Debate: Climate change

Debate: Climate change

Updated: 2011-11-28 07:50

(China Daily)

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What should we expect from the UN climate change conference that starts in Durban on Monday? Three scholars from three different fields give their opinions.

John E Coulter

Financial woes will prevent solutions

Debt crises in rich countries seem a more imminent threat to our lifestyles than anything climate change can throw at us. From Nov 28 to Dec 9, thousands of delegates will descend on Durban, South Africa, to address the threat of global warming. But the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, according to which most rich nations except the United States agreed to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), may neither be expanded nor extended.

Apart from every funding proposal at the UN climate change conference in Durban being met with cries of no money, there will be little recognition of the obvious link between the global financial crisis and climate change. The Wall Street crash of 2008, and the teetering dominoes in Europe all have a common root in the unhinging of financial capital from the real world capital resources it is supposed to represent.

Through the 1980s and 1990s it indeed seemed there was no "limit to growth" – the dire warning that had been sounded in the 1970s. China became the engine of growth for the whole world, and rich countries borrowed heavily to sustain the good material life with supermarkets full of cheap imports.

If the insane race to deregulate financial institutions had been tempered with a sense of reality, we would not be burning billions tons of fossil fuel a year and we would not have acres of building floor space unpaid for and empty.

The Kyoto Protocol was a gallant endeavor for developed countries to voluntarily write into law certain limits to their emission of GHGs. Japan and the advanced European nations were the champions of the initiative and had the wealth and wisdom to realize it was in the best long-term interest of the planet, though the US found the constraints "too hard" and did not ratify.

The legally binding protocol expires in 2012. The Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009 disintegrated in bickering and blame, and the 2010 conference in Cancun, Mexico, gingerly demonstrated relative unity to promise to try again in Durban as the last chance to continue or build on the original protocol.

As in Copenhagen, tiny and poor countries will try emotion to persuade. Some island nations are indeed threatened by rising seas. Many poor agricultural nations bear the brunt of extreme flooding and then drought, with millions forced to find new places and means of living.

But these facts will not budge the richest nations from trying to defend their own now precarious and unsustainable situations. The unemployment specters in the US and many European countries mean that no politician can convince his/her electorate to think grand and noble on the "vague issues" of future climate change. In September, US President Barack Obama quashed emission regulations, which industry groups estimated would cost them anything between $19 billion and $90 billion. Extreme Republicans simply label the Environmental Protection Agency a "job-killer" and want it disbanded.

The level of representation designated by governments will be a telling sign of intent in Durban. As in Copenhagen, Durban is not likely to see any serious decision-makers from the US. With woes at home, the Japanese and even the environmentally conscious Europeans will have lost their enthusiasm for expensive measures to reduce GHG emissions.

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, said that self-interest motivates individuals to work together for the greater good of society. Likewise, environmental goodness will not come out of philanthropy but out of self-interest.

The first and only global emission protocol is the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Just when scientists in laboratories were discovering that refrigerant gases broke up ozone, NASA was pondering the mystery of the disappearing ozone layer. And it took only a short time for 193 UN member countries to realize that threatened skin cancer millions of people and to sign up to replace CFCs with benign substitutes.

Therefore, only when climate change is manifest in some disastrous tipping point will the countries agree to redress the problem. But that scenario will be more like Potsdam than Durban.

The author is an independent Beijing-based researcher collaborating with several universities.

Swaran Singh

Countries must stop playing blame game

With the financial crises deepening in Europe and the United States, "money" is likely to become the major bone of contention between developed and developing countries at the UN climate change conference in Durban, South Africa. The increasing influence of stakeholders from different countries seems to be pushing various groups further apart and the climate conference looks likely to see greater flaunting of agreed principles, including "common but differentiated responsibilities".

Journalists have begun writing premature obituaries of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), especially of the Kyoto Protocol that is due to expire next year. All this makes the Durban conference look like the last ditch effort to save the planet, though no one seems to appreciate the travesty of this situation.

US President Barack Obama dealt an early blow to the climate conference when he told a press conference in Canberra, Australia, that advanced economies "can’t do this alone" and insisted that "if we are taking a series of steps then it’s important that emerging economies like China and India are also part of the bargain". This after the US reneged on its commitment to the Green Climate Fund recently, and has refused to ratify the globally recognized Kyoto Protocol and postponed its promised date to join post-Kyoto climate change regimes from 2016 to 2020.

Similarly, British Climate Secretary Chris Huhne has been talking of the need to evolve a new "system that reflects the genuine diversity of responsibility and capacity". He says a country should not be described as "developed" simply because it "happened to be in OECD in 1992".

Indeed, the US and the UK both have been talking about discarding Kyoto Protocol and evolving a new legally binding regime by 2015 which could "begin to bite" by 2020.

