Compromise on Climate Change
Weekly Pulse
December 25-31, 2009
After two weeks of hectic deliberations, the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, ended on December 19 with a two-page non-binding agreement, which was brokered a day before by US President Barack Obama and leaders from China, Brazil, South Africa and India. Instead of formally approving the accord, the UN agreed to “take note” of it, leaving countries the choice of whether or not to associate with the five-nation agreement. Dozens of countries have since then signed it.

The Copenhagen Accord acknowledges the scientific view that keeping global temperature rise to below two degree Celsius by 2050 is required to prevent the worst effects of global climate change. It also reiterates the commitment made earlier by rich countries to provide developing countries $10 billion a year as a short-term in the next three years with the long-term goal of raising this amount to $100 billion a year by 2020 to finance efforts to adapt to climate change and develop green technologies in the developing countries.

A First Step

The opening lines of the Copenhagen Accord read: “We underline that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time. We emphasize our strong political will to urgently combat climate change.” Under the agreement, each country, rich or poor, will list the actions it will take to cut global warming pollution by specific amounts. The deal includes a method for verifying reductions of heat-trapping gases. Even if China, which resists the adoption of a stringent international regime to verify carbon emissions, is not legally bound by such method, its voluntary co-option for the purpose may help the Obama Administration to persuade the Senate to pass the US bill for climate change.

The Copenhagen Accord is certainly a compromise secured through an eleventh hour deal among the lead five countries representing the industrialized, the newly industrialized and developing world. Until its conclusion the UN conference appeared to collapse, with negotiators representing divergent interests threatening to walkout. For his part, President Obama termed the agreement as an “unprecedented breakthrough” and an essential “first step,” while warning that getting a legally binding treaty “is going to be very hard, and it’s going to take some time.” Other signatories of the accord expressed similar remarks, while expressing the hope, as the US President did, that the world community may be able to reach a binding agreement in the next round UN Climate Change Conference in Mexico City in November 2010.

Severe Criticism

However, on the eve of its conclusion and afterwards, the Copenhagen Accord has come under severe criticism, which primarily rests on the Conference’s failure to produce a binding treaty and set specific emissions-reduction targets. Critics argue that delegates from 193 countries, including leaders from 120 countries, who attended the Copenhagen Conference have failed to secure a consensual, legally binding, enforceable and verifiable global agreement on emissions reductions by developed and developing countries alike; and that the non-binding agreement only reflects a grand compromise, a face saving of sorts, on the part of a few countries.

The main success of the moot was on the issue of financing to help developing countries cope with climate change. But, here again, the Copenhagen Accord does not say where the amount of $10 billion annually during 2010-2012 and a sum of $100 billion per year by 2020 will come from or how the money will be distributed, which countries it will go to, in which amounts, and on what conditions. Even on the issue of verifying and reporting emission reductions, it can be argued that the UN Conference has failed to produce a plan of action for independent monitoring of emissions cuts—and this is a major compromise to alleviate China’s verification concerns.

The outcome of the UN Conference does not seem to match the rhetorical assertions made by important world leaders on the issue of climate change. In his speech at the conference, for instance, President Obama said: “We come here in Copenhagen because climate change poses a grave and growing danger to our people.” Added British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: “Hurricanes, floods, typhoons and droughts that were once all regarded as the acts of an invisible God are now revealed to be the visible acts of man.”

And yet Copenhagen produced only a non-binding treaty, with only a pledge to secure a binding agreement next year. This was the fifteenth summit on climate change with the first Earth Summit on the issue taking place in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro. Its criticism for not producing a credible agreement is justified if we consider the reservations expressed by leaders such as President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, which may be one of the first victims of global warming, for being an island country threatened by rising sea waters. He said that failing to adopt the agreement would risk postponing for years any prospect for progress on limiting global climate change.

Practical Problems

There are, indeed, practical obstacles to securing a binding agreement. First, the economic costs of ensuring a cooler world are massive and its benefits are unclear. The main reason countries, developed or developing, use carbon-based energy is that it is the cheapest form of energy, and will remain so until another cheaper alternative of energy is available. The rapidly developing countries such as s China and India will, therefore, continue to resist global attempts aimed at reducing their reliance on carbon-based energy, since doing so will scuttle their economic growth.

