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Policy Responses to Climate Change

(Updated March 2014)

  • The human enhancement of global warming leading to climate change is seen as a worldwide problem.
  • Policy responses have been led by international negotiation, but are qualified or indecisive at the national level, and so far largely ineffective. 
  • The principal focus has been on reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Nuclear power is seldom acknowledged as the single most significant means of limiting the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations while enabling access to abundant electricity.

Emissions of greenhouse gases have a global impact, unlike some other forms of pollution. Whether they are emitted in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas, they rapidly disperse evenly across the globe. This is one reason why efforts to address climate change have been through international collaboration and agreement.

The principal forum for international climate change action has been the United Nations, which has led to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. However, more recently other international approaches have been put in place, the Asia Pacific Partnership and agreements under the G8, starting with their 2005 meeting in Gleneagles, UK.

Although climate change agreements have been reached through international approaches, the policy measures to meet the obligations and objectives set by such agreements have been implemented at the national or regional level.

The UN Climate Change Negotiations

In 1988 the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an expert body that would assess scientific information on climate change. As a reaction to the concerns raised in the IPCC's First Assessment Report the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in May 1992 and entered into force in 1994. The convention included the commitment to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.

The first Convention of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 1) was held in 1995. Negotiations at this and two subsequent COPs led to agreement on the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol set out specific commitments by individual developed countries to reduced emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. However, it would take three further meetings until the "Marrakesh Accords" were agreed, which provide sufficient detail on the procedures for pursuing objectives set out in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol involved several decisions:

  • By 2012, developed countries would reduce their collective emissions by 5.2% from 1990 levels, each country being committed to a particular figure.
  • The emissions covered by the Protocol are not only carbon dioxide, but also methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride.
  • These commitments would be reckoned on a net basis, considering sinks as well as sources, and each country must credibly measure its contribution and meet its commitment.
  • Countries may fulfil their commitments jointly (such as with regional agreements) and they may improve the efficiency of compliance through "flexibility mechanisms".

In order for the Kyoto Protocol to enter into force and become legally binding it had to be ratified by at least 55 countries and for those ratifying countries to include enough Annex I (developed) countries to represent at least 55% of the total emissions from those Annex 1 countries in 1990. In 2001 the US Government (which had earlier signed the Protocol) announced that it would not ratify the Protocol. As the USA emits more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries, this put the ratification of the Protocol in jeopardy. Australia also declared that it would not ratify, though it would pursue emission reductions as agreed.

Eventually, entry into force depended on the decision of Russia, another large greenhouse gas emitter. After some delay Russia notified the United Nations of its decision to ratify the Protocol in November 2004 and 90 days later, on February 19, 2005, the Protocol finally came into force. Australia subsequently ratified the Protocol in December 2007.

While countries that are party to the Protocol are expected to rely mainly on reducing their own emissions domestically, three "flexibility mechanisms" were identified to improve the economic efficiency of reductions and make it easier for parties to comply. The three mechanisms are emissions trading, Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism.

Emissions Trading: A market-based approach to achieving environmental objectives that allows those countries or entities reducing greenhouse gas emissions below what is required to use or trade the excess reductions to offset emissions at another source, inside or outside the country. In general, trading can occur at the domestic, regional (EU), international and intra-company levels. A precedent is the USA acid rain program, which successfully trades permits for sulfur dioxide.

Joint Implementation (JI): A project-based mechanism, whereby one developed country – with emissions caps – can work with another to reduce emissions or enhance sinks, and share the resulting emission reduction units accordingly.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM): A project-based mechanism where certified projects proposed by developed countries – or companies from those countries – can be used to reduce emissions in developing countries. The developed country – or company – earns certified emission reduction units, which may be used against the country's own reduction commitment. CDM is primarily focused on development aid and secondly on emission reduction.

The Kyoto Protocol and Nuclear Energy

The role of nuclear energy in combating climate change received a lot of attention during the UNFCCC negotiations between COP 4 and COP 7 (1998-2002). This was due to the entrenched anti-nuclear position of some of the environment NGOs lobbying at the negotiations and the tendency for national delegations to be dominated by those from Environment Departments, with a historically more negative position towards nuclear energy than their overall national position.

Nuclear energy is discriminated against within the Marakesh Accords, specifically within the sections dealing with the Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation, but currently the effect of this discrimination is largely symbolic.

