Failed CO2 Targets Going Through the Motions in Doha


Part 2: 'Far Too Little Is Happening'

The UN's most important tool in the fight against climate change, emissions trading, has turned into a problem child instead. Recently the price of a ton of carbon dioxide sporadically fell below €7 -- a joke for the managers of many a major company. The head of the German Federal Environment Agency, Jochen Flasbarth, vacillates between despair and resignation: "I don't see that anyone within the EU is noticeably applying pressure or proposing any good solutions."

This wasn't always the case. But Germany, once a trailblazer, has too many other problems at the moment. Although the country is attracting a lot of attention worldwide with its Energiewende experiment, politicians and environmental groups doubt that the climate is the government's main motivation. "For now, the Energiewende is really just a power generation turnaround," says Merkel's fellow Christian Democrat Klaus Töpfer, a former environment minister. "If we don't want to question our climate goals, we do have to address the issues of warming, mobility and energy efficiency just as resolutely. Far too little is happening in this regard."

In fact, Economics Minister Philipp Rösler, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), has successfully blocked his own government's climate policy goals for months. On Friday, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) looked visibly miffed when he told the press: "I would like to see Germany hold onto its pioneering role in climate protection." He defiantly announced the revival of emissions trading, but Rösler promptly contradicted him, saying that he would not go along with further burdens on industry.

The federal government was already expecting emissions trading to generate at least €2 billion in revenue for its Special Energy and Climate Fund in 2013. According to internal Finance Ministry calculations, that number will likely decline by €750 million -- money that will no longer be available for domestic and international climate protection projects. This upsets Altmaier, who is traveling empty-handed to Doha, where he is already scheduled to spend only two days. So far he has waited in vain for support from Merkel in his dispute with Rösler. That too speaks volumes, says Green Party climate policy expert Hermann Ott. "There's nothing left of Angela Merkel the self-proclaimed climate chancellor."

More Practical Solutions Needed

Despite all this, no politician in Germany, touted as a model country on environmental matters, is willing to back away from the 2-degree target. "It's about saving face," says Oliver Geden, a climate expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. That's why the Germans are resorting to methods that auditors would probably characterize as an accounting trick.

This is how the trick works: You allow temperatures to shoot up by more than 2 degrees Celsius at around the middle of the century. Then you reduce greenhouse gas emissions to such an extent that the planet's temperature curve falls below the magic limit of 2 degrees above current levels by 2100. Practically speaking, no climatologist will be alive to experience that day, which makes it easy to reach such a resolution, which insiders refer to as "overshooting."

Climatologists are also discussing ideas to filter greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere or to cool the planet artificially. One idea that was seriously considered was to blow sulfur dioxide through 25-kilometer (16-mile) tubes into the stratosphere, where it would reflect sunlight. In July, a US entrepreneur dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into waters off the Canadian island of Haida Gwaii, in the misguided hope that global warming could be stopped by artificially accelerating algae growth.

Instead of science fiction, climate expert Geden prefers to call for realpolitik. "The 2-degree target has to be dropped as soon as possible," says the policy advisor, noting that a phantom discussion merely blurs our ability to recognize pragmatic solutions.

It would be more intelligent for cities and industrial sectors to join forces, and for countries to form alliances to develop climate-friendly technology. This would be better for the planet than producing yet another stack of draft resolutions, Geden says.

At least climate policy experts have chosen the ideal backdrop for their washout in Doha. The host country Qatar is the global leader on one climate issue: The oil sheikdom on the Persian Gulf has the world's highest per-capital emissions of CO2.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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