Monday, July 20, 2009

Global Warming: G8 Puts Cart Before The Horse

The G8 Summit at L’Aquila in Italy on July 8, 2009 was also the first annual G8 Summit since Barack Obama became US president after a campaign in which all presidential candidates promised to reverse the Bush-era US isolation on climate change and refusal to adopt a national policy of meaningful cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

This was followed by a meeting on July 9 with the G5 major emerging economies China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa and then a meeting with African leaders the next day focusing on Africa.

This so-called Heiligendamm Process, named after the venue of the G8 Summit in Germany in 2007, will apparently henceforth be called the Heiligendamm-L’Aquila Process. Why it misses the Japanese venue of Toyako where the G8 Summit was held in 2008 along similar lines, or whether names of every subsequent summit venue will keep being added on will remain one of those mysteries of international summitry.

In any case, the global economic meltdown and climate change dominated the first two days, the G8 discussing these issues first among themselves and on the second day with the G5, underlining the prevailing international hierarchy.

This shift in the national mood and in the balance of power within the US Congress, was also reflected in the recent passing of a US Climate Bill by a wafer thin margin by the House of Representatives putting forward, for the first time, national goals for GHG emissions reductions by the US which however fell far short of what would be required to stave off the looming climate crisis. There is also doubt whether the Bill will pass in the Senate and what form any joint Bill will take.

Against this background, and with the 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in December 2009 just around the corner, when a new post-2012 global agreement on climate is to be finalised, this Summit was expected to make substantial progress.

From the complete stalemate of a few months ago at meetings at Poznan and Bonn, some forward movement can be said to have been made at L’Aquila due partly to the new US position bolstered by passage of the Climate Bill.

However, again surely due to the US position on these issues, the L’Aquila Declaration targets for advanced countries still remain far below the requirement and fundamental issues of equity, funding and technology transfer are still to be properly addressed let alone resolved.

To top it all, the main points of the Declaration were pious and rather vague intentions regarding outcomes, not the robust mechanisms and milestones by which to achieve them.

Notional Goal

Much comment has been attracted by the statement in the Declaration of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, (i.e. G8 plus G5 countries) representing over 75 per cent of global GDP and GHG emissions, that these countries “recognise the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C.”

True, this is the first time that advanced industrialised nations have collectively recognised that a temperature rise of 2 degrees C constitutes an important and dangerous threshold. But there are two major problems with enunciating this as the goal.

First, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long been warning that, given present levels of accumulated GHGs in the atmosphere due to failures in meeting Kyoto Protocol targets and given current and potential trajectories of GHG emissions by major economies, 2 degrees C rise in temperatures with grave consequences are almost inevitable in the medium term, i.e. in two to three decades, unless drastic measures are taken in the short to medium terms.

Second, while setting a goal of a maximum 2 degrees C rise may be laudable, this is merely an aspirational target, and will remain just a statement of good intentions unless it is spelled out how this objective is proposed to be achieved in terms of short and medium-term emission reduction measures. Minus the latter, this is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse without which the destination cannot be reached. As the old saying goes, the road to damnation is paved with good intentions!

On emission reduction targets, the MEF Declaration is curiously silent, even though the G8 industrialised countries meeting the day before set themselves some targets. But the G8 plus G5 together only state that they will “work between now and Copenhagen… to identify a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050.”

The fact that this Declaration contains no emissions reduction targets is a pointer to the gulf that still separates the developed and the developing nations. The latter were clearly not too impressed with the goals set by the G8 the previous day, and the G8 in turn were pushing the G5 to make their own emission reductions commitments. And yet, some new formulations in both the G8 and MEF Declarations should be noted for their positive as well as negative connotations.

G8 Still Holding Back

The G8 Declaration at L’Aquila called for reducing global emissions by 50 per cent by 2050 and, towards this end, also announced a “goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80 per cent or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years” (emphasis added).

IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report released in 2007 had called for stabilising atmospheric GHG concentrations at around 450 ppmv (parts per million by volume) and had stated that this would require global GHG emissions to start declining by 2015 and be less than 50 per cent of today’s levels by 2050, which would in turn require developed country emissions to reduce by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 95 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

While the G8 target for global emissions in 2050 broadly corresponds to IPCC recommendations (qualifying clauses being discussed later), all other targets are far lower, with considerable significance for outcomes. The G8 targets, both global and for developed countries, are long-term ones, that is for 2050, with no medium-term targets for 2020 or 2030.

It is well known that if medium-term targets such as IPCC’s above are not achieved, GHG concentrations and temperature rise would have gone beyond the reach of the longer-term goals for 2050. In other words, the long-term goals mean little unless the medium term targets are achieved. The EU has been pushing hard for stringent emissions cuts by 2020, but again bowed before US pressure at the G8.