The Marakesh Accords state:
"Recognizing that Parties included in Annex I are to refrain from using credits (from CDM or JI projects) generated from nuclear facilities to meet their commitments under Article 3, paragraph 1" This text is convoluted, reflecting perhaps a compromise reached during the negotiations. It should be noted that CDM and JI projects involving nuclear facilities are not banned. Parties are free to put forward such projects, as they would do any other candidate project.

However, the text says that developed counties (Annex I) Parties should refrain from using any credits earned from those projects for meeting their commitments – which are the emissions targets agreed under the Kyoto Protocol. The meaning of "should refrain" is a matter of debate. Annex I Parties are also meant not to exceed their emissions targets. Should they refrain from using nuclear project credits unless it means they would miss their target?

Ultimately, this is a symbolic discussion, as the current low price of CDM and JI credits and the short time period over which credits would be awarded mean that the availability of such credits is unlikely to be a significant factor in the decision on whether to invest in nuclear energy.

Concerns over the efficacy of CDM and JI in general have been expressed, many potential investors in projects being frustrated by the bureaucratic process involved in gaining approval for a project and the relatively small rewards for doing so. Moreover, there are concerns over the limited geographical distribution of CDM projects, with the majority of projects taking place in China, India and Brazil.

However, in the longer term the CDM and JI may become a more viable mechanism for encouraging low carbon projects and development. However, it is also possible that new mechanisms will be introduced in subsequent agreements and the role of the CDM and JI may diminish.

Approaches to Emissions Trading and Alternatives

The question of emission permits of some kind as a basis for trading in them or trading them off has been approached in several different ways. They may be auctioned, or they can be allocated to firms on the basis of historical emissions (known as grandfathering). Within countries, emissions (eg carbon) taxes may be used rather than emissions trading, but still linked to the price of permits. An attractive feature of tradable permits is that any national scheme can be linked internationally. However, the emission caps need to be set by regulators, who have an impossible task in the light of normal uncertainties, as shown the first decade of the EU system. Also it tends to reward traders more than innovators.

The best-developed arrangement is the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), which is the cornerstone of EU policy to counter climate change. The ETS is a cap-and-trade system which is seen as providing the core of a wider scheme to limit carbon emissions worldwide. By mid-2012 the ETS covered some 11,000 installations (power stations and industrial plants) in 27 EU countries plus Norway, accounting for half of the EU’s carbon emissions. In 2011, carbon to the value of about EUR 112 billion was traded on ETS, but in 2012 this dropped to about EUR 75 billion, its lowest level since 2008.

After a positive start in 2005, in May 2006 the price of emission allowances under the ETS for the first commitment period (2005-2007) plunged to less than half their previous value, causing intense discussion on the efficacy of the whole scheme and making it clear that the caps in some states were too low to promote investment in emission reduction. Most EU countries had issued so many allowances on the basis of padded applications that they did not reach their quotas in the first year of phase one (2005-07) of the ETS, which undercut the value of traded allowances. Allowances in mid-2006 were trading at EUR 18/tonne CO2>, representing over 1.5 cents/kWh on coal-fired generation and providing a weak disincentive to using coal, especially in Germany where output constraints apply on nuclear power. For most of 2005 and until May 2006, permits were trading at over EUR 25.

Overall in the EU, 1785 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted in 2005 against quotas of 1829 Mt, though this does not necessarily represent any decrease from what emissions would have been in the absence of the EU ETS. The UK was 33 Mt (16%) over its quota, reflecting the low target set by its government, and a swing back to coal from gas. This means that generators (particularly) in the UK needed to purchase allowances and pass the cost on to consumers. However, it was thought that many generators had already passed on much of the price of the carbon allowances allocated to them as an "opportunity cost".

The EU ETS has now concluded its second commitment/trading period (2008-2012). Emissions allowance allocations have been reduced 6.5% from those in the first commitment period. However the economic crisis radically altered the situation, and from 2009 the ETS had a growing surplus of allowances and international credits because the global economic crisis had depressed emissions more than anticipated, which significantly weakened the price signal. Installations receive trading credits from their national allocation plans (NAPs), administered by the governments of the 30 participating countries.

At one level it may be argued that the low price of emissions allowances in the first period could be considered as a success of the EU ETS, promoting the discovery of low-cost carbon avoidance measures. However, the credibility of the EU ETS as a part of broader climate change policies will depend on whether governments setting emissions allocations sufficiently tightly that they ensure the industries covered make a proportionate contribution towards meeting national targets, as part of the EU's overall target.

