Coral reefs and CO2 emissions

9  Coral reefs and CO2

1 Introduction

Humankind has become ever more reliant upon the burning of fossil fuels to power homes, industry and transportation. When coupled to cement production, gas flaring and deforestation, the effect has been anthropogenic increases in the emission, and atmospheric concentration, of carbon dioxide (CO2). The scale of this is recorded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the Fourth Assessment Report.1 Global emissions of CO2 due to human activities grew between 1970 and 2004 by about 80 per cent.2 Indeed, from a value of 280ppm before industrialisation began (regarded as 1750) CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere reached 379ppm by 2005.3 Such concentrations are now believed to be around 387ppm.4 Furthermore, according to current policies and practice, anthropogenic emissions of CO2 due to energy use will continue to grow between 2000 and 2030 by 40–110 per cent; two-thirds to three-quarters of which will come from developing counties.5 CO2 concentrations would therefore reach 450ppm around 2030–2040.6

Rising CO2 emissions have resulted in two dangerous phenomena.7 First, it is regarded as very likely that CO2, in concert with emissions of methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and a raft of halocarbons, has caused the current warming of the global climate.8 In this context, CO2 is often referred to as one of the greenhouse gases (GHG) capable of having a radiactive forcing effect.9 For the oceans, this affects water temperatures, sea levels via thermal expansion and contraction of the polar ice-sheets, ocean currents and the number (and intensity) of storms.10

The second impact has been less intensively studied until recently and is only now featuring more in calls to cut CO2 emissions. The emerging consensus is that marine ecosystems are threatened by anthropogenic CO2 because of its influence upon the pH of sea water as it is absorbed. This absorption of CO2 by the oceans has long been regarded as a process that retards the acceleration of climate change. Whilst this may be so, it also leads to the acidification of oceans with potentially catastrophic effects for calcifying organisms like corals and shelled marine life.11

The thesis that will be explored in this chapter is that these two phenomena place warm-water coral reefs at great risk. Yet the international legal response contained in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)12 and 1997 Kyoto Protocol13 is only designed to tackle the first, namely climate change. This poses a grave threat to the future of coral reefs.

2 Climate change

In the light of growing scientific consensus in the mid-1980s about the emission of GHGs and climate change, the executives of the World Meteorological Organization and UNEP established the IPCC.14 The aims of this panel were confirmed by the UN General Assembly as being to assess all of the scientific evidence on climate change that was being produced, and to propose measures that could or should be taken in response.15 Since its establishment, the IPCC has prepared four assessment reports on the evidence for anthropogenic climate change, the likely socio-economic and environmental impacts of change, and potential responses. In 2007, the IPCC released its latest series of reports on climate change, and declared that there was unequivocal evidence of warming.16 The panel also declared that there was very high confidence that this warming was as a result of human activities since 1750.17 Their estimates for increased global average surface temperatures are 1.8–4 °C by the end of the century, whilst sea levels are expected to rise 18–59cm.18

As was observed in the opening chapter, this creates serious problems for coral reefs. For example, more frequent and widespread coral bleaching, rising sea levels potentially drowning reefs whose health is already impaired by human threats, and physical damage caused to weakened skeletons by the greater incidence of intense weather events.19 Whilst the geological record reveals that over the millennia corals have recovered from carbon-related climate changes a number of times, this recovery has taken thousands of years, i.e. over timescales not in tune with human demands.20 What is more, the scale and rate of carbon emission increase suggests that adaptation by corals to the resulting rapid climatic changes will not occur, even for those that have shown greater resilience so far.21

In terms of identifying safe atmospheric concentrations of CO2, coral reef scientists place store in the fact that the first, sporadic, instances of bleaching occurred when CO2 concentrations exceeded 320ppm.22 The major bleaching event of 1997/1998 is thought to have occurred when concentrations were just below 350ppm, whilst the predicted concentration of 450ppm is regarded as threatening widespread destruction of reefs, leaving remnants of greatly reduced diversity in isolated pockets.23 Given the inevitability of concentrations remaining above 330ppm, scientists are being realistic in calling for stabilisation at 350ppm.24

2.1 The international legal regime for climate change

At the same time as they approved the remit of the IPCC, the UN General Assembly called upon UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization to identify ‘elements for inclusion in a possible future international convention on climate change’.25 This led to a second major conference on climate change in 1990. In the light of the participants’ recommendations, the UN General Assembly responded by initiating a single intergovernmental negotiating process for the creation of a framework convention on climate change. This convention was to be ready for adoption at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992.26 Within 18 months of this resolution, the text of the UNFCCC had been finalised and was signed by 155 states and the European Union at the Rio conference.

