Poor man’s burden

Developing countries shoulder the clean-up responsibility, yet it is not enough

Published: Saturday 15 January 2011

Poor manÔÇÖs burden

moralesWorld leaders applauded the Cancun agreement even though it violated the right of developing countries to grow with an equal access to global carbon space. Bolivia was the only country that pointed out the inequity. When its ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon, called the deal a step backward, others booed him. Industrialised countries, along with a few emerging economies, pulled the biggest coup in the history of climate change talks: science and the principle of equity were brushed aside.

The Cancun agreement ignored ambitious targets of greenhouse gas reduction to arrest average global temperature rise below 2°C—the guardrail fixed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to avoid catastrophic impacts of the climate change.

The agreement recognises that increase in global temperature cannot exceed 2°C (and also recognises the need to review whether the world should try keep it below 1.5°C) but it provides no road map for reaching this goal. It fixes no emission reduction targets for the developed countries, collectively, and there is no mention of a year when the world emissions should peak before starting to decline. On the contrary, it gives additional space to developed countries, especially the US, to increase emissions further.

What it does is legalise the voluntary “pledge and review” mentioned in the Copenhagen Accord. Now countries are allowed to set their own domestic targets in the form of pledges. The developed countries’ pledges will be measured, reported and verified (MRV) but will not invite penalties if they are not met. “This is a slap in the face of those who already suffer from climate change,” said Nnimmo Bassey, environmental activist and chair of Friends of the Earth International. “The rich countries that are primarily responsible for climate change are to blame for the lack of desperately needed greater ambition.”

For the developing countries, the pledges will go through international consultation and analysis (ICA)— euphemism for MRV. So far 42 industrialised countries have pledged quantified, economy-wide emission targets for 2020. In addition, 43 developing countries have also submitted nationally appropriate mitigation actions.

Gigatonne gap

A report by the UN Environment Programme finds that fully implementing the pledges associated with the Copenhagen Accord could, at best, bring down emissions to around 49 gigatonnes (billion tonnes, Gt) of CO2 equivalent by 2020, against business as usual emissions of 56 Gt. This would leave an emissions gap of around 5 Gt of CO2 equivalent between where nations might be in 2020 against where the science indicates they need to be. In the worst case, the global emissions could be as high as 53 Gt in 2020.

imageThe Copenhagen pledges, which are now part of the Cancun agreement, therefore, fall short by as much as five to nine Gt emissions reduction. This will put the world on course for a temperature increase of 3-4°C.

The Cancun agreement has also changed the basic rules for combating climate change forever; it has shifted the burden of emissions reduction from developed to developing countries.

Against weak pledges by developed countries, developing nations have pledged to reduce emissions intensity significantly. India has pledged to reduce by 20-25 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

China has pledged more ambitious target, to reduce its CO2 emissions intensity by 40-45% by 2020 compared to the 2005 levels, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 15 per cent by 2020. The pledges made by other emerging economies like Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia are also quite ambitious.

The industrialised countries, that should have led in the emissions reduction, will get away by cutting comparatively less emissions than the developing world. While they cut 0.8-1.8 Gt by 2020, developing countries pledge to cut their emissions by 2.8 Gt.

The cost of meeting these targets could prove too expensive for poor countries. It might hinder the UN millennium development goals, which include eradication of hunger and poverty and environmental sustainability.

The US, which is yet to commit to how much emissions it will cut, has the most to gain from the agreement. With the highest historical emissions, it needs to reduce 40 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. But it will get away by reducing zero per cent over its 1990 levels.


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