In January 2008 the European Commission (EC) proposed changes to the EU ETS in the third commitment and trading period 2013-20 which would strengthen and extend the scope of the trading scheme. NAPs would be replaced by centralised allocation by an EU authority and a single EU-wide cap which is to decrease by 1.74 % each year to 2020, when the cap would be 21% lower than the 2005 starting level. It was intended that the annual reduction would continue after 2020, with a review of the magnitude of the annual reduction to take place by 2025 at the latest. During the third commitment period a much larger share of emissions allowances would be auctioned instead of allocated free of charge. The scheme would broadened to include new industries (e.g. aluminium and ammonia producers) and new gases (nitrous oxide and perfluorocarbons). Due to the ETS having a growing surplus of allowances, the EC postponed the auctioning of some allowances as an immediate measure, and in November 2012 proposed other changes. These include increasing the EU’s 2020 emission reduction target from 20% to 30%, making the annual 1.74% reduction steeper, retiring some phase 3 allowances permanently, bringing more sectors into the ETS, and limiting access to international credits. These were considered in 2013.

In January 2014 the EC published its 2030 Framework for Climate and Energy Policies, including a legislative proposal for the ETS to establish a market stability reserve to operate in the fourth commitment and trading period starting in 2021. The reserve would both address the surplus of emission allowances that has built up in recent years and also improve the system's robustness by automatically adjusting the supply of allowances to be auctioned. Together with postponing in auctions of 900 million allowances (“backloading”), the proposal is widely supported in addressing the problems facing the rather discredited ETS. In February backloading was approved with the withdrawal of 400 million allowances in 2014.

The shift from free allocation to auctioning of emissions allowances, as well as the tightening of emissions allowance caps, will benefit nuclear energy and other forms of low carbon generation. Although it is thought that the cost of emissions allowances has already been incorporated as an opportunity cost, the free allocation of allowances means that fossil fuel power plant operators have not faced a true cost themselves for much of the emissions of their plant. In particular, when new electricity generation capacity is considered, fossil fuel generation will have to incorporate the cost of carbon allowances into the economic assessment of the plant. In addition, the tightening allowance cap is likely to lead to higher allowance prices, increasing the cost of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the ETS has arguably exported rather than reduced CO2 emissions. While the UK’s carbon emissions fell some 15% over 1990 to 2005, when imports were taken into account, carbon emissions on a world basis attributable to UK went up more than 19%, according to Professor Dieter Helm. The general trend for western countries, which substitute imports from countries like China for domestic production, is obvious.

Elsewhere a simple carbon emission tax has been applied (contentiously in Australia, at a level far above EU ETS but still too low and with too many exemptions to drive change). This is straightforward, but the level set is arbitrary and may be out of kilter with ETS systems. Also, like the ETS, it exempts certain industries on an arbitrary or politically-driven basis, creating major inequities. And like the ETS it penalizes exporters while exempting imports.

A carbon consumption tax has been proposed, which is applied like a normal consumption tax but on the basis of CO2 implications in the production of goods and services. This would require certification of sources, not just at manufacturing level but also upstream to power generation, and at the border for imports (where assumptions re electricity inputs would need to be made). It would be equitable between domestic production and imports. Professor Dieter Helm in the UK is a proponent of this, but it is not implemented anywhere.

The Ongoing UNFCCC Negotiations

The protracted delays before the eventual entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol have meant that the UNFCCC Negotiations began to consider what emissions reduction regime should follow the first commitment period, which ended in 2012.

Discussions are following two parallel tracks, the first considering future emissions reduction commitments for Annex I Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, the second considering long-term global cooperative action to address climate change This second track has a more sensitive task, as it includes the USA, without emissions reduction targets for the first commitment period, and developing countries, which as yet do not have emissions reduction targets.

Decisions on appropriate action beyond 2012 have generated a great deal of controversy. Emissions from developing countries are expected to rise as they increase their use of fossil fuels to meet their need for energy for development. Many developed countries want developing countries to limit the growth in their emissions. Developing countries point out that their per capita emission are still much lower than developed countries and believe that developed countries should show their commitment to reducing emissions first, before expecting developing countries to take action.

