Durban climate talks: a clash of hope and reality

Posted: 29 November 2011

Author: John Rowley

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to a level that could keep a global, 21st century, temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius is technologically and economically feasible, says a new study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

But with reports from the Durban climate talks in South Africa that Canada is proposing to pull out of the Kyoto protocol, the only legally binding treaty on climate change with targets and timelines, the signs are not good.

Indeed, as John Vidal reported in The Guardian last week, some ministers of the rich countries of the industrial world appear to have lost any sense of urgency about climate change. They are suggesting it will take another four years of talks before they come up with a plan that could possibly come into effect in 2020.

Climate refugees
Climate refugees displaced from Kutubdia Island on the coast of Bangladesh, April 2010. Photo by Give Your Vote

The developing world, meanwhile, already badly affected by droughts, floods storms and other evidence of a changing climate, can only fume in anger and desperation.

At the same time comes news that Britain and some other European countries are quietly conspiring with Canada to stop any surcharge by the EU on oil from heavily polluting sources. This includes crude oil derived from the vast tar sands of Alberta which, if fully developed, would probably scupper any chance of limiting greenhouse gas emissions to manageable proportions in the time available - or so environmental pressure groups say.

A plan for change

So what could be done, if there is a will to do it? First, says UNEP, there has to be a vastly accelerated uptake of renewable energy, alongside fuel switching and energy efficiency improvement. These could contribute a large share of the necessary cuts in greenhouse emissions.

Other measures include improvements in various energy sectors, ranging from increased public transport and more fuel efficient vehicles to reduced emissions from agriculture and waste management.

Tar sands truck
One of Shell's giant 400 tonne trucks that takes the bitumen and sand mixture from the tar face to the processing facility. Photo © WWF

The UNEP report says aviation and shipping are a special but important case, as, at present, these ‘international emissions’ fall outside the Kyoto Protocol Together they count for around five per cent of CO2 emissions and could account for up to 2.5 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, by 2020.

“Options for reducing emissions from both sectors include improving fuel efficiency and using low-carbon fuels. For the shipping sector, another promising and simple option is to reduce ship speeds,” says the report which has involved experts from 28 scientific groups in 15 countries.

The Bridging the Emissions Gap report, issued to coincide with the Durban talks and seven months before the Rio+20 summit in Brazil, clams to provide the clearest indicators yet that the world already has the solutions to avert damaging climate change.

Pessimistic scenarios

It aims to present policymakers with clear ideas on how to bridge the emissions gap by 2020. That gap is now estimated, as a result of revised modelling and under the most optimistic scenarios, to be 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, rather than 5 GtCO2e, as previously estimated.

The report also outlines far more pessimistic scenarios. It warns that if the commitments and pledges of developed countries, including financing of some $100 billion a year by 2020 - and the intentions of developing one - are not fully realized, the emissions gap by 2020, could be a huge 11 Giga tonnes of CO2 equivalent - or even 12 GtCO2e equivalent in a business as usual scenario.

  • Bridging the Emissions Gap reviewed 13 scenarios from nine different scientific groups. The scenarios were all able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the 2-degree limit by 2020 by using a combination of targets. Primary energy production would need to drop up to 11 per cent from business-as-usual models in 2020, and the amount of energy used per unit of GDP would need to fall 1.1-2.3 per cent each year from 2005 to 2020
  • Up to 28 per cent of total primary energy would need to come from non-fossil sources in 2020 (up from 18.5 per cent in 2005).
  • Up to 17 per cent of total primary energy in 2020 would come from biomass (up from about 10.5 per cent in 2005).
  • Up to 9 per cent of total primary energy in 2020 would come from non-biomass renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectricity and the like).
  • Non-CO2 emissions would fall by up to 19 per cent relative to business as usual by 2020.

The report’s authors note that all the scenarios examined had different mixes of these options, indicating that there are many different pathways to bridging the gap.

Importantly for policymakers, the report also looks at what these options would cost. Globally, the average marginal costs range from US$25-US$54 per tonne of equivalent carbon dioxide removed, with a median value of US$34 per tonne.

Sector by sector

The study also examined research on various economic sectors to consider technical potential for emissions reductions by 2020. It found the following potential:

  • Electricity production: 2.2 to 3.9 GtCO2e per year through more efficient power plants, and by introducing renewable energy sources, carbon capture and storage and fuel shifting.
  • Industry: 1.5 to 4.6 GtCO2e per year through improved energy efficiency, fuel switching, power recovery, materials efficiency and other measures.
  • Transport (excluding aviation and shipping sectors): 1.4 to 2.0 GtCO2e per year through improved fuel efficiency, adoption of electric drive vehicles, shifting to public transit and use of low-carbon fuels.
  • Aviation and shipping: 0.3-0.5 GtCO2e per year through improved fuel efficiency and low-carbon fuels, and other measures.
  • Buildings: 1.4 to 2.9 GtCO2e per year by improving the efficiency of heating, cooling, lighting and appliances, and other measures.
  • Forestry: 1.3 to 4.2 GtCO2e per year by reducing deforestation and making changes in forest management that increases above and below ground carbon stocks.
  • Agriculture: 1.1 to 4.3 GtCO2e per year through changes in cropland and livestock management practices that reduce non-CO2 emissions and enhance soil carbon.
  • Waste: about 0.8 GtCO2e per year by improving wastewater treatment, waste gas recovery from landfills, and other measures.


The total emission reduction potential adds up to about 17 GtCO2e, plus/minus 3 GtCO2e, with marginal costs of up to US$50-100 per tonne of CO2e. This is consistent with the cost estimates from the various scenarios the report outlines.

This emissions reduction potential is larger than the estimated emissions gap of 12 GtCO2e under business-as-usual conditions, and as such provides policymakers with clear insights into promising options for the way ahead, says UNEP.

The report concludes that policymakers could narrow or close the emissions gap in 2020 by:

  • Agreeing to carry through their more ambitious emissions reduction pledges with stricter rules for complying with them;
  • Deciding to target their energy systems, using more non-fossil fuel and renewable energy sources, and making real improvements in energy efficiency.

So much for the theory, the reality at present, looks rather more like pie in the sky.