Climate of distrust

Copenhagen Conference


The Copenhagen conference on climate change is now less than two months away. Despite this, the pre-conference negotiations have still not got to first base. There was a brief break in the clouds at the G-8 summit at Aquila in July. The G-8 agreed to bind itself to making an 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

The major developing countries, including China and India, dropped their opposition to making any emission cuts at all and agreed that their emissions too would have to peak sometime before 2050 if the minimum requirement for safety — a 50 per cent cut in global greenhouse gas emissions by then, was to be met. But that tenuous consensus is being disrupted by a gathering assault by vested interests, and chronic mutual distrust among the negotiating countries.

In the developing countries mistrust is deepening not so much of the G-8’s intentions as of its capacity to fulfil them. Few have failed to note that within days of Aquila, the American Petroleum Institute  launched a secretly organised campaign to frighten people into opposing the US’ commitment to cut CO2 emissions, by organising so-called ‘town hall’ meetings.

The US coal lobby is also immensely influential and few in Washington believe that there will be no further watering down of the targets set in the Waxman/Markey bill on CO2 emission reductions before it passes the senate.

Finally, spiralling estimates of what it will cost to build zero emission housing in the UK, or to meet the cost of mitigation and adaptation to global warming in the poorer, highly populated, nations have frightened the future donors even while reinforcing the conviction in the future recipients that they will see very little of the money that they will be promised.

At the UN in September, President Hu Jintao made a suo moto commitment to shift fully 15 per cent of China’s energy base to renewable energy by 2020, expand its carbon absorbing capability by planting 40 million hectares of forest, and make ‘deep cuts’ in the energy intensity of China’s development. India too has announced that will set national targets for CO2 emissions reduction and would be glad to have these incorporated in the summit’s declaration.

China’s promises brought a measure of relief but it is proving short lived. A 15 per cent shift to non-fossil fuels will only reduce China’s rate of growth of consumption of coal and oil from 6.8 to 5.8 per cent in 2020 and the average rate of growth of fossil fuel consumption during the next 12 years to 6.3 percent. By 2020 therefore its CO2 emissions will exceed 13 billion tonnes. China  alone will then use up two thirds of the world’s carbon space.

The industrialised countries are also facing acute difficulties in deciding how much they will be able to cut emissions by 2020. As a result no one believes their promise that they will cut their emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Name calling

The impending failure of the Copenhagen conference has generated a good deal of name calling, especially in the international, West-dominated media. An editorial in the ‘Financial Times’ of London, dismissed the hardening, especially in the position of China and India, as a means of obtaining more ‘wiggle room’ in the negotiations at Copenhagen. It advised the OECD countries to stick firmly to their present positions, make no commitments on financial or technology transfers.

The ‘Financial Times’ could not be more deluded. Neither China nor India, nor for that matter any other developing country, will accept a ceiling on emissions imposed by a so-called global consensus if they are not assured access to an alternate, affordable, source of non-fossil energy. For, to accept a ceiling without it will condemn their people to poverty. No government can ask this of its people. Nor do the industrialised countries have the power — economic or even military — to coerce the developing countries into acquiescence.

However misguided it might otherwise have been, the FT editorial did the world a service by highlighting the fact that the  world is on a one way street to confrontation, when the only way to bring down CO2 emissions by half in the next 40 years is through unstinting cooperation. Unfortunately cooperation got ruled out almost on day one of the pre-Copenhagen negotiations when all the conference parties committed a historic error that, if not rectified very soon, may cost humanity its future.

The way to highlight this error is to ask a question: how does one go about building a house? The answer is that one first makes a plan, then one chooses the most suitable and affordable materials; then one costs them. Only after doing all that can the future home owner know how much of the money he or she can raise on his own and how much he (or she)  must borrow from relatives or from a bank.

This is the simple truth that seems to have escaped the collective wisdom of the world’s leaders. Today they are fighting over the financing of the house, and the raising and disbursing of money without the faintest idea of what they are planning to build.

In the field of energy the ‘plan’ that they have not prepared is the technology path that the world must follow to make the transition from a fossil fuel to a non-fossil fuel based energy system.This is the ‘black hole’ at the centre of the climate change discussions, and it is getting bigger all the time.

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