In 2008 and 2009 the number of meetings under the UNFCCC increased as parties worked towards a target of agreeing a legally binding agreement for after the first Kyoto Protocol commitment period. However, progress has been slower than hoped. The COP 15/CMP 5 meeting in Copenhagen in December was intended to lead to result in a high-level political agreement, with a more detailed agreement to follow, however an agreement of all Parties was not reached. The Copenhagen Accord, drawn up in the last days of the conference, included non-binding declarations of emissions reduction policies and commitments from individual governments, but no international agreement.

The COP 15/CMP 5 meeting at Copenhagen had attracted tens of thousands of delegates and had been promoted by some as the last chance to reach an agreement in time to succeed the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. In addition, controversy over leaked emails from the influential University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit had called some to question the case for action on climate change. COP 16/CMP 6 meeting in Mexico in December 2010 made little progress, but was seen as a success in that it managed to re-establish the negotiation process. However, both European and US climate change negotiators had dismissed the possibility that the COP 17/CMP 7 meeting would result in a new binding agreement. Attention turned to implementing a short-term extension of the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period, to allow a more permanent agreement to be developed. In addition, negotiators are seeking to implement a number of 'fast-start' funding mechanisms that are intended to support emission reduction or avoidance projects in developing countries.

Short-term and long-term focus of UNFCCC Negotiations

The ultimate objective of the Framework Convention on Climate Change is the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. This is a long-term objective that will require emissions paths to be reduced progressively over the 21st century and beyond.

However, the Kyoto Protocol has focussed attention on a relatively short-term emissions objective, namely the first commitment period between 2008 and 2012. The targets set for this period were first agreed in 1997, which gave governments 10-15 years to put in place policies to reach these targets, and only three years between the Protocol's entry into force in 2005 and the start of the first commitment period.

The current bias towards short-term targets does not provide an impetus to make the investments in long-term infrastructure changes, such as energy, transport and buildings, which are needed to bring sustainable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Ahead of the Copenhagen meeting a number of countries declared their own national emissions reduction targets, applying to a range of timeframes. In some cases, as with the EU, parties agreed to take on more stringent emissions targets if a new agreement can eventually be reached under the UNCCC.

Group of 8 (G8)

The Group of 8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the USA) hold annual economic and political summit meetings of the heads of government with international officials.

The 2005 meeting held in Gleneagles, Scotland under the UK Presidency placed Climate Change and Africa as joint priority agenda items. Throughout the preceding year a series of events were held in preparation for the final summit in July.

In February 2005, the Scientific Conference on Climate Change was held at the Hadley Centre for Climate Research and Prediction in Exeter, where the latest scientific understanding of climate change was discussed. The proceedings of the meeting include a discussion of technology options, which recognises that the potential contribution of nuclear energy is almost without technical limits.

A ministerial roundtable meeting of Energy and Environment Ministers held in March 2005, involved 20 countries, including Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. The meeting concluded that the countries shared common goals of:

  • creating the conditions for economic development and poverty eradication by improving the accessibility and affordability of modern energy services;
  • providing security of supply with energy systems that are resilient, reliable and diversified; and
  • protecting local and global environmental quality, including addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Gleneagles Summit itself was distracted by other events and as a result limited progress was made in discussions on climate change. However, it was agreed that the topics of energy and climate change would continue to be discussed at future G8 meetings.

The meeting in St Petersburg, Russia in 2006 focused on global energy security and climate change. There was agreement that the G8 would take action in the following key areas:

  • Increasing transparency, predictability and stability of global energy markets;
  • Improving the investment climate in the energy sector;
  • Enhancing energy efficiency and energy saving;
  • Diversifying the energy mix;
  • Ensuring physical security of critical energy infrastructure;
  • Reducing energy poverty;
  • Addressing climate change and sustainable development.

Included in the details of what was proposed to address these key areas included an endorsement of nuclear energy: "Those of us who have or are considering plans relating to the use and/or development of safe and secure nuclear energy believe that its development will contribute to global energy security, while simultaneously reducing harmful air pollution and addressing the climate change challenge."

The agreement highlighted the INPRO project and the Generation IV International Forum, interim solutions to address back-end fuel cycle issues and the importance of independent effective regulation of nuclear installations. The agreement also highlighted the USA GNEP proposal and the complementary proposals by Russia and the IAEA.

Global energy security and climate change were discussed further at meetings in Germany (June 2007) and Japan (2008). Discussions also took place among the broader G20 group.

Europe

In many respects Europe has been a leader in promoting action on climate change.

