Useful UN climate treaty unlikely in 2015

Useful UN climate treaty unlikely in 2015

United Nations decisions made in 1992 will prevent effective 2015 Paris treaty

Chinese air pollution, worst in the world, as seen from space in 2009. Credit/Wikipedia

Austin, January 1, 2015 — There will not be a meaningful United Nations climate agreement signed in Paris in 2015, even if a treaty is cobbled together. The reason is simple: The United Nations basic approach, created in 1992, cannot work.

Data shows the UN’s operational framework, on which all UN decisions are based, is ineffective and fundamentally flawed. The UN’s approach to reducing global greenhouse emissions has never worked. It never will work.

The fundamentals of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are:

  • Industrialized nations (Annex I) cause most greenhouse gas emissions
  • Rich Annex I nations can afford to pay all developing nations (Non-Annex I) climate costs

Both assumptions were true in 1990, the UN’s base comparison year. The UN then logically decided:

  • Annex I nations must reduce their emissions
  • Rich Annex I nations must pay for all climate damages inflicted on developing nations
  • For economic reasons, Non-Annex I developing nations have no emission restrictions

In 1990, Annex I nations produced 68 percent of global emissions and produced 80 percent of GDP. Things have dramatic changed since then and the United Nations hasn’t adapted.

The primary reasons the UN approach won’t work are:

  • Non-Annex I nations are the single source of growing CO2 emissions
  • Annex I nations aren’t as wealthy as they used to be

By the end of 2012, Annex I global emissions fell to only 38 percent, according to EIA data. The Annex I share of global GDP fell from 80 percent to 60 percent by 2013, according to World Bank records.

Global GDP in 1990 was $22.5 trillion in current U.S. dollars. Global GDP in 2013 was $75.6 trillion. Non-Annex I nations are getting richer much faster that Annex I, though Annex I is still better able to pay climate related costs.

Global CO2 emissions
Credit/Steve Davidson from NOAA source data
Credit/Steve Davidson from NOAA source data

So far, there has been no slowdown in global CO2 emissions. In fact, they have been increasing at a slightly exponential rate since 1958 when measurements first started. That is despite the 22-year long efforts of the United Nations and well over $1 trillion spent by Annex I nations to convert to low-emission economies.

The UNFCCC was defined and adopted in 1992. The first international treaty to come out of it is the Kyoto Protocol. It required Annex I nations to reduce emissions below 1990 levels. Non-Annex I nations had no restrictions. It was passed in 1997 and fully ratified in 2004.

Nothing has changed. Emissions are rising faster than ever.

The reason becomes crystal clear when Annex I and Non-Annex I carbon dioxide emissions are compared.

Credit/Steve Davidson combining EIA and UN annex nation data
Credit/Steve Davidson combining EIA and UN annex nation data

Non-Annex I nations are exclusively driving up CO2 levels, not industrialized nations. They have been since 1990, before the UNFCCC was even created.

In the United Nations base comparison year of 1990, Annex I nations produced 68 percent of the 21.6 billion metric tons of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere that year.

Annex I nation emissions had already fell 10 percent below 1990 levels before the UNFCCC was formed. Annex I emissions have remained little changed since then, at about 13 billion metric tons annually.

However, Non-Annex I emissions have climbed steadily. By the time the Kyoto treaty was ratified in 2004, unrestricted Non-Annex I emissions had already leapfrogged over Annex I. Today, Non-Annex I nations produce over 62 percent of total global CO2 emissions and that percentage is rising fast.

Non-Annex I emissions have risen nearly 300 percent since 1990, from 7 billion to over 20 billion metric tons. Total global emissions are now over 32.5 billion tons per year, all of the increase, and more, coming from Non-Annex I nations.

The UN’s 20th annual global climate change summit concluded in Lima, Peru in mid-December 2014. The annual meeting is called the Conference of the Parties (COP). The parties are the nation states that ratified the UNFCCC, just about every nation on Earth.

It was another disappointing UN summit. Its purpose was two-fold:

  1. Define concrete annual Annex I Green Energy Fund contributions
  2. Define specific CO2 emission levels by country

Throughout 2015 those contributions, reductions and national climate action plans would be debated and refined into a binding treaty to be signed in Paris in December.

An exceptionally weak final Lima agreement, called “Further advancing the Durban Platform“, is a watered-down shadow of its original intent, requiring no country to commit to anything. It kicked the can down the road to Paris later this year to make those controversial decisions.


The developing nations (Non-Annex I) are responsible for all CO2 emission growth since 1990.

UN efforts have had no effect in 22 years because it’s been focused on the wrong group of polluting nations. No matter how stringent Annex I reduction restrictions are, they cannot overcome Non-Annex I emissions growth. China alone, a Non-Annex I nation, produced more than 27 percent of global CO2 pollution in 2013.

The only possibility a climate treaty can be effective is if it puts immediate and legally binding emission restrictions on Non-Annex I nations and require them to put some of their growing wealth into the Green Climate Fund. It would require rewriting the UNFCCC. That’s highly unlikely. It wasn’t considered in Lima.

Thus, even a strong treaty signed in Paris based on the UN’s old, obsolete UNFCCC is doomed to failure.

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