Failed CO2 Targets: Going Through the Motions in Doha

The United Nations Climate Change Conference beginning in Doha this week is turning into a farce. While negotiators are sticking to the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, even climatologists admit that the project has failed. By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: Unwilling to Admit Defeat on Climate Targets Photos
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Protecting the climate is incredibly important to Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, as evidenced by all the resolutions it has adopted in the past to save the planet. Germany has climate funds and reduction targets, building and transportation programs, and even an entire strategy to wean itself off nuclear power and shift to green energy, which has been dubbed the Energiewende, or "energy revolution." But at some point there is such a thing as overkill.

Can a member of parliament be expected to be chauffeured around Berlin in a small car? Or should he even stoop to the level of taking a cab? Now that, the Bundestag recently decided, would be asking too much. But because the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the elegant limousines normally used to chauffeur German lawmakers exceeds standards set three years ago, the Bundestag came up with a convenient solution. They simply raised the previously established limit of 120 grams of CO2 per kilometer to 140.

And what about the fact that the European Commission in Brussels has been fighting for months to set the limit at 95 grams? Forget it! And the climate? Oh, that again.

Only a few years ago, lawmakers would have hardly dared raise the limits for allowable greenhouse gas emissions coming from their official cars. They would have been too worried about upsetting climate activists and triggering outraged editorials in the papers.

But things have changed, so much so that the Bundestag's decision hardly attracted any notice in the press, and neither did the government's decision to eliminate a rule requiring official trips to be climate-neutral. As mundane as these decisions seem, they symbolize a significant failure, namely that no issue of global urgency has tanked quite as quickly as the warming of the earth's climate.

A Bizarre Ritual

What was seen as a question of man's survival not too long ago is little more than a side note today. Even forest dieback, the great bugaboo of the 1980s, did not suffer a comparable plunge into irrelevance.

This only amplifies the bizarrely ritualistic nature of the Climate Change Conference starting this week in Doha, Qatar. Thousands of negotiators, environmentalists and industry lobbyists are meeting in the Arab emirate to set the course for an international treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

But the world has already turned its back on the issue. And if that weren't unnerving enough, the attendees from 195 countries will be debating a project that everyone suspects is no longer achievable: the 2-degree target.

It remains a mantra for saving the climate that the earth's temperature curve cannot be allowed to climb any further than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Climatologists have calculated how much carbon dioxide emissions from cars, chimneys and fields can increase without jeopardizing the 2-degree target. If we fail in this mission, at least according to their computer models, life on the planet will become intolerable.

But a look at their calculations reveals that limiting the earth's warming to 2 degrees Celsius is no longer realistic. Our thirst for energy is too enormous and our efforts to wean ourselves off fossil fuels have been too insignificant.

Instead of declining, emissions continue to rise year after year. If nothing changes, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) predicted last week, global carbon emissions will increase to about 58 gigatons by 2020 -- much more than the 44 gigatons necessary to adhere to the 2-degree target.

According to the 2011 World Energy Outlook published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), global fossil fuel subsidies jumped 30 percent to $523 billion (€403 billion) last year. Although countries are spending more and more on renewable energy, subsidies for coal, oil and gas are still six times as high. About 1,200 new coal-fired power plants are planned worldwide, and even Germany generated more electricity from coal in the first nine months of this year than it has in a long time.

Unwilling to Admit Defeat

In times of crisis, burning fossil fuels helps industry, while the climate must wait. According to a study by the research institute Oxford Economics, almost all key producers of greenhouse gas are spending decreasing amounts on saving the planet. Crisis-ridden Spain plans to cut €3.8 billion ($4.9 billion) from its climate protection budget by 2015, Great Britain will reduce spending by €3.1 billion, and even Germany is cutting climate-related spending by €1.5 billion. When ranked by how much it spends on climate protection as a percentage of total spending, the United States comes in last.

Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist in Paris, isn't the only one who sees the 2-degree target as a "nice utopia" -- well-intentioned, but unfortunately totally unrealistic.

But hardly anyone is about to admit it. Climate activists won't admit it, because they're afraid that without strict targets, no government can be compelled to reduce emissions. And neither will politicians in Germany and Europe, because they're the ones who injected the 2-degree target into the global debate in the first place. "If we don't reach the target, it will get a lot more expensive for many of us than we can imagine today," warns European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard.

That's why Jochem Marotzke, director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, is being courageous when he says: "Although physically speaking it is still possible to reach the 2-degree target, it seems to me that it's hardly feasible politically." He thinks it's more realistic to limit global warming to 3 degrees Celsius. "Even that, of course, would be associated with massive efforts worldwide," he adds.

As one of Germany's top climatologists, Marotzke knows what he is talking about. He has had the computers at his institute calculate what would be necessary to comply with the 2-degree target: Worldwide CO2 emissions would have to consistently decline by 1 percent a year, starting in 2020, to end up at almost zero by the end of the century.

That would require a carbon-free global economy, in which no more oil or gas is burned anywhere on the planet, and in which all cars operate without fossil fuel and aircraft fly without kerosene. Is this realistic? Marotzke doesn't think so. "In general, this raises the issue of whether it's good policy to proclaim unachievable goals," he says.

Other Priorities

But his voice will probably remain unheard in Doha. The countries will still talk about the 2-degree target, but they will hardly follow their talk with action. On the contrary, while Europe's crisis-ridden countries are rediscovering classic industrial policy, emerging economies like China and India are turning into emissions giants.

China, for example, is responsible for 29 percent of worldwide, energy-related CO2 emissions, and it's also the world's biggest air polluter. But the leadership in Beijing doesn't like this superlative, preferring to cite a different number, which shows that per capita, the 1.4 billion Chinese are responsible for only a fraction of what Americans and most Europeans emit.

Whatever a climate compromise looks like in the end, it will have to be characterized by "fairness, common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities," said Xie Zhenhua, the head of Beijing's delegation, when he presented his strategy for the Doha climate conference last Wednesday. What he meant was that emissions reductions are ok, but everyone else should start first.

The Indians hold the same view. Although their delegation fundamentally voted for a reduction in greenhouse gases at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban last year, India has a price for that, which it will also present to the European Union in Doha: financial assistance and the transfer of environmental technology.

The United States also has other priorities. At the first press conference after his reelection, President Barack Obama fundamentally acknowledged the importance of climate protection. But then he promptly added that this could not get in the way of the anticipated economic recovery. "Jobs and growth" are Americans' biggest concern, said the president. "If the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's going to go for that. I won't go for that," he added.

For many years, at least the citizens of the EU could feel good about playing in the league of climate rescuers. At a number of UN conferences, the EU pushed forward with ambitious goals.

Of course, little of that will be in evidence in Doha. Originally, the EU had planned to commit itself to considerably tougher reduction targets for greenhouse gas. But Poland, a significant coal producer, was the first to thwart the plan. European Commissioner Hedegaard now admits that it is no longer feasible in the short term.

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