It is not possible, nor relevant, to go into the minutiae of the framework convention and the related Kyoto Protocol in this chapter.27 A broad overview of the regime, however, serves to illustrate the progress that has been made and the faults that cause serious concern. It also serves to give an impression of the likelihood of climate change being arrested before it causes extensive damage to coral reef ecosystems. Where possible, the intersection with coral reef issues will be highlighted. As will become clear, coral reef problems are hardly ever explicitly raised, whilst commitments of the parties to limiting the emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases fall woefully short of those called for by coral reef conservationists and scientists.

2.1.1 The structure and operation of the UNFCCC

Unlike the IPCC reports, which consider both natural and human-induced climate change, the UNFCCC is only concerned with climate change caused by human activity.28 Necessarily this means the convention has to deal with anthropogenic emissions of GHGs. In others words, those gases that have a radiactive effect in the atmosphere.29

The paramount objective of the agreement is to stabilise GHG atmospheric concentrations at a level that would ‘prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.30 Avoiding ‘dangerous interference’ is therefore the key benchmark for all action, commitments and programmes agreed under the convention and its auspices. Yet determining what constitutes ‘dangerous’ has been left as a political judgment made in the light of scientific findings, and economic and societal concerns; not something set according to scientific recommendation alone.31 Thus advocacy for action to conserve coral reefs needs to cover all of these areas, and not just the troubling responses of reefs to increased GHG concentrations.

Thereafter, the convention establishes general principles that are to shape expectations of the parties and direct their action towards meeting the objective. These include inter-generational equity, common but differentiated responsibility, the right of all states to sustainable development, and the precautionary principle. These principles and the overriding objective are not to be thought of as obligations of the parties. Rather, they aid interpretation and shape the collective commitment of the parties.32

The core obligations under the UNFCCC, however, are established in Article 4. They relate to mitigation (direct action on emissions) and adaptation. The latter concerns preparing humankind and nature for the inevitable changes to the climate system. Further, dividing lines are drawn between obligations of all parties, obligations of Annex II parties (broadly, developed countries),33 and obligations of Annex I parties (developed countries plus those with economies in transition to a market economy).34

Taking each division in turn, the first all-party commitments involve formulating policies for mitigating emissions and facilitating adaptation, as well as drawing up and maintaining inventories of anthropogenic emissions sources and removal of GHGs by sinks (such as forests).35 No targets are therefore established for developing countries, and all obligations are set against a background of common but differentiated responsibilities and varying developmental priorities.36

The Annex I countries committed themselves to more demanding action under Article 4(2).37 Under this provision they undertake to adopt policies and take measures to mitigate emissions of GHGs so as to demonstrate that they are taking the lead in meeting the overriding objective. However, whilst it might be felt that this is consistent with the Preamble’s note that ‘the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries’, developed countries resisted attempts during negotiations of the treaty to include explicit links between the principle that they should take the lead and any historic responsibility.38 As to quantifiable mitigation targets, these had also been resisted during the negotiation phase,39 and Article 4(2)(a) therefore only recognises that ‘the return by the end of the present decade to earlier levels of anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases’ would contribute to achieving the objective. At that time the belief of the negotiating states was that a return to 1990 levels of emissions by 2000 was a suitable aim. This was recorded in the convention although the COP to the UNFCCC was to keep this position under review.40

The final collection of obligations are aimed at the smaller group of developed countries listed in Annex II. These contracting parties have agreed to provide new and additional financial resources to help developing countries meet the costs of producing inventories of emissions, mitigation and adaptation policies, and reports for the COP as demanded by Article 12(1).41 The same Annex II parties are to help the most vulnerable nations adapt to climate change, and facilitate, promote and finance technology transfer to developing countries.42 These support provisions are backed by a reminder (similar to that previously discussed in the chapter on the CBD) that developing countries will need developed countries to deliver upon these promises if they are to effectively implement their own commitments.43

