22 November 2009

by Praful Bidwai

It now appears extremely unlikely that the Copenhagen climate conference will produce the strong, comprehensive agreement which the world needs to avert irreversible climate change. Last Sunday, leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit decided to put off that task and instead limit the objective of the conference to producing a “political” agreement for future negotiations. This week’s informal meeting of 50 countries’ ministers confirms this.

This huge setback must be blamed on the industrialised countries of the North—which is primarily responsible for climate change caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the first place. At the pre-Copenhagen talks, in Ban­gkok, the North opposed the continuation of the world’s only legally binding treaty for GHG reductions, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Under Kyoto, the North was to reduce its 1990-level emissions by a modest 5.2 per cent by 2008-12. At Co­penhagen, it was expected to accept its post-2012 obligations. For all purposes, it won’t.

The North’s emissions reductions record is appalling. The US, the world’s greatest polluter, refused to ratify Kyoto and has increased its emissions by 14 per cent since 1990. Most of the European Union’s original 15 members won’t meet their targets. Germany, Britain and Sweden will—through the cheap shortcut of emissions trading via the misnamed Clean Development Me­chanism, not by cutting their own emissions.

In Bangkok, the North launched a full-scale attack on Kyoto and the Bali Action Plan (2007), which created a firewall between the North’s legal obligations and the South’s voluntary Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions, which the North must pay for.

It targeted the principle of differentiation of responsibility for combating climate change—foundational to the original climate compact (1992). North-South fault-lines have further sharpened since Bangkok.

The principal culprit here is the United States, which has made the global climate talks a hostage to domestic politics. The House of Representatives has passed a law which demands a pathetic 4 per cent emissions cut by 2020 (over 1990).

Another Bill (Kerry-Boxer) is before the US Senate. A compromise with fossil-fuel lobbies, it mandates a paltry 7 per cent cut.

However, climate science says nations of the North must cut its emissions by 40 per cent-plus by 2020, and by 95 percent by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change. Fast-growing Southern eco­nomies like China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa must soon join the mitigation effort, voluntarily to start with.

The northern countries are hiding behind the US on the plea that no sustainable climate deal is possible without it. The US will never sign Kyoto, so it is better to kill the Protocol in favour of a weak agreement with meagre emissions cuts: Some agreement is better than none. But there is no assurance that the US will join even a weak agreement. And so backward, insular and introverted is US politics that even the Kerry-Boxer bill may not clear the senate.

The fate of the imperative of climate stabilisation hinges on one institution in a single country. US preponderance in the climate arena is so great—much greater than even in the nuclear weapons field—that it can undo whatever good the world sets out to do.

This is epochally tragic, and highlights the need for radical reform of the international order.

The world faces a horrible choice: between no Copenhagen agreement, a “political” deal, and a “gr­eenwash” agreement without deep emissions reductions. “Greenwash” would be the worst outcome: it will hopelessly lock the world into an emissions-intensive trajectory.

A “political” agreement might seem better. But Bali too was a “political” deal, to be fleshed out at Copenhagen into a comprehensive and effective agreement. There seems little point in repeating a “political” agreement, especially one that weakens Bali agreement and the Kyoto protocol.

There is a context here. The Rio summit pl­edged to stabilise the climate by 2000. That did not happen. Then came Kyoto. But it has not delivered.

The CDM has created grotesque profiteering, not mitigation. Emissions trading is now increasingly dr­iven by speculation in “sub-prime” carbon.

The world must not erase the issue of responsibility for the climate crisis. There is certainly a case for refining the responsibility criterion: the South’s rich must be brought into the mitigation net. But it would be dangerously irrational to undermine the differentiation principle altogether, as the US wants.

The failure of the world’s major nations to accept responsibility and assume leadership will cost Planet Earth dearly.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh is called upon to do some plain speaking on this when he meets President Barack Obama next week. Will he muster the courage to do so?