Sharing the atmosphere

The Climate Conference in Copenhagen has  ended as expected: with a political declaration instead of a legally  binding agreement. Nonetheless, there seems to be wide-spread  disappointment among the public. Commentators are busy portioning out  blame for the failure of the negotiations, where the U.S., China,  and the unwieldy UN procedures receive the largest shares. Those  involved in the negotiations process see Copenhagen as a stepping stone  rather than a finish line: they point out that the Copenhagen Accord keeps  going the process towards a final agreement – scheduled for next  winter’s meeting in Mexico City. Furthermore, as a first international  document to trace developing country commitments, the Accord is  necessary to get the US Senate to pass climate legislation. From my  perspective, the most remarkable feature of the conference has been that  the most difficult arguments evolved around climate justice.

The Copenhagen climate conference clearly demonstrates the inadequacy  of the political response to the climate challenge. It reflects and is  the result of a lack of political will to pursue the necessary changes  in development on part of most national governments and their (special  interest) constituencies. The politically problematic aspect of the  UNFCCC process is that it provides cover for those politicians  responsible for inaction on the national level. It allows them to claim  that they act – by partaking in the process – and at the same time to  blame other parties for the slow progress. We are not on track to reduce  greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent dangerous levels of climate  change, and political leaders should not give the impressions that this  is a problem they have under control. Far from it!

Having said so much, in light of the dismal record of this now ending  “lost decade”, the Accord is a quite remarkable document. It  acknowledges that global warming should be limited to no more than 2°C,  and that a deep cut in greenhouse gas emissions are required to achieve  this target. Industrialized countries commit to establishing new targets  for emissions cut for 2020, and developing countries commit to  implementing mitigation actions. Both targets and mitigation actions  will be specified in the coming months. In addition, industrialized  countries commit to establishing a Copenhagen Green Climate Fund for  financing mitigation and adaptation in developing countries and to  establishing a Technology Mechanism for development and transfer of  climate-friendly technology. Let’s hope the targets and mitigation  action commitments lead to serious actions being implemented, which is  what counts in the end.

I was surprised about the degree to which the negotiations focused on  distributional issues and climate justice, even though I myself had  raised these issues in pre-conference interviews. I also thought that  the effectiveness of the developing countries coalition (G77+China) was  remarkable. Their message was loud and clear: industrialized countries  are responsible for (most of) the historical carbon dioxide emissions  and they have benefited tremendously from those emissions. It is now the  industrialized countries’ responsibility to reduce their emissions  first and to provide financial assistance to developing countries both  as a compensation for the climate damage already occurring and as a way  to share the economic gains incurred as a result of the historical  emissions.

The Carbon Footprint of Nations study  shows a remarkable correlation between the national per capita  consumption level and carbon footprint. Historical studies also indicate  a similar connection between rising incomes and rising fossil energy  used. But to what degree is the high energy use the cause of, or the  consequence of, economic growth? There is some scientific controversy  about this question. A seminal analysis of the United States’ economic  development over a 100 year time period by Bob Ayres and Ben Warr indicates  that access to cheap fossil fuels has indeed played an important role  in fostering economic growth. Increased input of useful physical work  explains more than half of economic growth, while increased input of  labour and capital account for the remainder. Physical work is the  product of the input of energy resources and the efficiency of energy  conversion.

If energy input is indeed as central to economic activity as these  statistical studies indicate, the access to and price of this energy  input is of highest political importance. Fossil fuels and hence CO2  emissions have allowed us to gain access to this energy input at low  prices and have hence made possible the unprecedented consumption levels  that we enjoy. If access to the atmosphere as a cost-free dump for the  waste products of fossil fuel combustion really determines our possible  consumption levels, we must not be surprised that this access is subject  to really tough negotiations. National leaders are occupied by their  countries’, and constituencies’, economic interest.

Our atmosphere is a globally shared, common resource that has been  over-utilized by a mere 20% of the global population. In principle, all  humans should have equal rights to use this resource. The climate  negotiations are the only global negotiations allowing developing  countries to raise the issue of unfair access to globally shared  resources. Their positioning in the negotiations may at times seem  self-serving, trying to extract bribes for pursuing a low-carbon  development course which should be in the developing countries interest  anyway, given their disproportional vulnerability to climate change. It  would be a mistake not to take seriously the issue of climate justice  and the connection of global resource access and economic product.   These issues must be accorded more importance by industrialized  countries, which must be more willing to stop their irresponsible  overuse of the atmosphere. (For an interesting suggestions of allocating  responsibility for emissions reductions, see this).

Negotiations must not be a zero-sum game. Yes, we must equitably  share our common resources among humans, both current and future  generations. However, there is a large scope to improve energy and  resource efficiency and to generate energy with much less emissions.  International cooperation will in fact help us to take advantage of  those opportunities, because it allows us to share technical progress  and implement solutions more widely and thereby reduce their price.   Still, the climate debate has been so long dominated by technological  optimists that issues of justice have been overlooked. I think it is  about time to accord them more importance. We must start a debate about  how to fairly share our global resources, both in principle and  practically. A debate of principles is necessary to make clear to those  guilty of too high emissions that the status quo is not right. A debate  of practicalities is necessary to find low-carbon development options  for poor countries and to avoid transfer mechanisms that corrupt  developing country elites and impede development in ways that payments  for the extraction of other resources often do.