In March 2007 the European Council endorsed the European Commission's Strategic Energy Review and agreed on a unilateral cut of 20% in EU greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, relative to 1990 levels. The previous commitment was 8% reduction by 2012. This required strengthening and extending carbon trading arrangements as well as deploying low- or zero-carbon technology. The European Council also endorsed the objective of making a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and said that it would commit to this 30% target if other developed countries committed to (unspecified) comparable reductions in emissions and the more advanced developing countries (e.g. India, Brazil, China) "contributed adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities". French President Chirac described the outcome as "one of the great moments of European history."

The European Council also set a target of meeting 20% of EU energy needs from renewables by 2020, leaving individual countries to decide their own policies in such a way as to allow nuclear power as part of their energy mix to be taken into consideration in allocating individual country targets for renewables. The Council noted "the European Commission's assessment of the contribution of nuclear energy in meeting the growing concerns about safety of energy supply and CO2 emission reductions" and it acknowledged the role of nuclear energy "as a low CO2-emitting energy source." In the event the 2008 policy set was “20-20-20” – 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, 20% of electricity from renewables and 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020.

The European Commission’s 2030 Policy Framework for Climate and Energy in January 2014 moved away from major reliance on renewables to achieve emission reduction targets and allows scope for nuclear power to play a larger role. It is focused on CO2 emission reduction, not the means of achieving that, and allows more consideration for cost-effectiveness.

The centerpiece is a binding 40% reduction in domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared with a 1990 baseline) which will require strong commitments from EU member states. Current policies and measures if followed through should deliver 32% reduction by then, so 40% “is achievable” and widely supported. It implies a 43% cut from 2005 for CO2 in sectors covered by the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS). There are to be no post-2020 national renewables targets, and individual states are free to use whatever technology they wish to achieve emission reductions in the longer term, though a 27% “headline target at European level for renewable energy” is included. The framework also proposes reform of the ETS to make it the principal driver of climate policy (see Emission Trading section above), and it drops a binding energy efficiency target and a directive for use of biofuels in transport.

Impetus for the profound change in emphasis from the 2008 policy framework appears to have come from EU member states which are winding back renewables programs due to escalating costs. The International Energy Agency has pointed out the huge difference in energy prices between USA and EU, with gas prices three times as high and electricity twice as high in the EU. The EU is evidently concerned about loss of international competitiveness and the increasingly chaotic retreat from subsidy schemes related to its 2020 renewables target. More generally, it acknowledges that “the rapid development of renewable energy sources now poses new challenges for the energy system”.

The key change from 2020 goals is “providing flexibility for Member States to define a low-carbon transition appropriate to their specific circumstances, preferred energy mix and needs in terms of energy security, and allowing them to keep costs to a minimum.” An early test of this will be approval for UK plans to set long-term electricity prices to enable investment in nuclear plants.

The WNA said that the “flexible” approach outlined allows nuclear power to play an expanded role in decarbonising electricity supply. The ambitious target “is a bare minimum if the EU wishes to achieve its objective of an 80% reduction by 2050, and do its part in averting a 2°C rise in global temperatures. Unfortunately the target of 27% for renewable energy continues to undermine the possibility for cost efficiency in meeting the carbon target. It also again demonstrates an unjustified preference in EU policy for renewable energy over other carbon reduction pathways – such as nuclear energy – regardless of cost, maturity and the preferences of individual Member States.”

However, only weeks later the EU parliament in a non-binding resolution voted by 341 to 263 to claw back some of the previous provisions by changing the EC draft policy to call for binding national targets of 30% of power from renewables (not 27% overall) and reinstating the energy efficiency goal to 40% improvement by 2030, along with the EC 40% greenhouse gas reduction. Member states can however go with the EC draft policy rather than this. A final agreement needs to be signed off in mid-2014.

Asia Pacific Partnership (APP)

The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, known informally as APP, is a non-treaty partnership established by Australia, India, Japan, China, South Korea and the United States in July 2005 and launched in 2006. The Partnership involved countries that account for about half of the world's population and more than half of the world's economy, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. In October 2007, Canada joined APP.

