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Climate of change

As the UN climate conference gathers in Poland, Janet Redman considers the prospects for a new deal on the climate

December 1, 2008
5 min read

Bracing themselves against frigid winter temperatures, negotiators from across the globe are gathering for the UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland, this month to discuss a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, whose targets expire in 2012. Two questions will be key to sealing a new climate treaty, which should be finalised in a year’s time. How much are rich countries willing to cut their emissions? And what money will be available to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change and ensure a transition to low-carbon growth?

Making the cut

Scientists have called for a reduction of at least 50 per cent in global greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050 to stave off disaster. To do this, historically large emitters like the US and European countries will have to curb emissions by around 80 per cent. But conventional wisdom says that the US will not sign a treaty unless China also commits to binding targets. In Europe, Poland, which is heavily dependent on coal for electricity, is leading a nine-member ‘coalition of the unwilling’ to fight the EU’s plan for 20 per cent reductions by 2020. And the UK’s new Climate Change Act, which sets a binding 80 per cent target for emissions decreases by 2050, could see this undermined by allowing industry to purchase limitless offsets from developing countries in place of cutting pollution at home.

The battle over which countries should slash greenhouse gases, and by how much, is one in a larger struggle to define obligations. Through the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, the UN climate convention attempts to account for countries’ role in causing the climate crisis. It creates a mandate for wealthy countries to provide financial support to poorer nations to cope with adaptation to ‘locked-in’ climatic upheaval and develop clean energy economies. But the existing Kyoto Protocol, which promotes carbon trading to meet this aim, provides richer nations with a means to buy their way out of responsibility instead of tackling their own emissions and over-consumption.

Developing countries will be looking for firm cash commitments from Northern governments on a range of issues, from deforestation to the deployment of low-carbon technologies. In each case, this could lay the groundwork for moving beyond ‘business as usual’ approaches, by promoting small-scale solutions and local, democratic resource control – although there are many potential pitfalls too.

UN climate talks are furthest along on adaptation. In Bali, an Adaptation Fund was established whose executive board has a majority of seats held by developing countries. This could be used by affected countries to exchange the myriad grass-roots adaptation techniques that already exist – such as seed swaps, a return to small-scale irrigation, and new forms of community organising. However, some critics warn that the money could end up being channeled to agribusiness – via new spending on GM crops – and other transnational corporations.

Deforestation, a second ‘pillar’ in the talks, accounts for about 20 per cent of global emissions. A global agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) could channel billions of dollars from North to South, but the question is – who gets the money?

As currently conceived, governments could bank payments from a forest carbon market for keeping trees in the ground even if forests are really conserved by indigenous peoples. Logging companies might also be eligible if the definition of ‘forests’ includes ‘sustainably managed’ plantations.

Alternatively, negotiations could link fighting deforestation with the implementation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, requiring governments to legally recognise land tenure and territorial rights as a precondition for participating in a REDD scheme.

Financial crisis v climate crisis

The financial meltdown has raised concerns that developed countries will be reluctant to spend money to tackle the climate crisis, although there is potentially a silver lining in new calls to reinvent whole institutions.

Chief among these is the World Bank, which – with the backing of the G8 – has been positioning itself as the leading international agency for tackling the climate crisis. Industrialised countries have pledged $6.1 billion towards the Bank’s new suite of ‘climate investment funds’, but environmentalists argue that these remain skewed towards destructive projects like coal power plants and large dams. The funds have been snubbed by India, China and the G77 group of developing nations, who argue that the loans offered by the Bank for adaptation leave poorer countries to foot the bill for coping with a problem they did not create.

The current economic disorder illustrates the danger of relying on poorly regulated and little understood free market instruments, such as carbon trading, to solve real-world problems. It reveals the importance of new institutions, such as an International Renewable Energy Agency, to provide the 1.6 billion people living without electricity access to truly clean energy. And it compels those working for climate justice to propose alternatives to a development paradigm that pits limitless economic expansion against a resource-constrained reality.

Janet Redman is a researcher for the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington

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