Will Climate Summit in New York Yield a Climate Pact in Paris?

The divide between developed and developing nations threatens a binding treaty on climate change to replace Kyoto protocol

By Tarique Niazi
Published: Monday 06 October 2014

The divide between developed and developing nations threatens a binding treaty on climate change to replace Kyoto protocol

Last fall when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fifth assessment report, its highest-ever confidence about the anthropological genesis of global climate change put doubt-mongers and climate-deniers out of business. With this, the scientific debate on whether climate change is happening and whether it is sourced to humans came to a close. The next obvious step was to resolve the contradiction between the impending climate breakdown and business as usual, i.e., carbon-soaked growth mania. Mindful of this task and swayed by the scientific consensus, the United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon announced that fall to convene a world summit on global climate change in New York on September 23, 2014.

That September came and went, and so did world leaders who trekked to New York. True to the misgivings that the summit would be thin on heads of state and thick with their stand-ins, only 100 leaders bothered to show up. This symbolized unshared concern about a threat that is planet-wide in its destructive reach. Even if the summit had turned out to resemble Rio-I and Rio-II in terms of the line-up of world leaders, it would still stir little hope for its success beyond high-minded rhetoric at an expensive talkfest. There are many factors that drive this pessimism, two of which stand out for their stickiness: A binding agreement on emissions reduction, and financing climate adaptation.

Road to Paris Is Strewn With Cop-outs

Developed nations are evasive on a binding agreement on emissions reduction as they deem it risk to their already struggling economies. Developing nations, on the other hand, are elliptical on mandatory cutbacks as they burn with ambitions of their own to grow their economies. The U. N.-crafted slick phrase that captures this “to-bind or not-to-bind” enigma is the “common but differentiated responsibility” for enforcing emissions reduction.

This phrase, however, provides both developed and developing nations the needed alibi to go MIA(missing in action) on climate change. Seizing on “common” responsibility – of both high and low-income countries – developed nations are insistent on “business as usual,” and waiting on combating climate change until developing nations come along to join the fight in full force. Developing nations, for their part, find refuge in “differentiated” responsibility – a responsibility that is proportionate to respective nations’ contribution to atmospheric carbon concentration, and their material riches to forgo carbon-intensive growth. In other words, a binding treaty must wait until developing nations catch up with the rest of the developed world to shoulder the burden of emissions reduction.

If this divide persists, it will strew the road to Paris, France -- where world leaders are to assemble again in 2015 in the hoped-for signing of a binding treaty on climate change to replace Kyoto protocol -- with big enough obstacles to shatter this dream. Even if Kyoto-II is miraculously born in the Paris summit, it will still not go into effect until 2020. What fuels this despondent view is the aborted 19th round of Conference of Parties (COP 19) talks on climate in Warsaw, Poland, which failed to yield even a semblance of consensus on a binding treaty on emissions reduction or, for that matter, financing climate adaptation. Some critics on the left dismiss those talks as an ode to “King Coal.” Poland being a coal country itself proved an ominous site to host climate talks just a year before their finale in Paris. Contrary to the bureaucratese of “win-win” situation, developed and developing nations seem locked up in a“lose-lose” situation, although the guardians of capitalism – the IMF, World Bank, OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) and United Nations – have come to conclude that low-carbon economy “can be a boon to prosperity.

Climate Finance Will Cost Less Than “Smoking Pot!”

The fate of financing climate adaptation is no different than that of a binding agreement on emissions reduction. Climate finance has been an important part of climate talks since the Copenhagen Conference in 2009, where developed nations made financial commitments to help less affluent nations in adapting to climate-induced disruptions. It was the first major outcome of such talks that are held each year in the run up to crafting a binding climate treaty in 2015. What adds urgency to climate finance is the occurrence of mega disasters that regularly visit upon the millions of most vulnerable of world citizens. The climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, on November 11-22, 2013, did broach this subject but without any tangible outcome.

At the Copenhagen Conference, developed countries initially committed $30 billion for 2010-12, and pledged to increase this commitment to $100 billion a year by 2020. Hopes for such commitments to materialize, however, were quickly dashed, as wealthy nations began to wriggle out of even a modest commitment of $30 billion spread over multiple years. This evasiveness further dampened any prospect for redeeming the grand pledge of $100 billion a year by 2020. It cannot be overstated that combating climate change will require more than just reducing emissions. Most important of all, it will need the ways and means to adapt to the fast changing climate, and its disproportionate impact on low-income countries.

