High Hopes for Copenhagen May Be Dashed

By David L. Brown

081204093041Great hope is being placed on the upcoming conference on climate change, to take place December 7*-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The meeting has the acronym COP15, which indicates it is the 15th “Conference of Parties” in the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. Representatives from 170 countries are expected to take part. It is hoped that COP15 can make substantial progress toward a replacement of the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.

Although there is much sturm and drang about this issue, my feeling is that any significant progress may be difficult if not impossible to achieve. The problem is that most poor or developing nations want exceptions to the need to reduce emissions of CO², methane and other greenhouse gases (GHGs), in effect pushing the problem onto the advanced nations. The general argument is that the rich nations have been the biggest polluters in the past, and that they should therefore bear the expense of fixing the problem. That particularly targets the United States, which was formerly the No. 1 source of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, in view of the present economic woes, the First World economies are not exactly robust.

Another fact to consider is that the advanced nations have already passed into what is called the Post-Industrial Age, even as developing nations are introducing into the world a new era of industrialization. Thus, the title of the world’s No. 1 source of GHGs has recently passed to China.

Identifying rich nations as the responsible culprits also flies in the face of the fact that developing countries are the main source of rising GHG emissions. For example, the amounts of carbon released by India grew by 103 percent between 1992 and 2007. China did even worse, with carbon emissions growing by 150 percent. As we’ve reported here, China is bringing nearly two coal-fired power plants on-line each week.

How do these figures relate to the global picture? Taking all nations into account, on average GHG emissions increased by 38 percent during that period. In the United States, a rise of just 20 percent was reported. Some EU member nations have done even better, with several including Germany, France and Great Britain among others actually achieving net reductions.

Now I will be the first to point out that to compare statistics in the form of percentages such as those can be extremely misleading, subject to the embarrassing question “percentage of what?” To explain by example: If you have one apple and get one more apple, you have enjoyed a 100 percent increase. A very big increase, right? But it’s relative, you see, for if you have 100 apples and get one more apple you have experienced an increase of only one percent . A very small increase—and yet in both cases the difference was precisely the same, one apple.

India and China were coming from behind, with lower bases against which to measure the increase (fewer apples), so it makes their statistics seem larger. The US had a higher starting point (more apples), thus making that increase seem smaller by comparison. Indeed, according to the World Resources Institute:

Overall, with less than one-twentieth of the world’s population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2009), the U.S. currently accounts for about one-fifth of total global emissions of [GHGs].

It is common sense that the world’s largest economies would be the largest sources of carbon emissions, because development has been based on fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. However, the problem of GHG emissions cannot be solved by looking into the past, but by changing future actions everywhere. Unfortunately, the general drift seems to be that the majority of the world’s people, as represented by the governments of populous nations such as India and China, would like for the more advanced nations to contribute most of the hard work and sacrifice of reducing carbon emissions, while leaving the “developing” nations to continue relatively unimpeded on the course of industrialization.

Although it may not be immediately apparent, this attitude represents a sea change in world attitudes. Until recently it was generally contended that poorer nations should be helped to rise toward the standards of living enjoyed in the West and other advanced economies. That was the false promise of “globalization.” Today, as it becomes apparent that globalization is colonialism by different means, the advanced nations are in effect being asked to lower their standards of living to meet those of less fortunate places.

What would it take for the United States, for example, to bring its carbon balance sheet into line with the rest of the world? As we saw above, the US produces about 20 percent of carbon emissions although it has only one-twentieth of the world population, or five percent. We would need to drop overall GHG emissions by 75 percent (from 20 percent to 5 percent of total emissions) to reach the world average. Such a feat would not only be impossible, it would be economically disastrous. And consider that even if it could be done, it would not solve the problem if third world and developing nations continued to increase their GHG output. The final result would be that everyone in the world would be poor, and climate change would still be advancing.

As you may have noticed in the above comments, the arguments are shifting from ones based on overall national targets to per-capita goals for GHG limits or reduction. The picture is being drawn not in terms of how much GHG a nation produces, but how much per person. Emission statistics in India and China are diluted by being spread over large and growing populations of more than one billion each. Admittedly, that does address the inequality of applying percentages on a per-nation basis, as discussed in the apple metaphor above.  The argument for this is that a per-capita approach creates a level playing field.

It was never realistic to expect that every disadvantaged human being was someday going to be living the lifestyle of the American or European middle class. There just are not enough resources in the world for that to be possible, considering the number of people presently populating the Earth. But how realistic is it to expect the rich nations to beggar themselves, dragging their economies down to create a “level playing field.” Do the New York Yankees bench their best pitchers and batters in order to be “fair” to competing teams? As in sports, nations are in economic competition and are unlikely to undertake the dismantlement of their economies for the convenience and advantage of others.

