Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 7 December 2009

Copenhagen climate talks begin

The biggest show on earth, at least for this year, starts in Copenhagen today as thousands gather to make decisions on how the world should address climate change.


This year’s biggest global event – the United Nations’ Copenhagen climate conference – begins today.

For the next two weeks, world leaders and their negotiators will try to thrash out the elements of a global deal on how to collectively tackle what is arguably the greatest threat the world has known – catastrophic global warming that will make human life very difficult or impossible within decades.

Around 30,000 people are gathering in this Danish capital to be part of this event.  The diplomats from almost 200 countries are already here.  They will pore over hundreds of pages of texts that may eventually form the basis of an agreement of sorts, or at least a framework for further talks and a final deal next year.

Also here are environmentalists, indigenous people, trade unions, scientists, scholars, who have a stake in what comes out, or does not come out, of Copenhagen.   And about 5,000 journalists are also expected to cover the events.

Next week the Environment Ministers will arrive, followed on 17 and 18 December by at least a hundred Presidents and Prime Ministers, who hope to endorse a declaration that their diplomats and Ministers have agreed upon.

The conference was given a last-minute fillip by an announcement last Friday that US President Barack Obama will come on 18 December to join the Summit part of the conference.  This corrects his earlier plan to make a one-day appearance on 9 December on his way to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.  That would have been too early because the other heads of government would only be coming on 17-18 December.

The delegates already in Copenhagen expect sleepless days and nights of diplomatic battles and high drama, since many key issues are still in dispute.  This is not surprising. 

Although all countries believe in the scientific evidence that climate change is s serious threat, they disagree on the sharing of responsibilities (especially who cuts their Greenhouse Gas emissions and by how much), how much it will cost, and who will pay the bill. 
What started as mainly an environmental topic has become a complex set of economic, financial and political issues.  The developed countries stress the need for a target for a global emission cut, with all countries to play their part.

The developing countries worry whether actions to reduce emissions will affect their economic development.  They stress the need for equity, that the rich countries must transfer enough finance and technology to enable the poorer countries to reduce emissions and cope with the effects of climate change.

There is wrangling on many key issues that will pre-occupy the Copenhagen fortnight.

First is whether the developed countries are willing to do their part to cut emissions.  Their pledges so far are depressingly low, adding up to only 12-19 per cent by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels).  This is far below the 40% cut they need to do as demanded by developing countries, and below the 25-40 per cent range indicated by studies cited by IPCC, the climate change panel.

The chair of the group negotiating the numbers have warned that “we will be a laughing stock” at the end of the Copenhagen meeting with this low ambition. Developing countries are demanding deeper cuts. Will developed countries respond?

A particular problem is the United States, whose present emission levels have ballooned to a far higher level than 1990.  Its offer to cut by 17% by 2020 compared to 2005 is only 2 to 7 percent below its 1990 level, which is well below the 20 or 30 per cent target that Europe is willing to take on for itself.

Second is the apparent decision by the developed countries that are members of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol (only the US is not a member) to move out of that protocol and move in with the US into a new agreement which may not be internationally binding, but only requires each country to make pledges and be subjected to peer review.

This has outraged the developing countries.  They feel that the rich countries are climbing down from their commitments at a time when they should be stepping up, and shifting the responsibilities to developing countries, especially since these rich countries insist that developing countries like China, India and Brazil join in the obligations of the rich countries.

If China and India are drawn in today, the rest of the middle income countries like in the Asean region will be drawn in the day after.  In fact the Europeans are already insisting that all developing countries commit to slow their emissions to 15-30 per cent below their business-as-usual level.

There are of course many problems with this, not least that almost no developing country government knows what is meant by “business as usual level”, or how the 15-30% deviation rate was derived, nor what this means for their economic growth ambitions.

Third is the money issue.  Developed countries not only pledged but legally committed to pay developing countries for the increased costs associated with their climate-related actions.  This has hardly materialized in the past 15 years.

This time the developing countries want a new climate fund created inside the UN Convention (and not have the funding done through the World Bank as the Western countries desire) and a legal commitment to contribute at least US$200-400 billion annually.  This amount is in fact lower than several studies say is required for actions in developing countries.

At Copenhagen, the developing countries want agreement at least that the new fund will be set up in whose governance and policies they will have a fair say.  The US$10 billion being mentioned by some Western leaders are also seen as grossly inadequate.

Fourth is the transfer of climate-friendly technology, which is another commitment made but not met.  The developing countries want a new body set up inside the Convention with the authority to make policies and oversee the transfers.  They also want intellectual property rules to be relaxed so that the technologies can be transferred at lower cost.

So far the developed countries are disagreeing with even the setting up of a technology policy-making body, preferring an advisory group with little power. And they are adamantly opposed to any relaxation to global IPR rules, which they fear will reduce their technological monopoly.

Fifth is whether to set a 2050 target for either limiting temperature rise (and if so should this be 1.5 or 2 degrees) or for a global cut in emissions (for example by 50% compared to 1990), or both.  The developed countries are also angling to put in a 80% cut for their own emissions.

The problem with such a set of targets is that the developing countries would indirectly be agreeing to a big emission cut for themselves (20% in absolute terms and 60% in per capita terms). 

They should thus not agree to the developed countries’ 80% target for themselves, as this is far too low.   And even a 50% global cut must be premised on and preceeded by getting enough finance and technology for developing countries to enable them to contribute to the global effort.

These are only some of the contentious issues facing Copenhagen this fortnight.  Other topics include how to deal with deforestation, with market mechanisms such as carbon trading, whether to limit “offsets” that the rich countries use to evade the full domestic emission reductions, and trade protection on climate grounds.

This is why a full climate deal cannot be reached in Copenhagen.  A lot is at stake, a lot of issues are involved, and a lot of them are unresolved. Hopefully there will be more agreement on many of these issues before the Presidents and Prime Ministers arrive.