Global climate negotiations are expected to reach their climax at Copenhagen. Unfortunately, it looks like the talks could well be an anticlimax. These are very complex negotiations involving not only environmental issues, but also deep-seated economic issues about the distribution of environmental and economic resources worldwide. A fair and equitable deal seems elusive.
In recent months, there have been intense pressures to get “advanced developing countries” such as China, India, Brazil and others to commit to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. There have also been moves to shift the blame to them if no deal is reached at Copenhagen.
Yet, the promised financial and technology transfers to help such countries shift to a sustainable development path are nowhere in sight. The amount of funds being talked about is too little to be seriously considered.
The UN recently estimated that $500-600 billion (Rs23-27 trillion) is required by developing countries for mitigation (of climate change) and adaptation (of new technology) annually, and that much of this should be from public funds, in a programme similar in spirit to the Marshall Plan after World War II. In contrast, the European Union (EU) has proposed that international public financing for climate activities would be €22-50 billion (Rs1.5-3.5 trillion) in 2020, of which Europe would fund only €2-15 billion.
The EU expects developing countries to get most of their funding from their own domestic resources, or from the carbon market. But an international carbon market is not there and when it finally emerges, it can be expected to face many glitches. For example, how can a developing country reform its energy or transport sector seriously when the funds it needs have to come from the carbon market and there is no way of telling what the price of carbon will be in two years’ time or even six months from now?
It is unfair to expect developing countries to commit to emission reduction before they are assured of the funds and technology they need to change from one production system to another.
Developed countries have a historical responsibility to help developing nations as they are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In other words, they have already taken up most of the “atmospheric space” available.
One key question for the Copenhagen “global deal” is how to assign the emission reduction task fairly between developed and developing countries.
Developed countries are proposing a 50% global GHG emission cut by 2050 (from 38 billion tonnes in 1990 to 19.3 billion tonnes in 2050). They are willing to take a 80% cut, from 18.3 billion to 3.6 billion tonnes. This proposal implies (although the developed countries don’t dare say it) that developing countries would have to accept a 20% cut, from 20 billion tonnes to 15.7 billion tonnes. As the population of developing countries is expected to double during this period, they will end up with a 60% cut per capita. And since population size is projected to remain the same in developed countries, their per capita reduction will be the same as their overall reduction at 80%.
It is unfair to ask developing countries to undertake a per capita emission cut just slightly below that of developed countries.
If developed countries were to make a 100% cut, developing countries would still be required to take a 52% cut per capita. Developed countries would need to reduce their emissions by 213% by 2050 for developing countries to maintain their current per capita emission level. Developed countries would, in other words, need to cut emissions to zero and create sinks to absorb GHGs equivalent to an additional 113% of their 1990 emissions.
To both developed and developing countries, this may seem impossible. For developing countries, it may seem impossible to achieve economic development while maintaining (instead of increasing) their current, low per capita level of emissions. For developed countries, it may seem impossible to go beyond a 100% emission cut. But it may need two impossibles to make a deal possible.
In order not to exceed the danger level, the world has around 600 billion tonnes of emission of carbon (equivalent to around 2,200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) to budget between 1800 and 2050.
The developed countries have already emitted 240 billion tonnes of carbon between 1800 and 2008. This is far above their “fair share” of 81 billion tonnes in that period (if their emissions had been at the same ratio as their share of world population). From 1800 to 2008, developed countries have a carbon debt of 159 billion tonnes of carbon, or 583 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
And given the scenario of a 50% global cut and an 85% developed country cut by 2050, they will emit an additional 85 billion tonnes of carbon between 2009 and 2050. Thus, their total emission would be 325 billion tonnes of carbon from 1800 to 2050. Since their fair share is 125 billion tonnes for this period, they have a “carbon debt” of 200 billion tonnes of carbon.
In a fair climate deal, the historical debt would have to be met, at least through sufficient transfers of finance and technology, that would enable developing countries to take their own actions to counter the effects of climate change and to switch to climate-friendly technologies, while maintaining their ability to have adequate economic and social growth and development.
Of course, a fair deal also requires developed countries to cut their emissions sharply. The greater the cut, the more will be the atmospheric space left for developing countries. Developing countries have asked that developed countries cut their emissions collectively by at least 40% by 2020 (compared with the 1990 level). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has also been interpreted to conclude that developed countries need to cut their emissions by 25-40% by 2020.
Unfortunately, the announcements made by individual developed countries, when added up, only amount to an overall cut of 16-23% (excluding the US), according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat data, or 11-18% (if the US is included), according to another reliable estimate
Worse, the developed countries in early October indicated they do not intend to commit themselves to the second period of the Kyoto Protocol, which is scheduled to start in 2013. Instead, they intend to switch to another agreement to be created which will include the US. However, the US has made clear that it will not join a treaty which has internationally binding commitments for emission cuts. Thus, the likely plan is to replace the Kyoto Protocol with a much weaker agreement in which developed countries will merely make pledges to cut emissions at a rate that their national government or parliament decides on.
It is most unfortunate that such a planned climbdown from an internationally binding treaty commitment (aimed at a collective ambitious target) to a collection of nationally determined pledges (which may add up to a low overall level of ambition) is taking place at a time when scientists and the world public have become so concerned about the need for drastic action.
At UNFCCC sessions in Bangkok in October and Barcelona in November, developing countries registered their protest at what they perceive as a move to kill the Kyoto Protocol.
At Copenhagen, the developing countries want to get their proposal adopted, to set up a climate fund and a technology policymaking body, both inside UNFCCC and to be governed by the convention’s members.
Developing countries are also asking that they have access to climate-friendly technologies at the most affordable prices. The greater the rate of technology development, transfer and absorption, the greater will be the countries’ capacity to slow the growth of their emissions. In this regard, international intellectual property rules, which were set at the World Trade Organization, should be clarified or relaxed to further sustainable development goals. So far, this request has been met with hostility by the developed countries, which own most of the world’s patents for climate-related technologies.
There is such a wide divide on so many key issues that it would now be difficult for Copenhagen to reach a full agreement. Even the outlines of a shorter agreement on politically important points appears difficult. Nevertheless, all parties have to strive to their maximum to avoid a failure and to ensure that Copenhagen will at least mandate that further negotiations will take place next year, in the right direction and on the basis of both environmental ambition and equity among nations.
Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre.Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org