Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 2 November 2009

Crunch time for climate talks

This week in Barcelona will see the global climate talks having its last five days before Copenhagen.  It will have to deal with several intractable issues.


Only five negotiating days are left to prepare for the well-anticipated Copenhagen climate conference in December.  And these five days take place this week in Barcelona, the Spanish city famed for its exciting culture and food.

There will be little time for sight-seeing or feasting this time around.  For Barcelona represents perhaps the last chance for the countries to go for a deal.

“Seal the deal” is the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s famous slogan.  The message is that if there is no deal in Copenhagen, the world is doomed to a future of global warming that leads to sea rise, glacial melting, floods and agricultural productivity loss.

Despite all the attention given to this crisis the last couple of years, it appears that a “deal” is far from being on the table.  The following are some of the knots to be resolved.

First, the developed countries have to commit to deep emission cuts, at least by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990.  But this is just not happening.  The individual offers only add up to 11-18 per cent, if the United States is included.

And it is at precisely this moment that almost all the developed countries made clear they intend to dump the Kyoto Protocol (which has internationally legally binding emission reduction targets) for a new agreement that seems to merely involve national pledges and a peer review process.

The developing countries have cried “Foul”, and are expected to insist that unless the rich countries re-commit themselves to bind their emission-reduction targets for the period 2013-2020 at an ambitious level and within Kyoto, there can be no deal in Copenhagen

Second, the developing countries have agreed they will also take mitigation actions, but they will not bind these inside an international treaty because they were not responsible for the climate crisis, their emission levels are still low, and they are still at an early development stage.

Moreover, the developing countries agree their mitigation actions will for the first time be monitored, reported on and verified (known as MRV).  But it was also agreed that these actions will be enabled and supported by transfers of finance and technology, which will also be subjected to MRV procedures.

However there are now disagreements on what the developing countries are to do.  Some developed countries like the United States want the developing countries, or at least the “advanced” ones, to also have targets to reduce their emissions or at least to deviate from “business as usual” growth levels.

The developing countries are objecting that this imposes new obligations that were never agreed to, and that they cannot commit in a global treaty to cut emissions, although they will do their best in their own national climate plans.

Third, the developed countries are pushing for a “global goal” to cut global emissions by 50% by 2050 (compared to 1990).  But they have also mentioned a target of 80% cut for themselves. 

The developing countries will, in this scenario, have to cut by 20% in absolute terms, and by 60% in per capita terms (since population will double in that period).   This is a big challenge whose nature and enormity they have yet to understand, let alone accept.

Thus a “global goal”, though it appears simple, is fraught with many complex and serious issues, including that of equity and the prospect or otherwise of future development.

Fourth is the finance issue.  Developing countries are fighting for a new climate fund to be set up inside the UN climate convention, with equitable representation by all regions.  They have asked that developed countries contribute 1% of their GNP (or about US$400 billion) annually into this fund.  Recently some groupings and countries called for 2 to 5 percent of GNP.

So far the developed countries have balked at these requests.  Europe wants to use “existing institutions” (code for the World Bank or Global Environment Facility) and not a new fund.  Last week it also indicated it would agree to only 20-40 billion euros in public funds, of which it would contribute 2-15 billion euros.

This is a far cry from the requested amount, and also from the US$500-600 billion a year that the United Nations has estimated is needed by developing countries to fight climate change.

Fifth is the technology issue.  Developing countries have decried the fact that there has been little if any transfer of climate friendly technologies ever since the Climate Convention’s birth in 1992.  They want a new technology body inside the Convention that can draw up and implement a Technology Action Plan.

This body will also identify barriers to technology transfer, including intellectual property, and facilitate the developing countries’ access to technologies at affordable prices.  It will promote cooperation in research and development, build networks of technology centres, and help developing countries develop, make and design their own technologies.

But the developed countries are objecting even to a new technology body inside the Convention, and they are adamant that intellectual property issues be not included in a global deal.  The suspicion is that they want to maintain and expand their technological dominance and use climate change as a new area to develop economic competitiveness.

This is against the spirit of international cooperation for the common battle against climate change.  Unfortunately, the climate talks over the past year has shifted from being one on cooperation for the environment to one on gaining positions for future battles for economic and trade competitiveness.

Sixth is the issue of adaptation, or the capacity of developing countries to cope with the effects of climate change.  This involves activities like the building of sea walls to cope with sea level rise, flood prevention, and adapting to the agriculture and health impacts. Developing countries want a new adaptation framework, and more funds to enable this range of activities.

On top of the above are many other issues, including how to deal with forests and the funding to slow down or stop deforestation and to re-grow the forests, how to treat “market mechanisms” such as the regulation and growth of the carbon market, and how to handle “offsets”, or the process by which developed countries pay developing countries to undertake mitigation actions on their behalf, so that the former can meet their emission reduction targets.

If the above issues cannot be resolved in Copenhagen, the conference will not sign onto full decisions or agreements.  There is already a plan to have a “Political Declaration” instead, which may presumably lay down the principles and some decisions, and direct the negotiators to continue the climate talks next year.