The objectives of the partnership included:

  • To work together and with private companies to expand markets for investment and trade in cleaner, more efficient energy technologies, goods, and services in key sectors.
  • To work with multilateral development banks on financing for initiatives and programs identified by the task forces that will expand the use of technologies and practices designed to promote objectives of the Partnership.
  • To work on areas of collaboration including Energy Efficiency, Methane Capture and Use, Rural/Village Energy Systems, Clean Coal, Civilian Nuclear Power, Advanced Transportation, Liquefied Natural Gas, Geothermal, Building and Home Construction/Operation, Bioenergy, Agriculture/Forestry, Hydropower, Wind Power and Solar Power.

In April 2011 the APP wound up, though some programs continued under other auspices. The APP Power Generation and Transmission Task Force was transitioned into a new "Global Superior Energy Performance Partnership (GSEP)" that will form part of the Clean Energy Ministerial that had been established in 2010. The Clean Energy Ministerial initiative includes representatives from 24 governments representing 70% of global GDP and 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Contraction & Convergence

The concept of Contraction and Convergence is a long-term framework towards the ultimate object of climate change policy in terms of 'safe' emissions levels. The concept has gained some interest amongst politicians and climate change experts and is seen as potentially superseding the arbitrary short-term target setting of the current Kyoto Protocol process.

Under a Contraction and Convergence regime an international agreement would define to what level atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations could rise before becoming unacceptable. Once this is defined, an estimate would be made of how much reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions is required to meet the target, taking into account the effect of sinks, and how quickly the target should be reached. This represents the 'contraction' element, and in itself it does not differ substantially from the aims of the UNFCCC to stabilize "greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

The key differentiating factor of Contraction and Convergence is the proposal that ultimately the 'right' to emit carbon dioxide is a human right which should be shared equally. Therefore, emissions targets should ultimately be allocated to countries on the basis of their populations. Emissions rights would be on a per capita basis and therefore require convergence from the present very unequal per capita levels to a universal per capita level.

During the convergence period, which should not be protracted, emission permits would be progressively adjusted from status quo to these new levels. Permits could be traded, and this would cause a major economic transfer from countries that have used fossil fuels to create wealth to those still struggling to alleviate poverty. After convergence, each country would receive the same allocation of carbon dioxide emission rights per head of population and further trading in permits is envisaged.

The fundamental principles of Contraction and Convergence have received some support from those who see the equal allocation of emissions rights as promoting social equity. However, these fundamental principles alone do not provide an alternative to the UNFCCC process, as they are no more than conceptual and much would be needed to turn them into a policy framework. Achieving political backing in developed countries is unlikely.

There are also concerns as to the fairness of the proposal. There are concerns that countries with rapidly expanding populations could be rewarded through this scheme, as their expanding populations could result in them having a greater allocation of emissions on a country basis. It might therefore be necessary to fix the overall country allocation on a specific national population on a specific date.

It has also been suggested that some countries have conditions that inherently require greater energy usage and consequent emissions, so therefore there should be differentiated emissions rights depending on local circumstances. For example someone living in the Arctic would have greater energy needs for heating and lighting than someone living in a more temperate region.

Carbon emission stocktake

The first complete set of data for the 41 industrialised parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) was released at the Nairobi meeting and shows that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise despite measures under the Kyoto Protocol. Figures for 1990 to 2004 show that apart from the temporary effect of restructuring in eastern Europe, emissions from industrialised countries rose 11% over the period. For all those countries emissions were down by 3% and for the 36 parties to the Protocol, emissions declined by 15%. Emissions from the USA were 16% up, those from Australia 25% up, and energy-related CO2 emissions for China rose 110% and for India 89% over the period – those from China exceeding Europe's. Most developed countries were targeting an 8% reduction to 2008-12.

In May 2011 the OECD International Energy Agency (IEA) released figures for 2010 energy-related CO2 emissions, which reached a new high of 30.6 billion tonnes. The previous record was 29.3 Gt in 2008 (emissions in 2009 dipped because of the global financial crisis). The IEA estimates that 40% of global emissions came from OECD countries, though these contributed only a quarter of the growth. Non-OECD countries – particularly China and India – saw much stronger increases in emissions as their economic growth accelerated. On a per capita basis, OECD countries emitted an average of 10 tonnes of CO2, compared with 5.8 tonnes in China and 1.5 tonnes in India. In terms of fuel, some 44% of the estimated CO2 emissions in 2010 came from the burning of coal, 36% from oil, and 20% from natural gas. The IEA estimates that some 80% of projected CO2 emissions from the power sector in 2020 are already 'locked in', as they will come from either existing power plants or plants currently under construction.