Investing $100bn a year in ecological restoration, afforestation, agroforestry, and vegetation in degraded habitats will go a long way in building natural carbon sinks on the one hand, and blunting the impact of climate change in flood disasters and superstorms that have grown in intensity, on the other. Is $100bn a year too large an investment for the world to save the planet Earth? To put this amount in perspective, think about $400bn a year that is spent worldwide on narcotics. One may ask which is more dopey? Watching the planet choke on carbon and fry in “man-made” warming, or smoking $400bn a year in narcotics for an illusion of pleasure?

A Planet Choked On Carbon

It is not just a metaphor that the planet is choked on carbon; it literally is. The latest research by the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) shows that carbon concentration in the atmosphere has dramatically risen since 1984 -- from 2ppm a year to all of a sudden 3ppm in 2013. This is a 50% increase. Climate scientists are baffled by this out-of-the-blue growth in the face of all that the world, world institutions and world governments have been doing to reverse the rate of carbon emissions. One explanation of this abrupt surge is that the biosphere and the oceans, which have long been the sink of excess carbon, can no longerabsorb it, as they appear to have reached their absorptive limits. As a result, surplus carbon has escaped into the atmosphere, dramatically raising the rate of concentration from 2ppm a year to suddenly 3ppm in 2013. A trillion dollar question that follows from the fugitive carbon emissions is this: Is it a one-off phenomenon, or is it the foremost signal of a pattern to form? If it is the latter, the world will be watching, with a sinking feeling, the rate of emissions in 2014 and afterwards to detect the emerging pattern. Should carbon emissions rise to 3ppm again in 2014 or even higher, that will be the dire news for the planet and its inhabitants. The total accumulation of atmospheric carbon has already crossed the commonly believed safe threshold of 350ppm to surpass 400pm – in 2013– a level reached“for the first time in 3 million years history of the planet Earth.” This means world efforts to keep global mean warming under 2 degree Celsius by 2100 to save the planet from burning up may come to grief.

Is It All Doom And Gloom?

In this hopeless situation, the world’s future seems to rest with three global actors: North America (Canada and the United States particularly), Europe-27 (a grouping of 27 affluent nations of the continent), and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) with their respective GDP of $18 trillion (2013), $17.3 trillion (2013), and$14trillion (2012). These regions account for almost 66% of the global economy of $73.9trillion in 2013. North America is astonishingly falling behind on its commitment to a binding treaty on climate change. Canada has found a new religion in the tar sands that will keep it hooked to a carbon-intensive growth for a foreseeable future. Yet subnational and sub-federal governments (i.e., state/provincial and city governments) in both countries are going beyond the dictates of Kyoto Protocol to cut back on carbon emissions. Similarly, Europe is overcompensating the shortfall of North American national governments, as it has already voluntarily agreed to reducing emissions far below the level of 1990, a threshold that is required to reach by all future signatory nations to a binding treaty on climate change.

IN parallel, a realization is sinking in among the BRICS that growth will mean little if their future is fraught with mega disasters from warming of the planet. They are turning, although gingerly, to alternative green energy from such resources as sunshine, wind and water with which they are naturally endowed. These resources are worth trillions of barrels of oil, and quadrillions of cubic meters of gas. The State of Rajasthan in India, for instance, is a “nature-made solar park” that alone can light up the entire south Asia. If there were developed markets in green futures, Rajasthan would be worth more than all the gold reserves in the world!! Similarly, Brazil, Russia and China are each continents to themselves in regard to their territorial heft. Brazil is home to the Amazon in whose health is anchored the future of “God’s green earth.”Russia’s hundreds of millions of acres of “black soil” can turn the country into the world’s grain silo.In the midst of this plentitude, the BRICS cannot afford to sit on these resources and let their economies and societies choke themselves to ruin from carbon pollution and climate breakdown.

Solar Future Is Here To Embrace

With solar power becoming a reality as the cost of its production is consistently dropping, making it ever morecost-effective and cost-competitive, there is every reason to believe that solar future is here to be embraced. No wonder that China alone has committed to invest $267 billion in renewable energy, an investment that is many times that of the rest of the world combined. The sheer size of this investment wowed the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who told his fellow Liberal Democrats, just as a teacher would tell her arithmetically challenged students, that the Chinese investment of $276bn in green energy production is larger than the entire Finish economy. More importantly, China is on the way to becoming world leader in solar power technology, especially one that is cheap, fast and mass-produced. China, whose President Xi Jinping recently concluded a state visit to India, is already combining its hardware power with its neighbor’s software prowess to reshape the planet. As a first major step, China will invest $20bn in building the Indian low-carbon urban infrastructure, such as high-speed bullet trains. It seems the reality of carbon pollution and warming of the planet itself has become instructive enough to move world nations in the cleaner and greener direction, regardless of what comes out of the climate summit in New York.

[Tarique Niazi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Environmental Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.]

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