Why the US should have resisted shorter-term targets per se is unclear since the recently passed US Climate Bill too commits the US to interim targets. One possible explanation is that the US is still not ready to commit itself to a global Treaty and for its performance to be judged in an international forum.

The G8 obfuscation on the baseline year for these proposed emissions reductions has now become standard practice of the US and of all groupings in which the US is involved such as the G8, regardless of the stand of the EU or individual European countries like UK, Germany or France which favour strong interim targets against a 1990 baseline.

All IPCC recommendations too are for reductions below 1990 levels, which is the baseline set under the Kyoto Protocol. How much difference this can make can be understood from the fact that the US Climate Bill’s targets of 17 per cent reduction by 2020, 42 per cent by 2030 and 83 per cent by 2050, all relative to 2005, are equivalent to only 3 per cent, 33 per cent and 75 per cent reduction by 2020, 2030 and 2050 respectively below 1990 levels. (Incidentally, all these targets as passed by the House are for more reductions than proposed by president Obama at 15, 40 and 80 per cent respectively!) All this makes the desired outcome of restricting temperature rise to 2 degrees C that much less possible.

How toothless the G8 targets are was made abundantly clear by Canada immediately after the Summit. Canada, with one of the worst emissions records among developed countries, which has an already low target of reducing emissions 60-70 per cent below 2006 levels by 2050, pooh-poohed the G8 targets as merely “aspirational” and said that Canada saw no need to change its policy accordingly.

Developing Countries

The MEF Declaration issued jointly by the G8 and G5 countries allows the G8 obfuscation on medium-term targets and baseline years, notwithstanding the several additional clauses that are supposed to indicate the different thinking of the G5 and, by inference, other developing nations.

Thus, while endorsing the aspirational goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees C and the mismatched long-term goal of the developed countries to reduce emissions by 2050, the MEF Declaration makes no mention of the important medium-term targets but only vaguely speaks of developed countries undertaking “robust aggregate and individual reductions in the midterm.”

The statement that the MEF countries would “work together before Copenhagen to achieve a strong result in this regard” inspires little confidence given the enormous leeway already conceded to the developed countries and the unwillingness to push them hard on the major issues.

Notably missing in the Declaration are any references to the responsibility of developed countries for historical emissions and therefore the necessity of these countries, following the “polluter pays” principle, making compensatory financial contributions enabling developing countries to adapt to climate changes and to adopt actions for mitigating GHG emissions.

Rather, the Declaration speaks in delightfully vague terms about such financial assistance and simply endorses a proposal by Mexico to set up a “Green Fund” without making clear the source of these funds. In fact, the Declaration merely says that “financing to address climate change will derive from multiple sources, including both public and private funds and carbon markets”, again avoiding the issue of the primary responsibility of developed countries in this regard.

Two formulations in the MEF Declaration are worthy of note. For the first time, the G5 has accepted that they “will promptly undertake actions whose projected effects on emissions represent a meaningful deviation from business as usual in the midterm” and that “the peaking of global and national emissions should take place as soon as possible,” implying that a capping of emissions from leading developing countries is now on the cards.

Regular readers will recall that these columns have been among the very few progressive and developing country voices, especially in India, that have advocated this position. However, we have argued that such a G5 position should be put forward conditional upon the developed countries committing themselves to deep emissions cuts along the lines recommended by the IPCC as well as to financial assistance and technology transfer to developing countries.

Given the absence of these latter in the L’Aquila G8 and MEF Declarations, the agreement of the G5 to slowing down rate of increase, then peaking and finally reduction of emissions may be seen as somewhat of a give-away.

A potentially significant new direction contained in the MEF Declaration, if sincerely meant, implemented and followed up, is that the G8 and G5 countries would “dramatically increase and coordinate public sector investments in research, development, and demonstration of these (transformational low-carbon, climate-friendly technologies technologies) with a view to doubling such investments by 2015.”

Emphasis till now, especially from the G8, has been on private sector R&D as well as on measures to protect the intellectual property rights (IPR) in this regard, which have been widely seen as working against the development and equitable spread of technologies leading to a low-carbon developmental trajectory.

In fact, even the L’Aquila G8 Declaration speaks of the “critical role of an efficient system of intellectual property rights (IPR) to foster innovation” and the development and diffusion of new technologies “particularly through the engagement and leveraging of critical private sector investment.” Who is bluffing, one wonders?

With all this waffling, the usual posturing by the developed countries and the yielding of ground by the EU on the one hand and by the G5 on the other, it is perhaps difficult to see where the global climate parleys will lead before, at and after Copenhagen. But reading the tea-leaves, some movement however small seems discernible from the total standstill of a year or two ago. Can serious negotiations begin now?


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