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High-stakes climate poker

In six months' time, diplomats from 200 countries will meet in Copenhagen to try to agree a complex global agreement on climate-change abatement. It is a tall order, writes Conal Walsh

COPENHAGEN – intended to spawn a successor to the Kyoto Protocol – may be the last serious chance to put a brake on global warming. Diplomatic brinkmanship in the Danish capital is inevitable, but also fraught with risk.

Green groups are pinning their hopes on Barack Obama, the new US president. In contrast to his predecessor, Obama has declared the US' intention to take the lead on reducing carbon emissions. But his efforts could yet be stymied by political opposition at home or by reluctance from China and India meaningfully to cut their own emissions while their economies are still developing.

Pre-summit meetings have failed to produce much agreement, suggesting no accord will appear before the dying days of the summit in December – if at all. Bob Watson, chief scientist at the UK environment department, recently suggested that unrealistically high expectations may be being placed on the Copenhagen summit. "If they can't get everyone to sign on the dotted line they might have to come back a few months later," he said. "I say let's really push for Copenhagen, but there may have to be what I call a Copenhagen plus one."

The economic downturn has altered the priorities of some nations, muddied predictions about future emissions growth and made investment in renewable energies appear a luxury to some. Nonetheless, with global emissions rising at about 3% a year, there remains a broad political and scientific consensus that drastic action is needed.

US no longer AWOL on climate change

Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, described global warming in April as the single biggest challenge facing the international community. "We are determined to make up for lost time, both at home and abroad," she added. "The US is no longer absent without leave."

Copenhagen is the latest in a series of UN meetings that began with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Five years later, world leaders met again at Kyoto, Japan, and made the first serious attempt to regulate the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that drive global warming. Rich nations accepted legally binding targets to restrict carbon pollution, but countries that the UN considered less developed were excused. China – which has now overtaken the US as the biggest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter – was one of those countries.

The US signed the Kyoto treaty, but Bill Clinton decided against submitting it for ratification in a strongly opposed Congress. Lawmakers in Washington objected on economic grounds to a treaty that did not set binding targets for China. George Bush, famously reluctant to regulate GHGs, described Kyoto as a "flawed treaty".

The new government has reversed Bush's policy, signalling to legislators that it is determined to take action on emissions, even without Congressional support. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally ruled CO2 a danger to public health, which gives it the legal power to regulate GHGs in the US for the first time (PE 5/09 p28).

The EPA's action has been widely interpreted as an attempt by the White House to put pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive package of environmental legislation, including a cap-and-trade system to curb emissions. It envisages a system of trading permits for industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases, similar to the EU model, in which polluters can meet limits either by reducing emissions or buying credits from more efficient producers.

The EPA ruling has also been widely interpreted as a diplomatic gesture ahead of the Copenhagen meeting. The US hopes to persuade emerging industrial countries, especially China and India, to agree to combat rising emissions and is, therefore, keen to demonstrate to the world that it is leading by example.

Hillary Clinton admitted in April that "some countries, like mine, are responsible for past emissions" and assured China and India that "we want people to have a higher standard of living". But the US and EU have so far been reluctant to make explicit offers of compensation to developing countries that agree to cut emissions at the potential expense of their own economic growth. Controversially, the EU even appears to have pulled back from a commitment made in 2007 to contribute €30bn ($41bn) a year to new technology for reducing emissions in developing countries, as well as to improve seawalls and other infrastructure to prepare for the effects of a warmer planet.

Diplomats insist that western countries cannot make public commitments too early in the negotiating process. But Yvo de Boer, the UN's senior climate change official, has expressed frustration at this stance. "We need a significant sum on the table to be able to build confidence [among poorer countries] in the willingness of industrialised countries to commit," he said in March. De Boer estimates that developing countries will require funding of $5bn-10bn a year from 2010 to curb their emissions, rising to as much as $220bn a year by 2020. It has been suggested that developed countries could raise this money by imposing a levy on the trade of carbon credits.

China has signalled its willingness to take some action, but maintains that long-industrialised countries should shoulder the financial burden of fighting climate change because they have created most environmental damage up to now. Beijing insists detailed funding guarantees must be written into any treaty, and continues to claim that countries that consume goods, rather than those producing them, should properly be seen as "polluters".

The US, Europe and Japan have called this viewpoint "unacceptable", but in some western countries there is growing sympathy for the Chinese view. Several recent academic papers have noted how European nations outsource emissions to developing countries instead of directly tackling pollution at home. Norway's Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research estimates that a third of all Chinese emissions are linked to exports.

Meanwhile, research from the Stockholm Environment Institute also queries the methods agreed at Kyoto to allocate emissions; it suggests, for example, that the UK's emissions would have risen by 20% relative to 1990 if imports and international transport were included in the total. Instead, under the Kyoto formula, the UK claims to have reduced emissions by 18%.

Any attempt to move to a consumer-focused perspective on allocating emissions would find support in a number of countries. Australia, for example – itself a late signatory to Kyoto and lukewarm supporter of emissions caps – has also complained that as a resource-based economy it is unfairly blamed for the rest of the world's consumption.

Even between consumer countries there is discord. The US and EU disagree about the baseline year to use when setting targets for carbon reductions, with the US favouring 2005 and the EU 1990. Meanwhile, Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, has declined to reveal how far the EU is willing to go to compensate developing countries until "the US, Japan and other large contributors signal what will be their position". But Obama will need to extract more substantial commitments than that to rally support in Washington for US concessions.

In the end, somebody will have to give way first. With so much still in doubt, the only certainty is that the Copenhagen summit will be a game of diplomatic poker, played for the highest stakes.

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