Most scientific projections, on the other hand, call for immediate mitigation efforts. But debates on mitigation remain stuck to blame fixing.

Greenhouse gas emissions on per capita or cumulative basis during the last 250 years put the US, the EU and Russia in a very different light but these countries insist on basing their mitigation on static 2007 levels, which makes China the largest polluter and India the third largest. This distorts the "polluter must pay" principle.

The Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 created a fast-start-fund by developed countries to help developing countries adapt to and fight climate change. It was to have $30 billion as fast-start finance during 2009-2012 and provide $100 billion a year by 2020. But since no specific methodologies of raising and disbursing the money were finalized, it continues to be a non-starter.

These developments seem to have pushed developing countries to the wall. Because of the developed countries’ increasing unilateralism, the developing nations have proposed a "ban" on any unilateral trade measure on grounds of climate change mitigation. Historical responsibility and equity remain central to developing nations’ negotiation strategies. They continue to insist for an unconditional commitment to Kyoto Protocol II and will not agree to any new legally binding regimes.

The least developed countries, small island states and African nations that are most vulnerable to climate change, are the most enthusiastic about the Durban conference. They are the strongest proponents of building consensus between developed and developing countries on the extension of the Kyoto Protocol and emission reductions targets. They are the only groups that are trying to cobble together some face-saving measure to prevent the Kyoto Protocol from dying in Durban.

But the developed countries seem too occupied with their economic crises and are desperate to avoid any additional financial commitments at home or abroad. They are trying to legitimize their existing low level of commitment and weak mitigation, preserve their carbon trading and continue with their current patterns of production and consumption. They expect developing countries to transform their voluntary actions into legal commitments without agreeing to make support to them equally legally binding. This void seems too wide to be filled at a 10-day conference.

The author is professor and chairperson, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament in Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

Murad Qureshi

Combined political will is all that is lacking

The discussions at the UN climate change conference in Durban will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, along with the Bali Action Plan and the Cancun Agreement.

The International Energy Agency has already issued a timely warning through its latest World Energy Outlook, saying we are way off track to avoid the dangerous impact of climate change and the window for effective change is fast closing.

We have reason to be downcast, given the perspective emerging from the developed world on three counts. First is the economic recession where deficit budgeting is the order of the day rather than a policy of growing out of the recession coupled with fiscal stimulus into, say, a low-carbon economy. Second is the usual level of climate skepticism before the climate conference starts panning the science behind the negotiations. And third is the void created by the US’ failure to agree to anything.

In this mist, China has offered some leadership in the climate talks by suggesting that emerging economies "step up" their efforts to mitigate climate change. China is bidding to bridge the gap between rich and poor nations by arguing that emerging economies should make concrete emission reduction plans, while the developed world needs to draw up a post-Kyoto treaty.

China’s proposal offers a new way forward by acknowledging the developing countries must also play their part, albeit within a different framework from the rich world. According to China’s proposal, the national plans will not necessarily have the same legal status as commitments under a post-Kyoto treaty. But it’s an acceptance that the entire world has a part to play. For instance, plans could be tied to economic conditions or be binding at a purely national level. This should be enough to persuade rich countries of the seriousness of developing countries’ intentions.

A critical area of negotiation is the green climate fund which will help developing countries adapt to and fight climate change. A committee was supposed to conclude its recommendations before Durban but failed to do so because the US objected to a document that most of the other countries had agreed to. Therefore, it’s unlikely that the US will make a significant financial contribution to the fund.

So what are the poor and vulnerable countries doing when progress at global climate talks is so slow? The group that stands to lose the most because of climate change comprises 20 developing countries. It is not just another negotiating bloc but rather a pro-active group willing to take actions at home regardless of whether a consensus is reached at the global level. As low emitters of greenhouse gases, their pledges are mainly about taking steps to adapt to climate change, but they have also voluntarily pledged to cut emissions.

The most notable of these pledges is by the Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, who has promised to make his country carbon neutral by 2020. At their third meeting in Dhaka recently, they made the commitments not because they had to but because it was the right thing to do and because every little bit counts. The 20 countries hope the richer countries – and major emitting developing countries – will follow their lead.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a complex enterprise is taking so much time to accomplish. It, however, should not take as long as the other multilateral projects, such as the global trade system, took to get all the countries to agree to global rules. After all, there is no fundamental obstacle to a climate agreement, because the technology and capital already exist for humankind to make such adaptation and mitigations.

The framework needed, though, has to be both compatible with the economic needs of the major economies and good enough to secure the developing world.

So although we can’t expect any breakthrough at Durban, what we do know, is that we have the capability to achieve a breakthrough with our current knowledge base. What we lack, however, is the political will.

The author is the chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee.

(China Daily 11/28/2011 page9