Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 15 June 2009

Climate talks facing crisis

Climate change is a global crisis, but the talks to address this issue are themselves in crisis, as shown by the impasse in negotiations that just concluded after two weeks in Bonn.


Almost every week, there are reports of new findings on the hazards of climate change, and on how the situation is worse than what scientists had earlier predicted.

A United Nations meeting in Copenhagen this December is scheduled to come to an agreement on actions to be taken by governments to address this crisis.

But several developed countries have recently shown a very weak resolve to do their part to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other Greenhouse Gases that cause climate change. Instead, they want to increase the burden onto developing countries.

A two week climate meeting in Bonn of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ended last Friday.  It was part of the process to prepare for the crucial Copenhagen conference.

What happened in Bonn revealed that not only is the climate in crisis, the climate talks are also in crisis.

Many issues remain unresolved, and the gap between developed and developing countries is widening.

Most depressing is the news that some major developed counties are setting very low emission-reduction targets for themselves, far below what is needed if we are to address the climate problem seriously.

The Japanese Prime Minister announced last week that Japan is ready to cut its emission level by 2020 to a level 8% below its 1990 level.

This was received at the Bonn meeting with quite a bit of anger and derision, because Japan had already committed to lowering its emissions by 6% by 2012, and thus it is adding a mere 2% of reduction action for the period 2013 to 2020.

The United States has yet to officially declare its target.  But a climate bill in the US Congress has put figures that experts estimate to mean that in 2020 the US emissions would be 4% below the 1990 level.

The bill also allows US companies to pay developing countries’ companies to reduce their emissions, instead of doing it themselves.  That may take more percentage points off the domestic effort of the US.  

It is well known that corporate lobbies in the US are pressurizing the Congress and Senate to downgrade the level of action that the US will eventually agree to commit to.

The Japan and US figures compare miserably with what needs to be done.  If we are to be on track to cut global emission by at least half by 2050, then the developed countries should be prepared to cut their emissions by well over 45% by 2020.  India has come up with an estimate of 79%.

The European Union has more ambitious targets than Japan or US.  It has said it will commit to cut its emission by 20%, and will raise this to 30% if other developed countries join in.  Given the Japanese and US positions, it appears that the EU’s 30% target is now unlikely.  The EU is also facing pressure to get developing countries to do a lot of the emission reduction for them, so that its own domestic efforts will be much less than 20%.

The developing countries showed their deep dissatisfaction with the paltry ambitions of the rich countries which had done so much preaching about the need for climate actions.

On Friday, 37 developing countries (including Malaysia) submitted a joint paper calling on developed countries to commit to cut their emissions by at least 40% by 2020 (compared to 1990).

This is only one of the many issues where the developed and developing countries differ strongly.  Other issues include:

  • An attempt by almost all the developed countries to get “advanced” developing countries to take on binding or semi-binding commitments to cut their emissions, although according to the present Convention rules only developed countries have to take on binding commitments. This attempt is strongly resisted by most developing countries.
  • The insistence of developing countries that the developed countries set up concrete mechanisms to transfer funds and technology to enable them to take measures to reduce their emissions and to adapt to climate change.  However until now the developed countries have ignored or shown very weak interest in the developing countries’ proposals.
  • According to the developing countries, patents placed on climate-friendly technologies like renewable energy and low-emission car engines can become barriers to technology transfer, and they want to exempt such technologies from being given patents. This is strongly resisted by developed countries that want patent monopoly to protect their technological dominance.
  • It became clear in Bonn that the developed countries as a group want to put an end to the Kyoto Protocol, which since 1997 has set the parameters of emission-reduction actions by developed countries.  They want it replaced by a new protocol that will include binding or semi-binding actions by developing countries, which are to be differentiated according to their economic level.  This is stoutly resisted by many developing countries which see it as a drastic change of the rules which now only require them to take actions on a voluntary basis.
  • Developing countries want the Copenhagen outcome to recognize that the rich countries have a “historical responsibility” because they were able to grow economically on the basis of cheap energy that gave rise to their huge carbon dioxide emissions.  This has left the developing countries with very little space in future to develop their economies as the atmosphere cannot absorb much more Greenhouse Gases.  But many developed countries made it clear in Bonn that they do not want to accept the historical responsibility principle.

Besides the North-South divide, there are also significant differences among developed countries, with Europe showing more seriousness while the US, Japan and some other countries exhibiting weak commitment.  And there are also differences among developing countries, over whether the countries should be differentiated in their obligations, and on what basis.

With big differences over such a range of complex issues, it would be quite a miracle if a solution to all of them is found by December in Copenhagen.

Some countries are already talking about a general statement to be agreed on in Copenhagen, while details would be worked out over many more months after that.

With signs of the climate crisis worsening, there is certainly a lot of work to be done in the days ahead.