11/29/2011 09:44 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

Once More Into the Breach, Dear Friends

Munich -- The International Herald-Tribune has devoted its entire business section to the pending Durban climate talks, where I'm headed in a few hours. The story on the failure of the industrial world to keep the promise that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton flew to Copenhagen two years ago to make -- that $100 billion in climate aid would be provided to the poor nations -- is titled "A Pledge That Didn't Meet Its Potential."

In recent weeks, the UN has issued two major reports in an effort to move the process forward. One, from the global climate science community, makes clear that climate chaos has already been unleashed, and that increasingly frequent extreme climate events are already putting human communities at risk.

The other, from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), estimates that the necessary cuts in 2020 emissions to put the world on a course that would limit global warming to 2 percent is 6 gigatons of carbon dioxide -- but that keeping the gap that small will require that nations meet the commitments they have already made, including the U.S. commitment of a 17 percent cut in its emissions (likely to be achieved, but not through a single national policy, in my view) and the $100 billion a year in climate aid (not looking as good.)

The UNEP then says that this remaining 6-gigaton gap can be closed if the global energy sector is reformed in the following ways:

  • Improving energy efficiency: Primary energy production would need to drop up to 11 percent from business-as-usual models in 2020, and the amount of energy used per unit of GDP would need to fall 1.1 to 2.3 percent each year from 2005 to 2020.
  • Up to 28 percent of total primary energy would need to come from non-fossil sources in 2020 (up from 18.5 percent in 2005).
  • Up to 17 percent of total primary energy in 2020 would need to come from biomass (up from about 10.5 percent in 2005).
  • Up to 9 percent of total primary energy in 2020 would need to come from non-biomass renewable energy (solar, wind, hydroelectricity, and the like).
  • Non-CO2 emissions would need to fall by up to 19 percent by 2020.

The UNEP calculates that the average cost of removing a ton of carbon dioxide in this scenario is modest -- $34/ton. (For comparison, that's equivalent to $0.34/gallon of gasoline). And the UNEP's reforms are well within the range of what's technically feasible and even affordable. So the job can be done. But are we serious about doing it?

The signs leading into Durban are not good. The U.S. and Japan are proposing to postpone any kind of global climate negotiations until 2015 -- clearly too late to ensure that the world meets the 2020 target. They have now been joined by India and Brazil. Europe and the poorest countries -- which will suffer most of the consequences of inaction -- want to complete a global agreement by 2015.

China is positioning itself as the bridge-builder between the two camps and has also launched a major public relations initiative highlighting its own domestic clean-energy efforts. The Guardian concluded that China is engaging in "both a last-ditch attempt to salvage a deal and a political insurance policy aimed at minimising blame -- and most likely deflecting it to the U.S. -- if the talks break down." But China has fought back vigorously against efforts to get it to eliminate its strategy of continuing to produce (and then get paid by UN to destroy) highly climate-destructive refrigeration chemicals.

Meanwhile, China's highest stated priority for the talks -- getting a second round of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol from the industrial world -- is being rebuffed by Canada, Russia, and Japan.

So this doesn't look like the conference of the desperately needed breakthrough -- but if the world can really make progress on $100 billion in climate aid, keep the tropical forest process (flawed as it is) moving forward, and begin to grapple with the reality that the new economics of coal, oil, and clean energy mean that the incremental price for going green keeps getting smaller, then we might begin to sustain a virtuous cycle, even in the face of the Great Recession. But with the Euro teetering, getting enough focus and bandwidth makes even those modest goals challenging.