THOSE who have had the misfortune to be closely involved in climate-change negotiations are not short of ideas on how the process might be made more productive. One improvement would be to stop trying to deal with so many gases at once (see article). Another would be to stop trying to deal with so many countries.
With 192 participants, the annual UNFCCC conferences are too big to do anything very useful. But most greenhouse-gas emissions are produced by the 17 countries that meet in the Major Economies Forum, a group put together by George Bush in what was widely regarded as an attempt to sabotage the UNFCCC. The MEF has, ironically, turned out to be a good forum for tackling difficult questions. The UNFCCC should therefore stick to big statements of principle and leave the details to the MEF or other small groups.
The negotiations also divide the world into two halves. The idea of “common but differentiated responsibilities” on which the UNFCCC is based—that everybody is in it together but some countries are more responsible than others—is reasonable. But the way it is being applied means that the developed (“Annex 1”) countries bear all the burden of mitigation whereas developing (“non-Annex 1”) countries benefit from the CDM and are not required to limit their emissions at all.
This binary division has fostered an us-and-them attitude that gets in the way of agreement and forces together countries that have little in common. The world economy has changed a lot in 17 years. For example, Mexico and South Korea are non-Annex 1 countries, but also members of the OECD, the club of rich countries. The non-Annex 1 countries now have widely differing concerns. China wants money for cutting industrial emissions. Africa wants generous provisions for forestry. Brazil has hydro power and biofuels, so it wants a regime that favours those. South Africa’s economy is based on coal, so it wants investment in carbon capture and storage.
Most developing countries cling to this division because they have done well out of it, but some middle-income countries are trying to get rid of it. “Mexico’s main goal”, says Mario Molina, a Nobel prize-winning chemist and a key figure in the successful campaign to cut ozone-depleting gases, “is to make a difference in the impasse between developed and developing countries.” Mexico has made a commitment along developed-country lines to halve emissions by 2050, and proposes that prosperous heavy-emitting developing countries—including Mexico—be net contributors to its “Green Fund”. China dislikes the idea, but it is gaining traction.
A further problem with the framework created at Kyoto is that it ignored some crucial sources of emissions—chief among them deforestation, the source of around 12% of man-made greenhouse-gas emissions, more than the EU contributes in total. Dealing with it is also one of the cheapest ways of cutting emissions. But working out how to do that is difficult, which is why deforestation got left out of Kyoto.
Cutting emissions from factories means paying people to do things differently. Stopping deforestation, by contrast, means paying people for not doing something they might otherwise have done. This is tricky. Should people be paid for each year in which they have refrained from cutting down trees? If so, how much? And who, exactly, should be paid? The owners or occupants of forests that are being cut down? Or the owners or occupants of all the forests in the world? That would either be prohibitively expensive, since forests cover 30% of the Earth’s landmass, or the payments would not be high enough to protect the most endangered areas of forest.
The UN programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD), the main model under discussion at Copenhagen, favours the more limited approach. But that, its opponents argue, would create a perverse incentive. As Bharrat Jagdeo, Guyana’s president, says, “You can’t have a sustainable strategy that focuses only on those places that have high rates of deforestation, otherwise you’ll get leakage. The logging companies will have an incentive to move to countries that have conserved their forests,” as Guyana has. Creating a sensible mechanism to deal with deforestation is going to require different levels of payment—higher ones for areas vulnerable to being cut down for farming and lower ones for the rest.
Despite the difficulties, avoiding deforestation is regarded as a crucial tool for cutting emissions. Indonesia, for instance, has said that with REDD in place, it could cut its emissions in two decades by 40% from 2005 levels. A deal on deforestation therefore looks likely—if not at Copenhagen, then in the near future.
Hold the champagne
That the world is gathering in Copenhagen next week to try to decarbonise the global economy is a good thing in itself, and a consequence of other reasons for optimism. It is now widely accepted that averting serious climate change is technically feasible and economically affordable. Everybody has a good idea of what is needed, in terms of money and emissions cuts, to get a deal. Most big emitters have either started on, or promised, serious reduction programmes, and all of those countries’ leaders have invested a lot of political capital in being seen to make a success of averting serious climate change.
Copenhagen will not produce a detailed, comprehensive, legally binding agreement. But with good luck and good will, something positive may come out of it: a political agreement, which would be turned into a legally binding agreement when the fate of America’s climate-change legislation has been decided, and a deal on some specifics, such as forestry.
But even if Copenhagen’s participants end up toasting their efforts over the head of the little mermaid, what really matters is how any international agreement is implemented at a national level. And there, although progress has been made, some things are also going awry. Too little effort is going into carbon pricing and too much money into subsidies. The system is getting fat with pork; and the more pork there is, the smaller the chance that the world can cut its emissions without causing serious damage to its economy.
And yet it can be done. Most of the necessary technologies are available. The economics can be made to work. Everything depends, in the end, on the voters and their political leaders. Willing voters and braver politicians will mean better policies. And better policies will enable mankind to make a big difference to the planet’s future at a surprisingly small cost.
Dec 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition