Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 4 June 2007

Bush – climate saviour or spoiler?

The US President’s statement last week accepting climate change as a serious problem seemed like the conversion of a non-believer.  But there was widespread skepticism and the fear that the U-Turn was an attempt to undermine current efforts to really tackle the climate crisis.  


Last Thursday, George W. Bush astonished the world by apparently doing a U-turn on climate change.  For the first time he acknowledged it was a serious problem, and said the United States can join other countries to set goals to cut Greenhouse Gas emissions that cause global warming.

Before this, the US President had been in a state of denial.  He has long challenged the scientific near-consensus that human-induced global warming is a threat to human survival, refused to take part in global emission-reduction schemes, and pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, which is the United Nations’ framework for tackling climate change in a cooperative way.

“What to do with the United States?” has often been the question asked in exasperation, whenever climate change policy is discussed.

Why then has Bush’s conversion from climate denier to climate fighter been received with skepticism by many analysts and anger by the world’s leading climate campaigners?

Because they believe that the American President is not sincere, and his proposal a ploy to avoid embarrassment at the next week’s G8 Summit in Germany, where the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has planned to make climate change its top agenda item.      

A week ago, Bush had been portrayed anew as a climate policy pariah, for the opposition put up by his officials to a G8 Summit draft declaration on climate change.

The Germans had placed two key targets in the draft – that global temperature rise must be kept to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level, and that by 2050 the global emissions of Greenhouse Gases must be reduced by at least 50%.

Separately, the European Union has announced unilateral targets for its countries to reduce emissions to 20% below the 1990 levels.  If other industrialized countries can agree, this target would be raised to 30%.

In recent months, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), of which US government-nominated scientists are members, has produced a series of reports affirming the seriousness of the situation and the need for drastic emission cuts.  The G8 draft targets of 2 degrees and 50% cuts are in line with the IPCC reports.

With former Vice President Al Gore having emerged as a climate hero with his Academy Award winning movie “An Inconvenient Truth”, with Congress members, State Governors and the American public all pressing for action, it was almost inevitable that Bush had to acknowledge the need to do something.

What has caused dismay is his proposed course of action – that he would call meetings of the world’s top 15 emitting countries (including China and India) to set a “long-term goal for reducing greenhouses gases” by the end of next year.

This move is considered by many as a ploy to avoid immediate action, and worse as subverting the existing global framework and processes.

First, it would sow confusion in next week’s G8 Summit where the leaders, with the exception of Bush, were poised to accept the two targets of 2 degrees and 50% cut.

The US proposal to wait to end-2008 for the 15 countries to set “long-term goals” will scuttle the attempt to set key G8 targets immediately.

Second, by stating that he will lead a new process by convening 15 countries to set long-term goals, Bush is challenging and undermining the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which has well defined principles and processes.

Under the UNFCC is the Kyoto Protocol, which requires developed countries to cut their emissions to below their 1990 levels (with each country having a target figure to meet by 2012).

The developing countries do not have emission-reduction targets, in recognition of their relatively low levels of per capita emission.  The Kyoto Protocol implicitly acknowledges that developed countries have historically and presently been the main emission sources and thus must bear the main burden of adjustment.   

The developing countries are encouraged also to adjust to more energy-efficient and less carbon dependent systems and the developed countries are expected to assist in this exercise.

With the Kyoto Protocol ending in 2012, a new framework of goals, targets and actions must be established as soon as possible. There is a general understanding that the developed countries, which have not yet met their Kyoto targets, still have to carry the brunt of adjustment.

The developing countries are adamant that they not be given binding emission-reducing targets, as their per capita emissions are still much below the rich countries’ levels. The “equity principle” is key to developing countries, that the developed countries have to drastically cut their pollution, while developing countries be given the space to increase their use of energy (and thus their emissions) to meet development needs, while they are also assisted with new technology to be less polluting.

A North-South bargain under the UNFCC, for a post-Kyoto agreement, looked set to be negotiated, starting in a crucial meeting in Bali this November, with the hope of results by 2009.

However, the Bush bombshell last week, that he would now convene meetings of 15 countries on the basis that they are major emitters, can put a spanner in the works of the cooperative UN process.

It is quite clear what Bush intends.  He wants countries that are major emitters (in terms of total emissions) to commit to binding reduction targets.  This means that countries with big populations, like China, India and Brazil, will be asked to cut their total emissions, even if in per capita terms their emissions are still small. 

For instance, even China (which has seen rapid growth in recent years) has a level of per capita emission that is one fifth that of the US.   If China were required to reduce its total emissions as a condition for the US to do the same, it would place a constraint on China’s development.

If the US model is based on getting all countries to take on similar responsibilities, then the implication is that the existing inequalities in energy use, pollution levels, and incomes would be frozen and maintained for the future.

The danger is that those who did and still do most of the polluting would pass on the burden of adjustment unfairly to those who have polluted little and who already suffer much of the consequences of climate change.

The Bush proposal may not only sidetrack the world away from taking action urgently but also seeks to replace a more democratic and equitable UN-based model of sharing responsibilities with one that is dominated by a super-power, where only a few countries take part, and in which the sharing of burdens would be on inequitable principles.

No wonder even the conservative Financial Times carried a critical opinion article entitled “Bush plays for time as the planet begins to burn.”

Environmental groups were more blunt.  Greenpeace called the Bush proposal “utterly nonsensical” as it side-stepped existing international efforts, and WWF described it as “morally unacceptable.”

The Friends of the Earth UK director Tony Juniper hit the nail on the head with his analysis: “This is a deliberate and carefully crafted attempt to derail any prospect of a climate change agreement in Germany next week.

“He is trying to destroy the prospect of that getting anywhere by announcing his own parallel process with vaguely expressed objectives.  The prospect of him getting this to some form of conclusion in 18 months is extremely slim.  This is a delaying tactic to keep the climate change issue off his back in terms of any real decisions until he leaves office.”