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.