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Towards Copenhagen

February 6, 2009

The discussions and brainstorms underway at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit involve heads of state, policymakers, scientists and business leaders – the stakeholders who will be deciding how the world meets the challenge of climate change over the coming decades.

Two key differences are already emerging between the negotiations leading to the Kyoto Protocol and those that will determine its successor at Copenhagen this December. Firstly, there is genuine acceptance of the scientific evidence among the protagonists that climate change is a real issue, an urgent issue and one that needs to be tackled through emissions cuts – this change of heart is seen most notably in the new US and Australian adminstrations and in comments from China.

Secondly, it is now becoming clear that Kyoto’s exemptions from emission cuts for developing nations to allow them to build their economies will be far less generous. It is increasingly likely that emerging nations such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa will need to accept emissions caps – something that the Bush administration rejected for itself, despite being the biggest polluter in the world. Rather than the world being split into the developed and developing nations, and only the former considered during emissions negotiations, the new mood, as indicated by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Sen. John Kerry and other negotiators at Delhi, is: this is a global problem and the whole world must cooperate and contribute to its remedy.

This is likely to mean global cap and trade for rich and emerging nations, including India and China, but also financial help with mitigation and adaptation towards cleaner industry. Both countries have indicated that they will not accept internationally imposed caps, although both have planned domestic energy programmes to cut emissions – these, however, lack actual numbers and timetables.

They say it is unfair to impose caps, since developing nations effectively played no part in creating the atmospheric greenhouse gases that are currently in the air, and which are already committing us to at least 1.5 degrees of warming. India, with 17.5% of the world’s population, emits just 4% of greenhouse gases. Moreover, they argue, it is not fair that while the West got to enjoy unencumbered development, poor countries must now like it or lump it.

That is of course the argument that led to their exemptions in Kyoto. But more than a decade’s worth of inaction on emissions cuts by the world has produced a far more urgent crisis, and the world can no longer afford the luxury of being generous. This is a global crisis, which will impact developing nations the hardest, and it requires an inclusive, collaborative approach to solve it. Climate change is unfair on the Indian businessman who is staking his paltry savings on a small processing furnace, as it is unfair on the Australian schoolgirl who will grow up to spend most of her salary on desal water.

The European industrial development of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a disgusting, dirty, dangerous and socially unbalanced affair. I see much of the same going on in the India as I travel. The transition form nearly 80% agricultural economy to a developed nation is proving hard and taking time. But there is another way: instead of aping the West’s worst habits, emerging nations could develop an entirely new, and highly desired green-technology economy, whereby innovative clean technologies were installed and manufactured at a fraction of the cost in the West. It would of course require financial assistance and some technological training, but from what I hear in the vocal pitterpatter at the Delhi summit, leaders and businesses are more willing than ever to invest in such a thing, despite the economic crisis. And there’s not a moment to lose.

Whether or not countries like India, China and Brazil agree to caps, will likely depend on how generous these adaptation assistance funds are. But I am hopeful that the electorate in India, at least (the world’s argest democracy) is convinced of the urgency of the situation.

The biggest losers in alll this is likely to be the very poorest nations and failed states, for which discussions of assistance has been thin at Delhi, despite requests from NGOs and the countries’ own presidents. They can offer the world neither the promise of fast production for technologies such as photovoltaics, nor threaten it with vast and evergrowing dirty industry, and so their stake at the table is small. Yet they are the people who will be most affected by the impacts of climate change. It is from here that the biggest climate driven conflict will emerge – and war, like climate change, is tricky to restrain in regional boundaries.

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