People across the world are hoping that the ongoing climate change conference in Copenhagen would take a decision that would save our planet. What we are seeing instead is an intensification of dissension and discord. As feared, developed and developing countries have been accusing each other of not doing enough to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The dispute is mainly over four problems.
First, developing countries demand that the talks be based on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, and should continue to follow the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities".
Second, the conference should confirm the developed countries' medium target of emission reduction from 2012 to 2020.
Third, developed countries should commit to substantial emission cuts and take practical actions to provide fund and technology support to developing counties to combat climate change.
And fourth, the developed world demands that the developing countries commit to GHG emission targets, which can be "measured, reported and verified".
If the international community does not accept the history of GHG emissions and the amount of per capita emission as a benchmark, the conference would not be able to resolve any of the four differences. And that could force global cooperation into a vicious cycle of long-term emission reduction commitments.
Considering the difficulties associated with cutting emissions in the near-term, especially when it comes to the high costs and slowing down of economic growth, most countries including the developed ones like to set long-term reduction targets with ambiguous or very low short-range goals. If the developed world continues to persist with such a stance, the conference will not end on an optimistic note. And we do not have enough time left to set long-term targets and wait.
Countries will continue to find fault with each other over emission cuts. Since the developed and developing countries are in different stages of economic development, their capability to bear the costs and other consequences of reducing GHG emissions varies vastly. Till now, no country or group has been able to convince others to raise their emission cut targets.
The accepted principle on mitigating climate change is that the developed countries should cut their GHG emissions and the developing ones prevent their shares from rising. But that is not the whole story. Historically, the developed countries are responsible for more than two-thirds of the GHGs in the atmosphere.
Even if we overlook the historical aspect, the current per capita emission of developing countries is still far below that of the developed countries. So it is incumbent upon the wealthy nations to shoulder greater "historical responsibility" in cutting emissions. And the UN framework and the Kyoto Protocol both say that those who have caused pollution should be responsible for treating it.
GHG emission cut is an issue of global concern, but the capability of the countries and groups to do so is different. That is why we have the Kyoto Protocol's principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities".
The developed countries raise disputes over emission reduction targets and try to force the developing nations into committing to goals that could harm their economic and social development. To tackle this problem we need an institutional arrangement. For example, if a country's emission target could be fixed on the basis of fairness, the developed countries could be asked to undertake more obligations by helping their developing counterparts to fight climate change.
The per capita emission principle has a theoretical basis. The theory of emission rights in environmental economics says environmental capacity is a kind of wealth. It entitles every individual to discharge a measured amount of pollutants in course of his/her economic activities, which is known as individual emission right. This means every person has the property right over certain environmental resources, which is called environmental property right.
Along with other property rights such as land property right and equity ownership, the environmental property right could help realize transfer through transaction.
Developed countries are not justified in trying to force developing nations into accepting greater emissions cut targets. Instead, the industrialized countries should make allowance for the developing world, own up to the history of GHG emissions and acknowledge their high per capita emission level, and make institutional arrangements to rectify them.
The author is director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.
(China Daily 12/15/2009 page9)