I wound up in an interesting debate on the climate change anthropology email list today (<climate-change-anth@binhost.com>) with an anthropologist who’s been involved in the UNFCCC lead-up to Paris.

I won’t publish what she wrote on a closed list here, but I figured I would put up my comments since I spent so much time on it when I should have been doing other things.

Bloomberg published recently-released national emissions pledges which are now called ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.’

I sent Bloomberg’s short note to the email list along with my commentary (I should say the Singapore numbers are from memory and might be off by a percent or two):

Some might find this useful/relevant.
Keep in mind that many pledges use a BAU baseline, which makes them very hard to interpret. For example, Singapore (not on this list) pledges a 11% reduction from BAU by 2020, but if you dig around in the national climate strategy you can figure out that they expect an overall 78% increase in emissions, so they’re really pledging a 67% increase and calling it a reduction. And the BAU will obviously change whenever they revise their assumptions.
Anyway, the language they’re using now is a stellar demonstration of anthropocene/poeisis. ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.’ What a great process! Bravo to the Obama administration to destroying the Bali accord/ LCA approach.

CORRECT: National Climate Commitments for Dec. UN Summit (Table)
2015-06-12 14:27:47.425 GMT

(Corrects Gabon’s proposed reduction in table.)

By Alessandro Vitelli
(Bloomberg) — Following is a table outlining national
pledges to cut greenhouse-gas emissions that have been published
on the United Nations’ climate website before a summit in
At climate talks in Warsaw in 2013, countries were invited
to submit plans for outright cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions,
or reductions compared with a business-as-usual growth scenario,
to the UN before envoys from 194 nations meet in Paris to reach
agreement on a global treaty to start in 2021.
The pledges, known as Intended Nationally Determined
Contributions, or INDCs, are listed on the UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change website.

Country       Reduction          Notes
Andorra       -37%               Below BAU levels by 2030
Canada        -30%               From 2005 levels by 2030
Ethiopia      -64%               Below BAU levels by 2030
EU            at least -40%      From 1990 levels by 2030
Gabon         at least -50%      Below BAU levels by 2025
Liechtenstein -40%               From 1990 levels by 2030
Mexico        -25%               Below BAU levels by 2030
Morocco       -32%               Below BAU levels by 2030
Norway        at least -40%      From 1990 levels by 2030
Russia        -25%-30%           From 1990 levels by 2030
Switzerland   -50%               From 1990 levels by 2030
U.S.          -26%-28%           From 2005 levels by 2025

For Related News and Information:
Environment News: NI ENV <GO>
Climate News: NI CLIMATE <GO>

The response back, from someone whose work deserves careful attention, was straight forward enough: Jerome, you’re not even in the ball-park. So I took the trouble to explain my admittedly flippant commentary.
[One thing I hadn’t previously noticed and didn’t discuss is that only non-Annex countries are using BAU – something I need to look into more and may change my mind about the meaning of the UN process.]
I agree with your last thought, that the predicament is extremely difficult to find a way out of: climate change goes to core issues that cannot be solved by fiat. But I’m not sure I follow why you disagreed with my assessment. Do you think a 67% increase in emissions can legitimately be described as a reduction? I personally, and respectfully, think this kind of accounting trick is done in bad faith (although the Southeast Asian developing country negotiators I have met all have excellent intentions). Also, Pershing and Stern were very clear at Copenhagen that there was no way the US would enter an agreement that bound the US economy to UN-mandated quantitative reductions. It was not just about whether the BRICS would also have commitments – none of them either wanted anything so strict, and the acrimonious blaming just distracted from the fact that US engagement with the FCCC fundamentally transformed the nature of a future agreement. Now, in my view, they have built in specific ways to make the numbers obfuscatory (which, as we know, is routine business when it comes to environmental justice issues).
I think it’s awesome that a host of developing countries are engaging in this exercise. But just as with carbon markets and the comprehensive fraud that accompanies claims of additionality [add link and link], if we are going to have a regime that regulates emissions (rather than extraction), the numbers had better be rock solid, and building in counterfactuals like BAU is precisely the wrong way to do it. Why do we need complicated derivatives-style accountancy that projects responsibility for climate change onto a (speculative) future? Isn’t this about histories of fossil energy extraction and systemic land-use change?
As for a concrete program of action, I’m excited by Heede’s work that shows a substantial majority of historical emissions can be attributed to just 90 companies (link), by divestment activism and attempts to shift the focus from atmospheric emissions to fossil extraction in historical context (such as the work of Carbon Tracker, EcoEquity, 350.org). (I am sympathetic of criticisms of Heede like William Buckley’s, but ultimately I disagree with persistent attempts to place responsibility onto consumers. A particularly noxious example of this kind of deflection is the now-classic ‘billion high emitters‘ argument. The debates in the UN, after all, are about who gets to produce–not who gets to consume.) Like so many others I also am waiting for a robust UN commitment, and look forward to seeing what happens in Paris. That process deserves to be critiqued, for there is too much at stake to build in loopholes: having high expectations is not the same as being negative.
If you want to see the differences the loopholes can make, look at the concessions made to Russia and the former Soviet bloc during Kyoto – the 13 billion (!) so-called hot air permits that came from setting the baseline as 1990 (peak production) instead of 1992 (during severe recession).
One thing that would make a huge difference is if one country – just one country – made a costly, good faith demonstration of how serious the problem is. If a country like Singapore (where I live and work, and which I have tons of respect for) simply said ‘we know it’s a drop in the bucket but we’re going to regulate shipping and refining emissions, because no one is dealing with these issues and we actually have the ability to make a direct difference’ – just that would demonstrate unparalleled leadership. Instead we get self-congratulatory nonsense and a rush to further invest in petrochemicals.
With very best wishes, and apologies for the extended email,
Ok, now I’ve wasted even more time procrastinating… but maybe this will be useful in some future or another.