15 August, 2009

Will the Copenhagen deal be watered down?

Sergio Abranches

The answer to this question depends on the negotiation strategy that will be adopted, starting at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, next September.

The key question is whether the leading negotiators from developing countries will focus on a fixed target deal, or a moving target one. The G-20 meeting and the UN preparatory meeting in Bangkok will be the last two opportunities to revamp the climate deal, before the closing negotiations during the COP-15 in Copenhagen, December 7-18.

Bonn ended on a dismal note. On Friday afternoon, John Ashe, from Antigua and Barbuda, Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee, that discussed developed countries’ commitments besides those set by the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP), concluded the talks saying that “we will have to work twice as hard in Bangkok in six weeks.” This committee addressed such critical questions as emissions reductions beyond 2012, potential consequences, land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF), and flexibility mechanisms. Because negotiations on the committee were informal, bureaucratic jargon calls the documents presented “non-papers.” Chair Ashe explained that he would revise the non-papers reflecting the week’s discussions, to prepare the documentation for the Bangkok meeting.

United Nations officials and conservationists were very frustrated with how the Bonn talks ended. “At this rate, we will not make it,” said the UN’s top climate change official, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Climate Change Secretariat.

Jonathan Pershing, head of the U.S. delegation in Bonn, saw “modest but real” progress and argued that “common elements are emerging that the United States would support.” He claimed the US would support “the inclusion of a place for all parties, all countries, to inscribe their nationally appropriate mitigation actions and their commitments.” He added that the Obama Administration sees “a common element for low greenhouse gas strategies, and of measurement, reporting and verification of countries’ actions.” The US envisions a deal including “quantitative emissions reductions” for Annex I developed countries, “with both a near-term and a long term component.” Pershing maintains that “there seems to be convergence among countries on that,” the Environmental News Service (ENS) reported last Friday.  “We would like to see those countries inscribe robust, domestically-derived actions in a legally binding agreement,” he explained, admitting that there still “are differences of view as to how that would be done.”

The US representative also told BBC News that Copenhagen depends on India and China being included in any agreement. “Ourselves, Europe, China, India, Japan – it has to be the major emitters. If we think of a group of about 15 countries, they comprise of the order of 75 per cent of global emissions. We can’t solve this without them; you need them all and they all have to move immediately.”

He complained that delegates spent too much time over procedures and technicalities. “This is not the way to overcome mistrust between rich and poor nations,” he said. “Delegates are kept back by political gridlock. The political leaders must now unblock the process,” he concluded.

According to ENS, new figures from the United Nations released in Bonn show that 39 industrialized nations, excluding the United States, are planning to cut greenhouse gas emissions by between 15 and 21 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Canada, a once reluctant player, has set its national emissions reductions target to 20 percent from 2006 levels by 2020. Russia, another complicated partner, submitted plans to reduce emissions by 10 to 15 percent by 2020, in comparison to 1990s levels.

“These levels are higher than those mandated by the Kyoto Protocol – an average 5.2 percent emissions cuts from 1990 levels – but they fall far short of the 25 to 40 percent emissions cuts most scientists say are necessary to avert the worst effects of global warming,” ENS reports.

All that adds up to three main elements to help assessing the prospects for an effective deal in Copenhagen.

First, the US view seems to lead to a moving target strategy, the only one that brings the possibility of breaking the political stalemate that has deadlocked most of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention (COPs) over the last decade.

Second, politically feasible caps on emissions will certainly be much higher than those set forth by the Kyoto Protocol, but will likely fall short of scientific recommendations.

Third, the inclusion of big emerging powers and emitters, particularly China, India, and Brazil would be a necessary condition for any effective long-term deal.

I would argue that the first element, the political strategy to break the deadlock, is conditioned by the other two. And, the second element, the level of emissions reductions to be agreed upon, depends on big emerging economies agreeing to the deal.

There seems to be no possibility of persuading emitters like China, India and Brazil to accept binding quantitative targets before 2020 at the very best.

