How to salvage climate change negotiations


Confronting the Geopolitics of Climate Change

Brahma Chellaney

Project Syndicate

International climate-change negotiations are to be renewed this year. To be successful, they must heed the lessons of last December’s Copenhagen summit.

The first lesson is that climate change is a matter not only of science, but also of geopolitics. The expectation at Copenhagen that scientific research would trump geopolitics was misguided. Without an improved geopolitical strategy, there can be no effective fight against climate change.

The second lesson from Copenhagen is that to get a binding international agreement, there first must be a deal between the United States and China. These two countries are very dissimilar in many respects, but not in their carbon profiles: each accounts for between 22% and 24% of all human-generated greenhouse gases in the world. If a deal can be reached between the world’s two greatest polluting nations, which together are responsible for more than 46% of all greenhouse-gas emissions, an international accord on climate change would be easier to reach.

In Copenhagen, China cleverly deflected pressure by hiding behind small, poor countries and forging a negotiating alliance, known as the BASIC bloc, with three other major developing countries – India, Brazil, and South Africa. The BASIC bloc, however, is founded on political opportunism, and thus is unlikely to hold together for long. The carbon profiles of Brazil, India, South Africa, and China are wildly incongruent. For example, China’s per-capita carbon emissions are more than four times higher than India’s.

China rejects India’s argument that per-capita emission levels and historic contributions of greenhouse gases should form the objective criteria for carbon mitigation. China, as the factory to the world, wants a formula that marks down carbon intensity linked to export industries. As soon as the struggle to define criteria for mitigation action commences in future negotiations, this alliance will quickly unravel.

A third lesson from Copenhagen is the need for a more realistic agenda. Too much focus has been put on carbon cuts for nearly two decades, almost to the exclusion of other elements. It is now time to disaggregate the climate-change agenda into smaller, more manageable parts. After all, a lot can be done without a binding agreement that sets national targets on carbon cuts.

Consider energy efficiency, which can help bring one-quarter of all gains in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Energy inefficiency is a problem not only in the Third World, but also in the developed world. The US, for instance, belches out twice as much CO2 per capita as Japan, although the two countries have fairly similar per-capita incomes.

Furthermore, given that deforestation accounts for as much as 20% of the emission problem, carbon storage is as important as carbon cuts. Each hectare of rainforest, for example, stores 500 tons of CO2. Forest conservation and management thus are crucial to tackling climate change. In fact, to help lessen the impact of climate change, states need to strategically invest in ecological restoration – growing and preserving rainforests, building wetlands, and shielding species critical to our ecosystems.

The international community must also focus on stemming man-made environmental change. Environmental change is distinct from climate change, although there is a tendency on the part of some enthusiasts to blur the distinction and turn global warming into a blame-all phenomenon.

Man-made environmental change is caused by reckless land use, overgrazing, depletion and contamination of surface freshwater resources, overuse of groundwater, degradation of coastal ecosystems, inefficient or environmentally unsustainable irrigation practices, waste mismanagement, and the destruction of natural habitats. Such environmental change has no link to global warming. Yet, ultimately, it will contribute to climate variation and thus must be stopped.

Climate change and environmental change, given their implications for resource security and social and economic stability, are clearly threat multipliers. While continuing to search for a binding international agreement, the international community should also explore innovative approaches, such as global public-private partnership initiatives.

As the international community’s experience since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change shows, it is easier to set global goals than to implement them. The non-binding political commitments reached in principle at Copenhagen already have run into controversy as well as varying interpretations, dimming the future of the so-called “Copenhagen Accord,” an ad hoc, face-saving agreement stitched together at the eleventh hour to cover up the summit’s failure. Only 55 of the 194 countries submitted their national action plans by the accord’s January 31 deadline.

The climate-change agenda has become so politically driven that important actors have tagged onto it all sorts of competing interests, economic and otherwise. That should not have been allowed to happen, but it has, and there can be no way forward unless and until we confront that fact.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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