least vulnerable to climate change impacts. Developed countries, on the other hand, see per capita and total emissions rising fastest in rapidly growing, large developing countries - most notably China - and argue that this growth must be limited if global emissions are to be contained.
Despite the widespread agreement now reached about the seriousness of climate change, deep divisions therefore remain between countries with regard to the appropriate distribution of greenhouse gas emission limits and reductions. These are rooted in divergent national interests and perceptions, and strongly linked to issues of ethics, justice and development. Complex technical and political challenges continue in
- developing principles to guide agreement on just and acceptable national emission targets
- agreeing such targets
- designing, agreeing, implementing, and monitoring mechanisms for achieving them
- key issues related to financing adaptation and mitigation in poor countries, access to climate-friendly technology for poor countries
These challenges posed major problems in the last COPs in Copenhagen in 2009, Cancún in 2010 and Durban in 2011, when negotiations were ongoing for establishing a legally-binding treaty for post-2012 after the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. While Copenhagen was a major debacle, Cancún resulted in the Cancún Agreements which paved the way for a number of important arrangements, including the Green Climate Fund, the Technology Mechanism, the Cancún Adaptation Framework and Forest Management Reference Levels. After Cancún, many had hoped that Durban would deliver an agreement for the post-2012 phase. However, it was not possible to agree on key issues - such as binding emission reduction targets - and, disappointingly, the decision was taken that any global legally binding treaty for emission reductions would be negotiated by 2015 and come into effect by 2020. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action was established to enable negotiations for a new global agreement for implementation in 2020. This delay of global action from 2012 to 2020 was criticised by NGOs, scientists and some governments as it delays global action to tackle climate change by almost a decade. The second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol starts in 2013 and continues until 2017 or 2020 (depending on negotiations), but emission reductions are only required from developed countries that signed up to it, thereby excluding major emitters such as the US, Russia and Japan and emerging emitters such as China and India. A new global agreement, starting in 2020, is therefore crucial to tackle global climate change.