Coping Badly at Copenhagen

The climate accord was a load of undifferentiated hot air

The Global Warming debate was one-sided. In all the wrong ways. {{name}}
01 January, 2010

THE IRONY WAS ALL TOO OBVIOUS. And it happened less than 24 hours after the planet’s three largest polluters – the United States, China and India (in that order) – came together with two other emerging economies (Brazil and South Africa) to thrash out an uneasily brokered, messy political statement on tackling climate change. The statement was forged at Copenhagen in the teeth of opposition from much of the rest of the world after more than a fortnight of bitter wrangling and public posturing.

That was on Saturday, December 19. On Sunday, a massive winter storm buried Washington DC, New York, the American Eastern seaboard and many parts of northern Europe in the deepest snow since the late 1930s. If there is an irony here, it is in that those were the years of the Great Depression, the recession that is frequently being compared to the current, ongoing global economic downturn.

The Great Depression was followed by World War II. What distinguishes the current crisis from the one a generation earlier is climate change or, if one prefers the other expression, global warming. World War III is being fought, as of today, a ship sailing from Shanghai to New York can, in September, circumnavigate the northern hemisphere by passing through the Bering Strait and cutting close to the North Pole, reducing distance by more than 4,800 kilometres. That’s because the ice in the Arctic is melting.

When US President Barack Obama burst into a meeting of four ‘wise’ men – China’s Wen Jiabao, India’s Manmohan Singh, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma – he is reported to have remarked, “Oh, you are all here. I had something to discuss with all of you so it’s good that you are together in the same room… We really need a deal… It’s better we take one step forward than two steps back… I’m willing to be flexible…”

The reactions to the so-called Copenhagen Accord were along expected lines. Official representatives of the five countries that put the together statement hailed it as ‘meaningful’ and a ‘significant breakthrough.’ United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that bringing heads of state together had “paid off,” while the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Yvo de Boer, said that it was a “letter of intent and an architecture of response to long-term climate challenge, though not in precise legal terms,” hastily adding that a “lot of work” had to be done before the next meeting took place in Mexico next year.

The reactions from the other side were equally predictable. The accord was just ‘taken note’ of by the plenary of the Conference of Parties (of the 192 countries in the UN), which overwhelmingly rejected it after hurling allegations of bias and lack of transparency against Conference chairperson and Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. Lumumba di-Aping of Sudan, chief negotiator for the Group of 77 (actually 130) countries, used scathing terminology, comparing the accord to the Holocaust against the Jews: “This is like asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries. It’s a solution based on values that funnelled six million people in Europe into furnaces.”

Not just the European Union was disenchanted. Tuvalu (a nation-state with a population of 15,000 spread over a clutch of small islands in the Pacific) also expressed its disappointment in no uncertain terms. The EU was kept out of the loop by the world’s strongest power, the US, while Tuvalu (arguably among the world’s weakest powers) said that it would disappear under rising seas if the planet’s temperature rose by as little as less than 2 degrees Celsius by 2020.

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace remarked on December 19, “Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight, with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport (after) producing a deal full of loopholes.” Oxfam’s Robert Bailey said, “It is shameful that after two years of blood, sweat and tears, we didn’t finish the marathon…fairness was taken off the table.”

The government of India exulted over the fact that no legally binding emission cuts had been acceded to, that it would not have to submit to international monitoring and verification of voluntary emission cuts that would be reported to the UN every two years, and that there was no cut-off year for emissions to ‘peak.’ The proverbial ‘red lines’ had not been crossed. Still, these victories were, at best, pyrrhic: no reference was made in the accord to the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities’ of different countries towards mitigating the impact of climate; nor was there any mention of the ‘historic’ role of the developed countries in global warming.

Who remembers the Kyoto Protocol of December 1997 (which the US never signed) and the Bali Action Plan of December 2007 (to which many rich nations paid lip service)? Why Tuvalu alone? Let a few islands disappear in Bangladesh and the Sundarban area in West Bengal. Who cares if Nepal conducts a cabinet meeting at the Mt Everest base camp, or if ministers in the Maldives meet at the bottom of the Indian Ocean?

The reality on the ground remains harsh. Taken together, the US and the 25 countries that comprise the EU account for about 12 percent of the world’s population but their share of accumulated emissions is more than 55 percent of the total. China and India together have nearly forty percent of the world’s population, but they are responsible for less than one-tenth of global historical emissions. The US has accounted for nearly thirty percent of the accumulated emissions since 1731, nearly 13 times more than the emissions accumulated by India (2.2 percent). In terms of per capita emissions, an average American emits about twenty tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, more than 25 times that of an average Indian. As for current flows of emissions, the US and China each account for 21 percent of annual global emissions while India accounts for less than five percent.

Should we in India be feeling good about sitting at the same high table as the biggest polluters of the planet?