Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Copenhagen - or Copout?

Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon cautioned the delegates gathered in Copenhagen that, “We do not have another year to deliberate,” he said. “Nature does not negotiate.” Did the attending dignitaries heed his advice?

The Copenhagen Summit – UN Conference on Climate Change – that had been two years in the making, opened in the Danish capital on Dec 07. It was attended by delegates from 193 countries, along with 120 Heads of States who were to join near the closing date of December 18th to finalize the deal. The summit began on a cautious note since the agenda contained issues expected to cause friction between developed and the developing nations, and unfolded an eventful two weeks of exhausting activity with not the most desirable outcome.

The issues that dominated the conference included discussions on:

1. Keeping carbon levels to below 2C – preferably 1.5C – by 2020?
2. Limiting emissions from emerging economies, like India and China, who were not too compliant to the idea of emissions cuts monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) through outside inspections.
3. Financing poorest nations to help deal with the effects of global warming.
4. Kyoto Protocol – the only legally binding treaty that requires rich nations to take responsibility for their actions.
5. Deforestation, which is responsible for 17% of all carbon emissions?

A review of carbon missions in millions of tonnes/year estimated in 2007 as reported on The Guardian website gives a fair idea of where true responsibility lies: China: 6283.6 , US: 6006.7, EU:4690.4, Russia: 1672.6, India: 1400.7 Japan:1262.4, Canada: 589.9, UK: 564.0, Australia: 456.4, S Africa: 452.3, Brazil: 397.6, Ethiopia: 5.4 and Maldives: 0.8.

The developing countries sought to impress upon the participants that they remain most vulnerable to effects of climate change in terms of food, water and energy security since they lack resources to counter the disastrous effects of climate change. To mention just a few examples, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 asserted that a sea-level rise of just three feet would be enough to sink 80% of Maldives under water; Bangladesh is losing coastal land mass every year, severe water insecurity in Africa and Asia threatens survival – Darfur is already seeing water clashes, many Asian rivers would dry up when the melting Himalayan ice disappears by 2035 – “Chacaltaya’ glacier in Bolivia, a vital resource of water for almost 2 million people melted away in 2009 while floods, droughts, storms and loss of crops, and danger of extinction for plant and animal species remains a serious concern. Pakistan contributes almost 135th part of what other nations are producing but remains on 12th position in the list of most vulnerable nations in the world.

Despite intense negotiations serious deadlocks on RMVs, emission cutting targets and aid for poor nations crippled the discussions at many points. The Kyoto Protocol also continued to pose a challenge as there was a major push by developed nations to abandon it and replace it with a non-binding political agreement, but the move was strongly resisted by the developing countries.

During the course of the two-week discussions, offers which helped lift the gloom , albeit temporarily, included the US Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s announcement regarding an international plan called The Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative (Climate REDI) – a $350million five-year endeavor backed by Italy, India and Australia for clean technology in developing countries. Ethiopia also put forward a multibillion-dollar plan to raise funds which was supported by Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy. An agreement called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) was also introduced. The United States pledged $1bn over the next three years. Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Britain and America also agreed to provide $3.5bn in immediate cash for forest preservation – for industrialized nations, the carbon credits to be used under a carbon trading system hold a big incentive. The US commitment to support an EU-backed idea of a $100bn fund for poor nations (though dependent on existing budgets) by 2020 was also well received. Another welcome move came from Japan with an offer to cut emissions by 25%, and to provide $15 billion over the next three years to help impoverished countries adapt to global warming's impacts.

Much hope had been pinned on the charismatic American President, as the leader of the world’s largest economy responsible for the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions until recently. When he finally managed to shape an accord with four Heads of States including Brazil, India, China and South Africa, (named ‘BASIC’) calling it a "meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough”, skeptics like Jim Tones of World Development Movement dismissed it outright, “To say that this deal is in any way historic or meaningful is to completely misrepresent the fact that this deal is devoid of real content.” since it only acknowledged the problem and set no clear limits or guidelines. The chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries, Mr. Di-Aping strongly declared, “The developed countries have decided that the damage to developing countries is acceptable.”

India and China strongly resisted any move to include emissions peak by 2020. When references to China’s non-cooperation as a possible cause of the Summit’s relative failure were made, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to comply with what he considered sacrificing his country’s economic interests in order to take responsibility for a problem that, he stressed, had been caused and aggravated by the Western nations and not by China.

As the African delegates complained of having been kept completely out of any negotiations, and the Sudanese negotiator compared the draft text to “a suicide pact”, the UK threw its weight behind The Copenhagen Accord, and Mr. Ban Ki-Moon asked other countries to accept it and not let the Summit be a complete failure. He promised that “The UN system will work to immediately start to deliver meaningful results to people in need and jump-start clean energy growth in developing countries.” No clear time frame or emissions cut limit were part of the document, even though according to UNIPCC the cuts required by industrialized nations are a 25–40 % reduction by 2020, on 1990 levels. The US had offered a mere 4%. However, what was included in the Accord was a framework for authentication of carbon emissions of developing countries, and formation of a panel to evaluate financial contribution for the developing countries. A wider consensus on the Accord could not be achieved because it clearly fell short of expectations on many scores. The challenge according to Yvo De Boer, Executive Secretary of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in his press briefing on the closing day of Dec19, was to turn it into a legally binding deal in Mexico in 2010.

The message from the leaders of developed countries came across as that even as low-lying island states disappear from the face of inhabitable Earth, and food and water wars destroy the developing world, the resourceful nations will continue to choose their financial interests simply because the effects of their actions are not likely to come back to hurt them badly enough just yet. Choosing short-term goals cannot be a smart choice. After all, the environment is shared by all and “Nature does not negotiate.”

A version of this article was published in SouthAsia Magazine, Jan 2010.

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