Is it time to start worrying about Copenhagen?

Climate chaos0

Is it time to start worrying about Copenhagen?

The gap between rich nations and emerging economies over carbon emissions targets is beginning to look unbridgable. From, part of the Guardian Environment Networ

I am starting to get very worried.

This week, another round of the UN’s climate change talks gets underway in Bonn, Germany and once again all the key factions look as far from reaching a meaningful agreement on carbon emissions targets as they ever were.


It is far too early to give up hope on a deal being reached, particularly given that any exercise in international diplomacy is always characterised by the kind of posturing and brinkmanship we can expect to see again over the next five days. But with just 117 days to go until the start of the Copenhagen conference, major breakthroughs are needed soon if we are to have anything to celebrate this Christmas.

The problem is that all of the key negotiating teams are beginning to sound like broken records as they demand that others move first to deliver targets before they make any commitment.

China, India and the other emerging economies are not unreasonably demanding that rich nations follow the dictats of the latest climate science and agree to cut emissions 40 per cent by 2020 on 1990 levels. But even assuming this is an opening gambit and they might accept the EU’s conditional offer of a 30 per cent cut, they are still asking for reductions that are an order of magnitude larger than the four per cent cut on 1990 levels proffered by the Obama administration as part of its climate change bill – which, by the way, has not yet been passed.

So will the US budge and increase the cuts it is willing to offer? Not a chance.

We can discuss the vagaries of the US electoral system, the malign influence of fossil fuel industry lobbyists and the collective psychosis of parts of the American Right another time, but the facts as they stand are that the Obama administration will count itself very lucky indeed to get the four per cent cut included in the Waxman-Markey bill passed into law.

The US negotiators could have an attack of conscience in Copenhagen and sign up to deeper cuts in order to get India and China on board, but any more demanding targets would soon be shot down in Congress, leaving us exactly where we started.

That puts the ball back in the court of the emerging nations. Will they accept that the Obama administration is offering all it can in the short term and is serious about delivering much deeper cuts of 80 per cent by 2050, leaving them free to sign up to more modest targets for themselves? Again, the answer is not a chance.

You can make a strong case that they are making a rod for their own back, given that the developing world will be on the front line against the impacts of climate change. Just as you can easily dismiss the argument that emerging economies should be allowed to develop using the same carbon-intensive technologies that underpinned growth in the West. As Gaia Vince asked rhetorically in an article for the Guardian today: “The rich south of the USA got to develop its economy with the assistance of slaves. Would it be acceptable for India to use slaves now?”

But it is all but impossible to argue with India and China’s stated position that under any definition of social justice the rich world has a historical debt to pay and must pick up the vast majority of the bill for tackling climate change – and that means agreeing to far more ambitious targets and helping the developing world to decarbonise its growing economies.

As Indian ambassador Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, the senior Indian negotiator, neatly explained to the BBC: “[India] is a country where half the rural population does not have a light bulb in its home, or a gas ring. So to describe this country as a large emitter is absurd – there’s no other word for it.”

Or to quote the somewhat more robust John Prescott in the Guardian: “The fact is that the West has poisoned the world and left continents such as Africa in poverty. The West will have up to stump up the cash for clean technology.”

The way to square this circle is for negotiators to agree to some form of equitable per capita emissions target, and it is this so-called contraction and convergence model that is winning growing support among some of the negotiating teams. But it seems far too late in the day for per capita targets to be included in the Copenhagen process, and even if they were they too would run into the brick wall of a US political system that will not countenance targets that would in effect require deeper emission cuts in the US than anywhere else.

So where does the process go to break this deadlock? I’m not sure it can, at least not on the issue of binding emission targets. It looks increasingly likely that we will see an almighty fudge on the issue of targets built around what is already on the table: namely, largely inadequate targets from rich nations, mirrored by vague aspirational goals to curb emission growth from emerging economies.

However, while a treaty without targets may end up resembling a football match without goal posts, it would not necessarily make the exercise a complete waste of time.

Progress does appear to be being made on the development of a global carbon market, reforestry schemes and clean tech funding for developing nations. Negotiators from the rich world may not be able to see the competitive advantage in signing up to emissions targets that will not be matched by emerging rivals, but they can certainly see the benefits attached to the creation of a major new commodity class in the form of carbon and the strengthening of trade relations with the likes of China and India.

There is a consensus building that clean tech financing pumped into the developing world will help to create new markets for the emerging clean tech hubs of the US and Europe, creating an economic win-win for all involved. Make the grants and financing deals attractive enough and it might even be possible to get emerging economies to budge a little on the issue of targets.

It is likely to be a bit of a mess and it is unlikely to deliver what the scientists demand, but the final Copenhagen deal might just inadvertently deliver what is required. A legislative, financing and carbon pricing framework that makes it both possible and attractive for businesses to develop clean technologies that are better and more cost effective than the carbon intensive rivals they hope to replace. Deliver that and market forces will ensure the decarbonisation of the global economy looks after itself – with or without targets.

• This article was shared by our content partner, part of the Guardian Environment Network

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