The China Sindrome

Whether China, the largest among the emerging emitters, will agree to some kind of cap on its emissions is a critical question regarding the long run effectiveness of any climate deal. Besides, China’s agreement would put significant pressure on India and Brazil, to follow suit.

Beijing claims, as the Financial Times reports, that developed nations should take responsibility for cutting emissions first. The justification has not changed: China is poor and has to develop before it curbs its emissions.

China is no longer a poor country, although it does have a large poor population, the one that suffers the most from air, water and soil pollution, and degradation. It lacks adequate supply of good quality drinking water; food production is impaired by loss of cultivable land; poor people suffer from acute respiratory diseases due to air pollution, and only get very basic health attention. It is precisely the poorer who would benefit the most from a clean, low-carbon pattern of growth.

China is on the move, though. Su Wei, director-general of the climate change department at China’s planning body – the National Development and Reform Commission – has told the Financial Times that “China’s emissions will not continue to rise beyond 2050.” This is a too far away and vague commitment to be acceptable. But, it does signal some flexibility in China’s policy, although also resistance to accept any cap on emissions in the short term, as Kathrin Hille reports from Beijing for the FT.

Mr. Su, however, opened the door a bit more, when he said to Kathrin Hille that “China will not continue growing emissions without limit or insist that all nations must have the same per-capita emissions. If we did that, this earth would be ruined.” According to Hille, his estimate for the peak of China’s emissions is in line with the more pessimistic forecasts issued by climate change experts. The UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research recently said China’s energy-related CO2 output would peak in 2030 at 57 per cent above current levels.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences claims that with major technological support from developed nations, China could see its emissions peak between 2030 and 2040. Other Chinese experts say carbon output will keep rising until 2050 unless radical controls are adopted, says the FT.

Mr Su also said that his government would step up policies aimed at curtailing emissions growth. “Under the country’s current five-year plan, which runs until 2010, the government set a target of reducing energy intensity by 20 per cent. The next five-year plan would include more far-reaching and specific targets to reduce carbon intensity,” Mr Su told the FT.

India’s Paradox

India is also becoming more cooperative, but is still several steps behind China. Its government’s representatives in Bonn have reacted strongly to efforts by the US and the European Union (EU) to use statements it made in a non-United Nations (UN) forum to attempt to influence the agenda of the climate change negotiations, says Padmaparna Ghosh on the Wall Street Journal’s “Mint.”

The reference India rejected was to a declaration it signed at the Major Economies Forum (MEF) in Egypt, saying that 17 countries had agreed to cap the increase in temperatures leading to global warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Since the G8+5 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, the US has been defending the 2C target as the basis for the “shared vision” in Copenhagen. In Bonn, the EU and Australia have also supported this view.

Shyam Saran, the Prime Minister’s special envoy on climate change and head of the Indian delegation at Bonn, said, according to Mint that: “MEF discussions are to take direction, but not negotiation. It is strange that the poverty reduction goal from the declaration was not picked, but the 2 degrees Celsius goal was mentioned.”

“It is a very tough situation for India. On the one hand, if you don’t attend these meetings, you are regarded as a spoiler. And on the other hand, if you do, then it is misused,” a policy analyst said to Mint’s Padmaparna Ghosh.

India fears that accepting a cap on emissions will necessarily reduce economic growth. India is poorer than China, and has a large miserable population. Also like in China its poorer population is the one that suffers the most from water, air and soil pollution. A new green deal would help to reduce several social costs of the dirty development road it has taken so far.

Brazilian shortsightedness

Brazil is behind both India and China, in spite of being the one with the lower costs of conversion to a low carbon economy. Some people are, however, reporting signs that the government begins to move towards a more flexible position regarding a climate deal. That was what Tasso Azevedo, a former official at the Environment Ministry, now a high-level consultant to Minister Carlos Minc, of the Environment, told me last week. He has been seating on several internal negotiations among the ministries of Environment, Foreing Affairs and Science and Technology, with the occasional participation of the ministries of Energy, Agriculture, and Transportation. His view is that Brazil could withdraw its veto to a deal that would include quantitative targeting. He also said he couldn’t see Brazil accepting such targets as binding commitments for the short run. Minister Carlos Minc has also told me the same thing a few weeks ago.

