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The Forecast Is Gloomy

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With the Copenhagen meeting on climate change approaching, tension is building all around the globe. The hope of a limited agreement aroused last week by the US announcement of a target to curb emissions, and Chinese commitment to lower ‘carbon intensity' of their economic growth have now been dimmed by intense opposition to the leaked Denmark position paper. And to sceptics in any case, the US and Chinese moves appear more like last-minute manoeuvres to avoid blame for their failures than a real commitment to prevent a climate change catastrophe. The roller coaster of hope and despair about the success of the summit is now on a downward trend.

The Copenhagen summit is expected to negotiate terms for a treaty successor to the Kyoto Accord which ends in 2012. Given the deep divisions among the developed and developing nations, the question remains whether there would be a successor to Kyoto whose binding commitments on developed countries are noteworthy for their non-compliance. Or will Kyoto be scrapped in favour of a new treaty more to the liking of the developed world?

After playing cool about attending the Copenhagen meeting and calling it a "staging post" rather than an end point, US President Barack Obama announced he would, after all, be coming to the meeting. His presence turns it from a ministerial meeting to a summit. He also announced a provisional target of emission cuts by 17 per cent by 2020 relative to 2005 levels. Relieved by the first positive step by Washington, which has been the biggest laggard among developed countries, not many pointed to the inadequacy of the move.

The sleight of hand in picking an arbitrary base line of 2005 made the promised US cuts appear bigger than they are. Calculated on a 1990 baseline that is used by most countries, the announced American cuts would amount to just 4 per cent.

The Obama initiative, however,  seems to have prodded China to follow suit. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced that he, too, would be coming to Copenhagen. Beijing also put forward its plan to reduce the so-called carbon intensity — or the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of economic output — by 45 per cent by 2020. However, there was no commitment to cut emissions caused by their planned economic growth, but it did signal an increase in efficiency and use of alternate energy to make growth less polluting. For all its limits, the Chinese move has upped the ante for India, which was promised a joint stance at Copenhagen. India will now be in the spotlight, and its failure to come up with its own target at the summit would detract from its claim to world leadership. India's announced decision to invest some $20 billion in solar energy development is a welcome sign, but that would not spare it from the need to make a commitment on emission cuts also.

While actions of the US and China, the world's two leading polluters, have revived hopes about producing a binding agreement and an action plan to keep the world's temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius, the demand for a binding accord to cut emissions by all seems doomed to fail. Obama's pledge to cut emissions is based more on the hope of congressional action than on a realistic calculation. The climate bill that the US House of Congress has passed faces tough challenges in the Senate before it can become law. The senate, concerned about the cost to the US economy and its competitiveness, has refused to sign a climate bill pledging emission cuts, unless countries such as China and India announce their targets. It is not surprising that Obama will attend the summit only in the opening days, but will not be present at the closing when the negotiations would need the final push from leaders. 

The fact is that if Copenhagen is to have any relevance beyond being an empty exercise in weasel politics, participating countries would have to come up with concrete and binding targets — which developing countries will oppose. The developed world also will have to put their money where their mouth is by committing at least $10 billion for the climate fund to help poorer countries mitigate the impact of global warming and promote alternate energy. Barring a miracle, the Copenhagen summit seems on course to be a damp squib.

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online.
boundtogether dot bw at gmail dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2009)

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