10/10/2013 - 09:54

More than lip service

Linkages between development and climate change are not new: Many believe, for example, that changing climate contributed to the collapse of Mayan civilization. But the climate problem that the world faces today is enormous in scale. In March of this year, for the first time, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere above 400 parts per million over a 24-hour period were recorded. In the 800,000 years before the Industrial Revolution began, carbon concentrations had never reached levels higher than about 280 parts per million. Of the world’s 7.2 billion people, 44 percent live in coastal regions, where they face risks from rising sea levels and strong storms. People elsewhere could face a future of severe drought or other disruptions. All told, billions of people could suffer direct effects as the climate warms.

One reason that a workable multilateral solution to global warming has remained elusive is that carbon dioxide emissions bear a strong correlation to economic output and are closely linked to nations’ stages of development; countries at different stages of development view the issue of reducing emissions in different ways. Some in developed countries argue that all nations, regardless of development status, should move aggressively to reduce carbon emissions. But developing countries tend to argue that richer nations, which are responsible for most of the carbon that has entered the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, bear more responsibility for reducing emissions. Developing countries, they say, should not be forced to curb emissions to the point that their development will be impeded. Both outlooks are understandable, but I sympathize more with the view that climate mechanisms must take into consideration a nation’s stage of economic development. One size does not fit all.

Is it feasible to build a low-carbon global economy? Yes, and the effort must begin with the nations that together produce about two-thirds of global emissions: China, the United States, the countries of the European Union, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, India, and Japan. But beyond that, time-specific targets for global emissions must be set and, within this framework, individual countries must adopt mitigation strategies and technologies appropriate to their own circumstances.

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord is meant to be a step in this direction. The accord, unfortunately, remains nonbinding, and this provokes strong concern among many parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—including small island states such as my own nation of Seychelles. Still, the accord deserves credit for envisioning specific emissions reductions for each country (to be achieved by 2020) and taking into consideration each nation’s stage of development.

The emissions pledges made since the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference include, for example, a US pledge to reduce its emissions 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. China, on the other hand, does not pledge to reduce its emissions per se, but rather to reduce its carbon intensity—that is, the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic output—by between 40 and 45 percent. These different approaches, of course, make it difficult to compare and assess individual countries’ climate mitigation efforts, as do details such as China’s additional pledge to expand its forest cover by 40 million hectares by 2020, and uncertainty in the United States about legislative action on emissions.

Several studies have been undertaken to assess the effectiveness of the Copenhagen pledges. A 2010 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that national emissions targets are not ambitious enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. However, the OECD study indicates that "these efforts do represent a significant break from current trends," assuming the reductions are implemented.

If the world is to move forward more meaningfully, however, cooperation is key. Because the costs of mitigation will vary among countries, depending on factors such as nations’ technological capabilities, economies of scale, and policy environments, enormous opportunities for cooperation exist. They exist in areas like carbon trading, energy efficiency, development of low-carbon energy sources, and perhaps even geoengineering. For example, the establishment of a more robust and representative mechanism for global carbon trading would result in lower overall decarbonization costs than if each country were to develop its own trading mechanism. Investments in renewable technologies like solar energy will drive prices down for poorer countries, making these technologies more accessible. Similarly, if the United States achieves technological advances that reduce its transportation-related emissions, nations elsewhere will be positioned to reduce their own emissions. China, meanwhile, is in the midst of investing $43 billion in smart-grid technologies, technologies that might result in large emissions reductions over the coming decades as the world continues to urbanize.

Climate change will entail unequal costs. Richer nations will pay more for climate mitigation—but poorer countries will suffer more serious consequences from climate change itself. From the perspective of developing countries, the main thing is that international climate efforts must do more than pay lip service to a looming human catastrophe.