Copenhagen climate deal would be no fairytale

Until we have new technology in place, we can either cut greenhouse gas emissions or tackle poverty — but not both.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

‘It’s just an outrage that countries cannot live up to their responsibilities. We’re all parties to this convention, including the developed countries.’

If the reaction of one delegate from the Philippines, Bernaditas de Castro-Mueller, is anything to go by, it sounds like there is little to cheer for climate change negotiators gathered in Bonn, Germany this week. The meeting is the latest session of talks building towards a replacement for the Kyoto protocol, which is due to be agreed in Copenhagen in December. Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is organising the talks, told the BBC: ‘You’re looking at hugely divergent interests, very little time remaining, a complicated document on the table and still a lot of progress to be made on some very important issues like finance.’

No doubt, some kind of agreement will be signed in Copenhagen, even if it is simply to carry on talking, but the notion of an effective, binding deal to substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the next few decades seems an awfully long way away. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth, that may be no bad thing. The idea of bringing down GHG emissions, without the technological means to do so, is coming up against the very rational desire to improve living standards.

The first thing to note is the relative failure of the Kyoto protocol itself. In more than half of all industrialised countries, GHG emissions have increased since 1990. Germany and the UK have seen substantial falls in emissions (at least, as measured by the treaty). The UK’s emissions reductions are largely due to a shift from coal-fired to gas-fired power stations, and much of the fall occurred before Kyoto was signed.

The ‘saving grace’ is the utter collapse of the economies of Eastern Europe and Russia after the end of Stalinist rule there. The result has been huge reductions in emissions as great swathes of heavily polluting industry have been wiped out. Kyoto just about succeeded in its own, narrow terms, but due to one-off, entirely coincidental changes rather than anything to do with the treaty itself.

There is no prospect of a repeat of such convenient coincidences. Between 2000 and 2006, emissions from developing countries rose by 2.3 per cent, while those from developed nations rose by 10 per cent. On Monday, a Germany renewable energy institute reported that global emissions rose by about two per cent in 2008. And with China and India playing a bigger role in the world economy, we can expect global emissions to keep on rising unless there is a strong agreement to prevent this.

The fundamental problem is the contradiction between material wealth and emissions cuts. For countries like China and India, expanding the economy is essential. Writing in Forbes magazine last week, Arvind Panagariya, a professor of economics at Columbia University, noted that 300million Indians live in ‘abject poverty’, while 40 per cent of households have no electricity. Panagariya writes: ‘Economic growth of nine to 10 per cent, necessary to bring electricity to all households and offer a modest living standard to all citizens in the next two to three decades, cannot be achieved without significant increase in aggregate emissions.’

But even in the developed world, we should be looking to improve living standards. The current recession has been a painful reminder that most people are not particularly well-off. For example, in the UK, official figures suggest 2.9million children live in ‘relative poverty’; the Child Poverty Action Group puts the numbers living in poverty at 3.9million. Whatever the definitions and exact data, it is clear that there are still many people, even in one of the wealthiest societies on Earth, who could do with being much better off.

However, the introduction of drastic cuts in GHG emissions will mean replacing current, fossil-fuel technologies (like coal or gas) with low-carbon alternatives (like solar, wind, nuclear and geothermal power). These alternatives are often considerably more expensive than the technologies that they would replace. In the case of renewables, they are still not very reliable, while nuclear power is reliable but politically unappealing. While these technologies will undoubtedly improve greatly, bringing the cost of producing energy down, cutting emissions would be very expensive in the short-term.

Hence the deadlock at the climate talks. Big, but still relatively poor, countries like China and India are unwilling to pay the price for cutting emissions. Developed countries might be willing to go down that route, but only if the fast-developing economies sign-up, too. And there’s a distinct element of bad faith about the whole project, since it is far from clear given the experience of the Kyoto deal, whether countries are able to cut emissions as much as they claim they will.

While there are good grounds for scepticism about the wilder claims made about climate change, common sense would suggest that doing serious work now on finding alternatives to current energy technologies makes sense. If global temperatures do start to shoot up, we’ll be in a much better state to respond. But this is a ‘no regrets’ policy; even if climate claims prove to be overheated, broadening the range of energy sources at our disposal, and perhaps gaining from spin-offs like affordable, zero-pollution cars in our cities, would be worth the investment.

But the obsession with emissions reduction simply puts the cart before the horse. To try to cut GHG emissions now before the means to do so are in place is a panicky response. The problem of climate change is one that will unfold over decades, so we have time on our side if we put the research effort in now. Another Kyoto-style deal is likely to be an expensive mistake.

In Copenhagen, the city of Hans Christian Andersen, a global deal that arbitrarily seeks to cut emissions at the expense of future living standards would be an ugly duckling that will never become a swan.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons explained why the UN climate change talks in Bali ended in stalemate. James Heartfield saw the Bali summit as a display of eco-imperialism. Tony Gilland reviewed Bjørn Lomborg’s book which critiqued the politicisation of global warming science. Earlier, he dug up the roots of the IPCC. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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