But counting GHG emissions on a per-capita basis  does something else: It rewards population growth as an offsetting factor of carbon pollution. And that’s a non-starter because over-population, along with industrialization, is one of the main reasons why we’re in trouble in the first place. Using per-capita statistics, nations such as India and China that plan to continue to industrialize will enjoy automatic reductions of their per-capita GHG emissions through the simple process of producing more Indian or Chinese babies. Meanwhile, post-industrial nations such as Japan and Russia that have declining populations — a positive trend in view of the world’s over-population — would suffer increasing penalties.

Setting mandates that would force the US and other advanced nations to make huge and perhaps impossible investments to meet reduction targets while other nations are allowed to keep on polluting is not politically feasible. That’s why nearly two decades ago the US Senate voted unanimously to advise President Clinton that it would reject the Kyoto Protocol, on the grounds that it basically gave a free pass to the developing economies as they proceeded to industrialize their economies at the expense of the wealthy nations.

And it gets worse. Not only are the rich nations expected to invest in dramatic carbon reductions at home while allowing continued “development” abroad, but at the same time they will be expected to spend billions and perhaps even trillions of dollars to buy carbon offsets, paying countries that enjoy lower emission targets for the right to emit GHGs. That would represent an enormous transfer of wealth, and all those billions in offsets might prove an irresistible temptation to leaders of third world and developing states, where corruption is often a way of life. Those carbon offset payments would be intended to help support green development in poorer nations, but if history is any indicator — and it always is — the odds are pretty high that much of the money would end up in secret Swiss bank accounts.

All of these factors combine to the disadvantage of the rich nations and the benefit of the poorer ones. Well, there is no doubt that in some perfect universe that might be considered “fair” and would make sense to all. But we live in this universe, which is quite a different one. Such a dramatic leveling of the playing field is economically, politically, socially and technologically untenable for those who are going to get the short end of the stick. Any agreement that can be perceived as harming the economy of the advanced nations will meet with stiff resistance. Conversely, any agreement requiring developing nations to share the pain will be met with indignation and outrage, for such is the yawning divide between rich and poor on this Earth.

These are not sound foundations for any worldwide cooperative arrangement to meet the threats of global warming and climate change head-on.

Because of these considerations I find it unlikely that anything very meaningful will come out of the Copenhagen conference. Oh, the process will probably not erupt in angry claims and counterclaims, no blood in the streets or anything like that. No, that is not the way diplomatic and political things are done, for it would involve loss of face which is unacceptable at any cost. It’s my cynical suspicion that the parties will cover their failure to agree with vague, flowery statements that sound positive while containing nothing concrete, effectively passing the buck. They will then declare victory all around and go home to trumpet their “achievements” to their constituents.

A preview of the Copenhagen conference could be seen at the recent G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, which yielded little encouragement on the issue of climate change. Bloomburg.com reported that the G20 “put off tackling how to help poor nations deal with climate change.” The Bloomburg story, read it here, contained these details:

[President] Obama’s chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, said earlier this week that progress in talks leading to Copenhagen was too slow. Advocates for a new agreement said the two-day meeting in Pittsburgh failed to speed the process.

“The Pittsburgh G-20 summit represents a missed opportunity to move the ball forward on climate change,” said Alden Meyer,  director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The G-20 leaders didn’t take the bold steps needed to break the current deadlock in the climate negotiations.”

How much rich nations should contribute to help the poorest countries tackle global warming has become a sticking point in the international talks for an accord.

“Sticking point” indeed. So what will it take to solve the problems of GHG emissions and the resulting climate change? I have long suspected that it will be solved less through human action and more as a result of natural forces.

The first and least destructive of these forces is that of economic supply-and-demand. The costs of energy from fossil fuels are rising and will continue to do so as supplies of oil dwindle.  That’s already having an effect as millions of people in the US and elsewhere begin to change their ways. This is the process of conservation, using less of the resource—and using less energy from fossil fuels automatically reduces GHGs. Higher costs also will benefit the transition to alternative energy sources, particularly “clean” ones such as wind and solar.  It’s plain common sense that we need to develop these alternatives to fossil fuels.

This process is going on now in the rich nations, whose economies will continue to move toward a smaller ecological “footprint” even as developing nations create a second Industrial Age. Eventually, dramatic lifestyle changes will be necessary, but it’s not possible to make such sweeping transformations overnight.

Thus there are limits to the forces of economics, and serious sacrifices will have to be made regardless of whether we like it. But that approach is far more palatable than the effect of that other force, the one wielded by Mother Nature, or Gaia as she is known to followers of James Lovelock. She and she alone has the final say on everything that happens on Earth, including the fate of humanity. She cannot be denied, and if we do not act, she is certain to.

* One wonders if the planners intended to begin their conference on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Surely not.

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