29 July, 2009

Wanted: a new charter for the high-carbon club.

Sergio Abranches

Everything president Obama’s government has done about global climate change politics, after the frustrating conclusion of the G8 plus 5 in L’Aquila, Italy, points to a strategic approach to deal with its inherent intricacies.

He accepted a retreat from explicit quantitative targets not to directly confront the three major emerging powers – China, India and Brazil – trying to keep it cool. Obama wanted to preserve the diplomatic climate to engage on bilateral negotiations aiming at getting the best deal possible for Copenhagen, and afterwards. Nobody doubts that the likelihood these countries could be persuaded to change their present position, and commit themselves to scientifically sound emissions targets as soon as next December is slim, at the very best best. Obama is betting on a bit longer schedule, perhaps investing in advance at the next two conferences of the parties to the Climate Convention (COPs), after Copenhagen, in 2010 an 2011. If that is the case, it is a very realistic and sound diplomatic strategy.

Obama has already asked president Lula to schedule a US-Brazil meeting, preferably on August, to discuss a common climate change policy. Secretary Clinton has been to China and India to start climate policy dialogues. Results were mixed. Negotiations with China are still under way. Secretary Steven Chu announced that the US and China are launching a joint Clean Energy Research Center aimed at bolstering R&D of technologies to improve energy efficiency, carbon sequestration and low-emissions vehicles. After a two-day Us-China meeting in Washington this week, a Memorandum of Understanding reaffirmed intentions of cooperation. The Chinese delegation was led by State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who oversees foreign policy and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who oversees economic policy. The MOU did not go any further than other recent diplomatic documents signed by both countries after bilateral conversations. In this case it actually accepted the Chinese limits to a climate policy agenda.

In India the secretary’s visit was a non-starter. In spite of the cold reception to secretary Clinton’s attempts at designing a common climate policy, a few days later, India’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the country’s environmental predicament. Dinesh Patnaik,joint-secretary in the foreign ministry, a top Indian Climate change negotiator, said that if “we continue the same way as they (developed countries), there are not enough fossil fuels. So we have to grow in a more efficient way.”

The fact remains that the probability of these three countries soon to commit themselves to quantitative and verifiable emissions targets is indeed very small.

Yet, bilateral deals and “club negotiation” do seem to be the best way to pave the road towards an effective global pact. By “club negotiation” I mean formal small group conversations or political and diplomatic negotiations. It is obvious, by now that the G8, as a club of the wealthy, has no meaning for global climate change politics. It made sense during the transition from Cold War to Climate War.

The G-20, however, is too heterogeneous to be an effective forum for climate deals. It groups together rich nations, large emerging economies as China, India and Brazil, and much smaller ones. No fertile ground for a working “founding deal”, one that could be a sound base for a global climate covenant to be taken to the full assembly of nations.

The institutional structure provided by the United Nations is not an arrangement conducive to a good “founding deal”. Neither the vague “Framework Convention on Climate Change”, nor the feeble “Kyoto Protocol” are explicit enough or binding enough to be effective. More than a decade of deadlocked climate negotiations makes a very eloquent case for the inadequacy of this arrangement to lead us into an effective deal. Heterogeneity among the 192 parties to the Climate Convention is overwhelming. Decision rules have a bias for the status quo. It definitely would hardly yield more than an watered-down agreement, unless changes are previously agreed upon by the “high carbon club” of large rich and emerging economies, creating an irresistible alliance to break this deadly climate stalemate. The COP approval should be seen as a necessary final, democratic, and legitimating step, not the starting point.

The parties that count as far as GHG emissions are concerned are the 41 Annex I countries, plus 9 or 10 non-Annex I countries, due to the size of either their economies or of their pristine tropical forest areas. Paramount among the latter are China, India, and Brazil. Clearly the problem is not with developed countries, most of which belong to the European Union, and after the US finally shifted from the state of denial to a leading role in favor of a climate deal. The problem is with the recalcitrant large emerging countries. The G8 plus 5, at least brings into the negotiation China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. But it is a sort of “unauthorized add-on”, because it is not a formal group as the G8. The five emerging countries participate on an invitation only basis.

Most of the parties to the Climate Convention are too poor to be a matter of concern regarding mitigation policies. They are to be beneficiaries of a necessary fund to help them to adapt to inevitable climate change.

A “founding deal” would require at least the commitment of the Annex I countries – already obtained since the US changed side – and of China, India and Brazil. The better course would be to formalize a G14, adding Indonesia to this club. This addition would further increase the club’s internal dissimilarities, but would put together the two major tropical forest powers. A formalized G14 would make more sense climate-wise than the G20, that serves other purposes. From this critical base, holding enormous persuasive power, once agreed upon, a new climate settlement could be taken to the COP for final approval with a far greater chance of success.

Time for a “founding deal” is becoming too short. There is an widening gap between what science says its is necessary to keep warming within the safe zone and what politics has been able to deliver. Science’s alerts tell us that keeping global average warming at 2C is becoming increasingly difficult, given the delay in reducing global emissions as well as the magnitude and pace of the reduction required. In any case, we must take far more seriously adaptation efforts and investment. Several scientists contend that even a 2C average warming along the 21st Century will generate significant climate change with extreme and dangerous events in several parts of the planet.

What seems politically feasible is not scientifically sound. What is scientifically sound doesn’t seem politically viable in the short to mid run. As nature’s processes will no stop, either we adjust political calculus to meet scientific parameters, or we must prepare to adapt to very severe climate consequences of greater global warming.

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