The divisions described have ultimately caused considerable trouble for the operation of the climate change regime. First, by having some states subject to control, manufacturing concerns from developed countries have looked to relocate to the non-commitment states; a rush to the bottom in terms of environmental control and standards, undermining attempts to cut emissions in regulated states.44 Second, the economic and industrial development of some developing states – China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa – has been such that since the adoption of the UNFCCC they now emit substantial amounts of GHG, and sometimes more per year than Annex I states.45 Yet they benefit from the old division lines set by the framework convention, which suggest they should not be subject to binding mitigation commitments. This has caused considerable tension and threatens to undo efforts to limit current GHG emissions. Such tensions have been all too obvious at recent meetings of the parties.

The parties to the framework convention meet annually at COPs46 and exercise wide-ranging powers of review and implementation by consensus.47 Article 17 also permits the adoption of protocols by the COP. This is important since the convention followed previous practice under atmospheric pollution treaties of providing just an empty framework setting out the principles for the later development of more precise mitigation commitments under satellite protocols.48 The need for such an agreement was soon recognised following the early release of some of the IPCC findings leading up to their 2nd report. These indicated that the rudimentary mitigation commitments under the framework convention would still lead to dangerous levels of atmospheric GHG concentrations. Consequently, COP1 in Berlin in 1995 mandated that negotiations be started once again for an agreement containing (as a priority) quantified limitation and reduction objectives for Annex I parties.49 Moreover, these negotiations were to be completed quickly so that the agreement could be adopted at COP3.50 This was duly achieved, and in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was adopted.

2.1.2 The Kyoto Protocol and the first quantifiable commitments

Only states and regional integration organisations who are parties to the UNFCCC may sign, ratify, accept or approve the protocol.51 The protocol also adopts much of the terminology and structure of the framework convention, most noticeably by making use of the Annex I list of developed and industrialised states. It is this group of states that undertake quantified emissions limitation and reduction targets. Indeed, under Article 3(1) of the protocol, these states agreed that their anthropogenic emissions of GHGs would not exceed individual maxima so that collectively there would be an overall reduction of at least 5 per cent below 1990 levels.52 This needed to be achieved between 2008 and 2012, although each Annex I party should have made demonstrable progress towards their commitments by 2005.53

A degree of flexibility was introduced so that states could make these cuts as efficiently as possible. The first recognises that climate change is driven by a variety of gases, with each having a more or less intense radiactive effect when in the atmosphere. Calls for substance specific obligations were rebuffed during negotiations and it was agreed parties should pursue cuts to whichever GHG was felt most appropriate.54 To aid in this, the IPCC system of producing comparable global climate change potentials for each GHG was adopted,55 reducing all to a CO2 equivalent value (CO2-eq). For example, Methane has a global climate change potential 56 times that of an equivalent amount of CO2 for 20 years following emission into the atmosphere.56

More sophisticated flexibility mechanisms were also offered on the basis that they would allow reductions in emissions to be achieved in the most economically efficient manner. These are joint implementation (JI),57 the clean development mechanism (CDM)58 and emissions trading schemes (ETS).59 Despite their availability, the Kyoto Protocol demands that their use must be supplemental to domestic action.60

The first mechanism allows an Annex I party to take steps to reduce emissions in the territory of another Annex I state. JI earns carbon credits – termed ‘emission reduction units’ (ERU) – which can be sold under ETS or used by the investing state for meeting their Annex B commitments. For example, JI could involve installing renewable energy or carbon capture technology that reduces emissions of GHGs. Crucially, any reductions achieved are credited to the investing state and debited from the allowance of the host state. This ensures cumulative emissions remain within the permitted threshold for Annex I parties.61