My own view is not that optimistic. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that has the monopoly of representation on bilateral and multilateral negotiations, staunchly opposes a binding cap on the country’s emissions. Tasso Azevedo argues that what the diplomats will say depends on president Lula’s instructions, and he is right about that. Azevedo and Minc both underestimate the influence of the diplomats and their allies among the President’s core advisors, and Lula’s own personal preferences regarding development models. His thinking has been antagonistic to the ideal of a low-carbon economy.

Two new factors could, however, influence president Lula’s position. Some of the Brazilian largest corporations, mostly from the industrial and mining sectors, will ask Brazil to lead emerging powers towards an ambitious and effective deal in Copenhagen, on a letter to be delivered to the President later this month. The business leaders’ document defends the acceptance of binding quantitative targets for reduction of emissions, a zero-deforestation program, and the inclusion of reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, REDD, in the global climate deal.

Lula will also be informed of the meeting held last week in Rio Branco, capital city of the State of Acre, in the Amazon, by the Forum for a Sustainable Amazon, called “ REDD and the People of the Forest,” that also concluded by asking the Brazilian government to take an ambitious standing regarding global climate change and to support REDD.


I was at this meeting where I heard from leaders of the rubber-tappers organizations, and the region’s Indian communities, saying that they were already seeing the effects of climate change on drying rivers, extreme floods, and heat waves. They demanded the government to take action, and proposed that the REDD mechanism to be approved and used to both protect the forest, and raise their standards of living.

The nine governors of the Amazon states will also ask the president to be bold at the Climate Summit, to support zero-deforestation, and REDD.

This seems to be pressure enough to persuade any president, but one should also weight the influence of rural big business, and president Lula’s proximity to some of its leadership. They radically oppose a zero-deforestation program, as well as any REDD mechanism. Besides, the major trade associations and business organizations, from industry and agriculture, will not adhere to the letter, or attend the meeting in São Paulo, on Tuesday, 25th, when it will be formally signed. President Lula was invited, but declined the invitation.

The second factor will be the expected announcement, by former Environment Minister Marina Silva, of her candidacy to the Presidency. It is likely to become a major driver of change in domestic politics. A founder of the Worker’s Party (PT), and long time ally to president Lula, she will leave PT and join the Green Party (PV), to run for president. Her candidacy will force Lula’s candidate, minister Dilma Roussef, and the opposition as well, to considerably review their standing on environment and climate change policies. All that will happen before Copenhagen, and perhaps even before the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, on September 24-25.

Need for a new strategy

So, what about Copenhagen?  Shifting positions from China, India, and possibly Brazil, point to a moving target strategy as the best way to reach a good deal. In this sense, president Obama has been drawing nearer the right trail. Emissions targets, especially from emerging economies, are unlikely to meet the scientific requirements. It should be considered, though, that a moving target would make room for further adjustments on the near future, and would benefit from the gains in scale that the implementation of the first set of targets might entail. I think the scenarios that most worry us are yet too linear, and do not adequately account for the feedback effects and gains of scale of stronger climate change policies, although with targets still below the scientific bar.

The price of carbon is likely to respond rather quickly to stricter emissions limits. With new carbon price levels, the cost of high-carbon activities will increase, making low-carbon alternatives cost-competitive, raising the value of their environmental benefits. Technologies that are stuck on the R&D pipeline for lack of incentives would move ahead faster. The compound effect of these likely outcomes would be to reduce the social and economic costs associated with higher carbon caps, making room for more ambitious emissions reduction targets, over the mid run. If that scenario turns up, the scientific requirements for peaking emissions and the pace of reduction could still be met.

In short, it doesn’t seem that Copenhagen will lead us to a breakthrough, but the right strategy could very probably put the negotiations on a more promising and faster track than the one we are stuck with for more than a decade. Is this proves to be the case, Copenhagen will be far from a revolution, but might well become an evolution.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,