This December, global leaders will meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a new climate change pact to reduce carbon emissions. Yet, the way it has been set up, it will inevitably fail. The best hope is that we use this lesson finally to deal with this issue in a smarter fashion.
The US has made it clear that developing countries must sign up to substantial reductions in carbon emissions in Copenhagen. Developing nations — especially China and India — will be the main greenhouse gas emitters of the 21st century — but were exempted from the Kyoto Protocol because they emitted so little during the West’s industrialization period. Europe, too, has grudgingly accepted that without developing nations’ participation, rich nations’ cuts will have little impact.
Some would have us believe that getting China and India on board will be easy.
According to former US vice president Al Gore, “developing countries that were once reluctant to join in the first phases of a global response to the climate crisis have themselves now become leaders in demanding action and in taking bold steps on their own initiatives.”
But Gore’s fellow Nobel laureate, Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is not so sure.
He recently told an Indian audience: “Of course, the developing countries will be exempted from any such restrictions, but the developed countries will certainly have to cut down on emissions.”
It is likely that Pachauri is right and Gore is wrong: Neither China nor India will commit to significant cuts without a massive payoff.
Their reasons are entirely understandable. The biggest factor is the massive cost and the tiny reward. Reducing emissions is the only response to climate change that environmental campaigners talk about, despite the fact that repeated attempts to do so — in Rio in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1997 — failed to make a dent in emission levels.
Some believe that past agreements did not go far enough, but Kyoto actually turned out to be overly ambitious. Ninety-five percent of its envisioned cuts never happened. Yet, even if Kyoto were fully implemented throughout this century, it would reduce temperatures by an insignificant 0.2ºC, at an annual cost of US$180 billion.
China and India are enjoying swift growth that is helping millions of people lift themselves out of poverty.
Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently said: “India is very concerned about climate change, but we have to see the issue in the perspective of our imperative to remove poverty so that all Indians can live a life of dignity,”
And Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) recently said: “It’s difficult for China to take quantified emission reduction quotas at the Copenhagen conference, because this country is still at an early stage of development. Europe started its industrialization several hundred years ago, but for China, it has only been dozens of years.”
Some environmental campaigners argue that, given the effects of global warming, every nation must act. But if one takes a closer look at China, this argument disintegrates.
Climate models show that for at least the rest of this century, China will actually benefit from global warming. Warmer temperatures will boost agricultural production and improve health. The number of lives lost in heat waves will increase, but the number of deaths saved in winter will grow much more rapidly: Warming will have a more dramatic effect on minimum temperatures in winter than on maximum temperatures in summer.