CDM bears similarities to JI except that the investment by the Annex I state takes place in a developing country. The projects undertaken earn the former certified emission reductions, which can be traded or used, and promote sustainable development in developing states.62 As these projects result in a net increase in permitted emissions by Annex I states63 they are subject to pre-registration, approval, monitoring and ultimately certification by the Executive Board to the CDM to ensure they deliver the claimed GHG emission levels and sustainable development.64 Indeed, the protocol demands that certificates may only be issued if the host country voluntarily allowed the project to proceed, the emission reductions are real and measurable with long-term benefits and where the reduction is additional to that which would otherwise have occurred.65 This has placed a burden upon the Executive Board given the volume of applications, and also upon the capacity of the parties (particularly developing countries) to supply the requisite documentation for CDM project approval.66 It has also resulted in certain developing states being favoured for projects, either because they have the internal capacity to produce the documentation needed, or because their economy is suitably carbon intensive to support savings.67 Nevertheless, CDM stands as the only mechanism offering involvement for developing countries, and, particularly relative to JI, generates a sizeable level of investment.68

The final flexibility mechanism permits trading of JI and CDM credits. The emissions allocated under Annex B of the protocol may also be traded69 along with credits earned through carbon sequestration in soils and vegetation within the state’s own borders.70 The latter is primarily achieved through afforestation or reforestation projects.71 The leading market for such credits was established by the European Union. It commenced trading in January 2005 for an initial period of two years, with a second phase operating from 2008–2012.72

Considerable effort has been spent on agreeing the details for these flexibility mechanisms, as well as creating a strong compliance regime. Indeed, major advances were made at COP7 to the UNFCCC in what has become known as the Marrakesh Accords73 such that ‘the Protocol might perhaps have been likened to a new house that – while still requiring a few touch-ups here and there – was essentially ready to occupy’.74 ‘Occupation’ duly happened in February 2005 when the Russian Federation ratified the agreement and it entered into force.75 This had long been thought unlikely to happen in the light of former US President George W. Bush’s open opposition to the Kyoto Protocol from early 2001.76

With fresh impetus since its entry into force, some of the work alluded to has been completed, most notably with regards to supporting adaptation efforts in developing countries. The 2006 Stern Review suggested that the cost of adaptation for developing countries would run into ‘tens of billions of dollars’.77 The response under both the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol has been to require that Annex II states provide financial support to developing countries to pay for the incremental costs of adaptation.78 At COP7 to the UNFCCC, this led to financial mechanisms being introduced operated by the GEF – namely a Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) and a Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF).79 The SCCF can be accessed by developing countries through the GEF in order to raise financing for various activities, programmes and measures, with top priority given to adaptation.80 The LDCF supports the production and implementation of National Adaptation Programmes of Action for the least-developed state parties to the UNFCCC.81 These plans seek to help communities develop strategies for coping with climate change and focus on immediate and urgent need.82

The problem with these two funds, in the eyes of some developing countries, is that they are under the direction of the GEF. Historically there has been dissatisfaction with the GEF because of a perceived lack of transparency and an imbalance in the degree of control exercised by donor countries over the distribution of financial grants.83 Even the GEF reforms of 1994 have not delivered the influence the developing countries desired.84 The introduction of a second mechanism for financial support – the Adaptation Fund – is therefore important. First, it is replenished by a 2 per cent levy on proceeds from CDM projects, as envisaged by Article 12(8) of the Kyoto Protocol. Second, an Adaptation Fund Board was established for choosing which projects would receive grants. The voting on this is according to one country, one vote, and developing countries hold the majority of the seats. The Adaptation Fund therefore represents a form of governance developing countries had long sought for the GEF.

The significance of these funds, though, also lies in the amount of money they have at their disposal. As of 14 October 2009 the LDCF held US$147 million85 and the SCCF US$93.7 million.86 Further, as of 30 April 2010 the Adaptation Fund held US$99.56 million.87 These sums dwarf the dedicated resources available under the other MEAs discussed in this book. Nevertheless, cumulatively they still do not meet the estimated costs of the Stern Report.

The legal structures for pursuing cuts in GHGs after the Kyoto Protocol are therefore well developed. What is more, a significant proportion of funding for adaptation exists. The difficulty though, as ever, relates to delivering effective mitigation. Farhana Yamin and Joanna Depledge point out that ‘cutting emissions at source is a clear and quantifiable way to tackle climate change’ as it is easier to say what difference a tonne of carbon not emitted makes compared to money spent on adaptive capacity.88 But getting states to accept mitigation commitments of the scale required under this system is hard since many see the economic sacrifices of deep cuts at home as being too high.