Additionally, these countries are still lived by millions of people suffering from acute poverty, and from the consequences of such poverty, in the shape of malnutrition, preventable disease and premature death. Why should they be expected to compromise their economic growth and social welfare for the sake of the collective wellbeing of the world through reduced carbon emissions?

A second issue preventing a global consensus on stopping or reversing global warming pertains to burden-sharing, particularly how much of the economic cost of de-carbonization should be borne by the developed world, which accounts for the bulk of past emissions, and how much by the faster-growing developing world, which will account for the bulk of future emissions.

The United States under the Bush Administration did not become a party to the Kyoto Protocol, even though its principal backers were from with the industrialized world, including Canada, Japan and the European Union, simply because it wanted to protect US business and industry at a time of hectic economic competition with China and India. Both the current and future emitters have to be equally committed to reducing carbon emissions, only then a comprehensive global agreement on climate change is possible.

Third, as long as the world’s major powers do not come out of the global financial crisis credibly, they will continue to lack the commitment to bear the massive cost or burden sharing for climate change. The continuing war on terrorism is another major distraction for the principal international players, particularly the United States, from focusing exclusively on the issue of climate change and making the sort of gigantic financial commitment it requires.

Scientific Findings

Leaving aside such practical difficulties pertaining to the conclusion of a binding agreement on climate change, the mainstream evidence-based scientific findings seem to suggest that the world’s temperature is consistently rising—and, with this, the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctic ice fields are melting. This means the sea level will continue to rise, if the rate of carbon emissions does not start to significantly decline in the following years and decades.

If the planet is indeed heating up, the consequences of the ensuing climate change could be horrendous. According to the findings of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, these could include a sudden shift in the ocean currents – known as the ocean conveyor – that transport warm water from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere. It might be extreme bouts of El Nino (the periodic warming of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures), or La Nina (Pacific cooling), either of which could trigger catastrophic floods, droughts and other forms of extreme weather, as they have in the past. And it might be a massive African or Asian drought that wipes out crops across several countries.

If such predictions pointing towards a doomesday scenario for the world are true, then the danger is clear, what is lacking is the commitment of the international community to confront this danger. For now, however, we can only hope that the process of global consultation on the issue of climate change will continue and produce a concrete outcome. As President Obama said, “We’re going to have to build on the momentum that we’ve established here in Copenhagen to ensure that international action to significantly reduce emissions is sustained and sufficient over time. We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go.”

Considering Alternatives

In the meantime, however, the governments, especially of the richer world, can continue to invest in technologies aimed at harnessing alternative sources of energy, such as solar energy. Likewise, there is need to give importance to the alternative discourse on climate change, with some scientists even predicting a cooler world along with the world’s carbon-based energy quest.

Much of the scientific conclusions suggesting global warming rest on computer models whose original input was based upon data provided by the British University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, which is now challenged by a section of environmental scientists, including Dr Richard Lindzen, Professor of Meteorology at MIT. According to him, “The measurement used, the Global Averaged Temperature Anomaly (GATA), is always changing. Sometimes it goes up; sometimes down and occasionally--such as for the last dozen years or so--it does little that can be discerned. The claim that climate change is accelerating is bizarre.” The data in computer models do not account, for example, for the effects of clouds or sunspot activity.

The UN has held so many summits on environment. The state of health of our planet is the topic of numerous international studies and reports. Authors such as Thomas Friedman have pubished best sellers on the topic. The stand all of the above take is one that conforms to the mainstream scientific viewpoint: that as long as we continue to pollute our environment with hazardous gases, it will continue to heat up and eventually destroy the very world our survival rests upon.

Yet there is no harm in considering alternative voices on the subject such as that of the MIT professor. And it also makes sense to explore sources of energy other than carbon, through expanding international research and development activities. As for seeking a truly enforceable global pact on climate change, even if Copenhagen failed to produce it, at least the process for the purpose has not been abandoned.

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