Copenhagen accord, and beyond

By Yang Hongliang (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-23 07:55
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The recently concluded global climate negotiations had produced the Copenhagen Accord (the Accord), in which it recognized the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.

It upheld the long term emissions reduction objects to limit global warming to less than 2C (3.6 Fahrenheit), provide funding and technology support for developing countries, and increase transparency on mitigation activities. But the Accord has been strongly criticized for not setting tough, legally binding limits on future carbon emissions for developed countries and not spelling out the mechanism of providing financing support to developing countries.

The difficulties to get more than 190 countries to agree on a global issue were unimaginably complicated. Most developed countries want to have a new unified post-2012 global legal framework, not a mere extension of existing legally binding document - Kyoto Protocol.

On the flip side, majority of developing countries fear that a unified agreement will result in dropping the legally binding targets for developed countries and want an amendment to the Kyoto Protocol to include new commitments for developed countries through 2020.

This debate is an issue caused by the economic gap between developed and developing countries. For most developing countries, they are still striving to start their process of industrialization and urbanization. As Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made clear in his speech, "People in the developed world all have three meals a day, but for people in many African, Latin American and Asian countries, three meals a day is still something in the future". Thus, it is difficult for developing countries to think and behave the same way as their developed neighbors.

This argument is particularly true when CO2 emissions per capita of developing countries are still very low. Take China as an example. In 2005, its CO2 emission per capita were 3.80 tons, only about 35 percent of OECD average, and less than 20 percent of US level, according to the International Energy Agency. In terms of per capita cumulative CO2 emissions over the period of 1950-2002, China ranked the 92nd in the world, according to China's National Development and Reform Commission. Situations in other developing countries are quite similar to China. So, how could developing countries constrain their economic growth by curbing carbon emissions to pay for developed countries' historic mistake of emitting too much CO2 during their industrialization? When almost all attention at Copenhagen was focused on wrestling to get a new agreement between developed and developing countries, it seems that no one at Copenhagen remembered to consider the issue of carbon emissions within a broader globalization context.

Today many manufacturing firms in Western countries have relocated their production into developing countries. The benefits of doing so are mutual - developing countries get many job opportunities and promote economic growth, and developed countries have reduced their production costs and moved to the higher end of the global value chain. This is the joyful side of the story. The miserable side is that by relocating production lines, developed countries have exported a large amount of CO2 emissions to developing countries. This is particularly true for export-oriented economies like China. If CO2 emissions involved in international trade are considered, it is expected that CO2 emissions per capita in developing countries will be further lowered. Correspondingly, CO2 emissions in developed countries will be increased by a large amount even if they are likely to produce the same amount of goods with more efficient energy.

From this perspective, the issue of CO2 emissions reduction is an issue of development right of developing countries, and therefore, cannot be solved without considering changing the unbalanced global economy. This is something missing at Copenhagen.

To achieve the ultimate objective of arresting the increase in global temperature, an appropriate framework for future international cooperation is necessary. All countries should have some flexibility in future climate change negotiations. However, developed countries have to prove that they are willing to take serious actions on climate change and provide financial and technological support for developing countries as set by the existing Protocol and again by the Accord.

If without any real intention, any ambitious target could result in empty words on a paper. The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding document and set out clear CO2 emissions reduction targets for majority of developed countries for the first commitment period until 2012. However, a recent review shows that CO2 emissions from many developed countries have increased rather than decreased. Contrary to this, China is not legally bound under the Kyoto Protocol. According to International Energy Agency, China's carbon intensity had been reduced about 55.6 percent from 5.47 kg CO2/$ to 2.43 kg CO2/$ (year 2000 US dollar) between 1990 and 2005. This indicates that "legally binding" or not is not the key, and the key is whether there is a real intention to take serious actions to combat climate change.

As US President Barack Obama delivered to the plenary session at Copenhagen, "there is no time to waste" before "the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible". Combating climate change needs all countries, particularly those developed, to "act boldly and decisively in the face of this common threat". It is time to act, not talk. The world is now watching.

The author is an energy expert with the Asian Development Bank.

(China Daily 12/23/2009 page8)