This is a problem since the 5 per cent reduction so far extracted under Article 3(1) of the Kyoto Protocol is not deep enough to be environmentally effective.89 Such cuts (even if achieved)90 seem likely to result in a concentration of over 650ppm CO2-eq91 or over 500ppm CO2.92 From a coral reef perspective this is significantly more than the 350ppm CO2 needed to avoid the collapse of these ecosystems due to bleaching.93 Indeed, to achieve this ideal, emission reductions by UNFCCC Annex I countries of GHGs would need to be 25–40 per cent by 2020, increasing to 80–95 per cent by 2050, coupled to substantial deviations from 1990 emission levels by non-Annex I states.94 The need to get states to commit to deeper cuts in emissions in the post-Kyoto period is therefore particularly urgent if the continued functioning of coral reefs is to be secured.

2.1.3 The second commitment period and the Copenhagen Accord

Article 3(9) of the Kyoto Protocol proposes that the Annex B commitments of Annex I states should be amended as each period comes to an end. The first commitment period was due to finish at the end of 2012. Article 3(9) therefore requires the parties to the protocol to initiate consideration of amending Annex B by the end of 2005. However, since there was a delay in the protocol entering into force, the first meeting of the parties only took place in Montreal in 2006 simultaneously with COP11 to the UNFCCC.

One of the products of the Montreal meeting was the creation of an Ad Hoc Working Group to negotiate the next commitments of Annex I states as per Article 3(9) (the AWG-KP). The hope was that this would be completed in time to ensure there was no gap between the end of the first commitment period, and the beginning of the second.95 The same meeting also began an open dialogue about long-term cooperative action to implement the UNFCCC.96 Two years later at COP13 in Bali, and following the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, this dialogue was formally handed to an Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the Convention (the AWG-LCA).97 The AWG-LCA was asked to complete its work by COP15 in 2009, and it was envisaged that work on this track would ultimately dovetail with work on the AWG-KP track.

At COP13, the negotiation phase under AWG-KP was also formally launched through the so-called ‘Bali Road Map’. Key to these negotiations were attempts to extract agreement for (accurately measured, verified and reported) mitigation targets that would stop average temperatures rising above 2°C.

Progress along the two tracks has often been difficult because of the fundamental tensions within the climate change negotiations. Industrialised nations view the Appendix I grouping as outdated, inappropriate and ineffective for tackling climate change. As Ellen Basse describes, the original division between Annex I and non-Annex I states was drawn according to poverty levels.98 It also reflects the greatest emitters of GHGs in the early 1990s. Therefore, given that nations such as China and India are rapidly developing in a fashion reliant upon fossil fuel,99 developed states have resisted further commitments until these leading developing countries make some concessions on mitigation pledges.

On the other hand, the original Kyoto Protocol division can also be viewed as reflecting historic responsibility for the global climate change phenomenon. Attempts to change the division have therefore been robustly rejected by China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa on this basis, coupled with calls for developed states to cut emissions by 25–40 per cent by 2020, and 80–95 per cent by 2050.100 This stance has been easier for the G-77 to maintain given that Article 3(9) is limited to renegotiation of commitments for Annex I states alone.

Initially, since AWG-KP was structurally opposed to wider state participation in emission cuts, the AWG-LCA was the only opportunity for industrialised states to push their agenda for mitigation commitments from some developing countries. However, industrialised countries dissatisfaction with the structural limitations of the Kyoto Protocol (with its Annex I division) has grown so much that there is a genuine possibility that the existing legal regime will be abandoned by the major emitters.101 The seeds of such a new approach can be seen in the July 2009 G8 announcement on climate change102 and in the Major Economies Meeting,103 whilst the Copenhagen Accord104 noted by some of the participants at the troubled COP15 can be seen as a ‘shot across the bows’ to the UN multilateral process and the beginnings of an alternative regime to the Kyoto Protocol.105

The non-legally binding Copenhagen Accord was the major product of the gathering of states in Copenhagen, and it is likely to shape the immediate future of the climate change regime.106 As is now well known, it was produced in the final hours of COP15 through informal negotiations away from the plenary by the major economies and regional groups.107

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