The Cost of Doing Nothing

NewAge, August 16, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Even if the industrialised North increases the volume of development assistance to countries like Bangladesh to help adaptations efforts, it makes economic sense for the leaders of the G8 to agree on binding emissions targets on the road to Copenhagen, writes Mahtab Haider*

AS OFFICIALS and negotiators from over 200 countries prepare to discuss the details of a climate change pact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol in Ghana later this month, Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change official, has warned that the time for meaningful action is running out. ‘If you are going to negotiate something in Copenhagen in December in 2009 the elements of that negotiation have to be available six months before,’ he told reporters this week, implying frustration over an agreed roadmap that has till now failed to bring concrete decisions to the table.

The Kyoto Protocol, which imposes binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by states that ratified it, expires in the year 2012, and current negotiations are centred on emissions reductions targets for a successor document, scheduled to be adopted in December next year. This roadmap was agreed upon at the high-profile Bali conference last year, in the wake of the fourth assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which for the first time unequivocally established the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change. Acknowledging that that evidence of the planet warming is ‘unequivocal’, the Bali Roadmap recognised that ‘deep cuts in global emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective [of] avoiding dangerous climate change’. Consequently, developed nations were to take on commitments that are ‘measurable, reportable and verifiable’ to mitigate global warming but the Bali Declaration allowed a major caveat in conceding that these commitments ‘may or may not include quantified, binding targets for all or some’.

Seven months on, the G8 summit of the world’s biggest economies in July evidently seemed to make headway in addressing the issue of binding targets when it they unanimously agreed that emissions would be cut by 50 per cent by the year 2050. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the G8 countries are responsible for 62 per cent of the carbon dioxide accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere, and a commitment by these states to cut emissions by 50 per cent could have a massive mitigation effect. Unfortunately, the G8 reassurance is a poisoned chalice. Firstly in pledging that the G8 leaders are ‘committed to avoiding the most serious consequences of climate change’, and determined to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that would avoid ‘dangerous climate change,’ the G8 only reiterated a declaration that was adopted as early as the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil.

But the G8 declaration also included the following text: ‘We seek to share with all parties to the UNFCCC the vision of, and together with them to consider and adopt in the UNFCCC negotiations, the goal of achieving at least 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognising that this global challenge can only be met by a global response, in particular, by the contributions from all major economies, consistent with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’. As environmentalists and climate change advocacy groups have pointed out, this paragraph allows the deadlock between a US-led group which refuses binding targets and the EU – which advocates binding targets — to continue, since the promised reduction is not G8 specific but a global one. So the US and Canada can still refuse binding emissions cuts unless developing countries such as India and China also adopt such binding cuts, which they have refused to till now on the grounds that their economies must be allowed to achieve growth while the developed West cuts emissions first. Also, setting a 50 per cent emissions reductions target for the year 2050 is much easier than deciding on a concrete mechanism through which it will be achieved, and how the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ will be applied to such cuts. Moreover, there seems to have emerged considerable confusion over the issue of the baseline year to be adopted for such cuts. While the EU seems to think that the cuts will have to be on 1990-levels of emissions, Japan’s prime minister has observed that this reduction will be on current levels of emission. Emissions have increased by roughly a quarter since 1990 so there is a significant difference between the total achievement if the baseline year varies.

So eight months after the Bali Roadmap was announced, the world is no closer to a consensus on how emissions of greenhouse gases will be slowed, even as a slew of countries including Bangladesh are struggling to overcome a rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones caused by
 rising global temperatures.

At the heart of the inaction is the belief that efforts to cap emissions – especially in the use of fossil fuels – could have a damaging effect on national economies in the developed and developing world, causing a tremendous knock-on effect on the global economy. The current level of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is equivalent to about 430ppm (parts per million) of CO2, compared to the pre-industrial levels of 280ppm.

As the UK government’s Stern Review, authored by economist Nicholas Stern, pointed out last year, ‘even if the annual flow of emissions did not increase beyond today’s rate, the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would reach double of pre-industrial levels – that is 550ppm CO2e – by the year 2050’. In fact, given the rate at which developing economies are progressing, emission levels of 550ppm CO2e could be reached as early as 2035, and given that such high emission levels are associated with up to a 99 per cent chance that global average temperatures could rise by 2°C or more, the outcome could be apocalyptic. For perspective on the kind of effect a 2°C change in average global temperatures could have, it is important to consider that the world is now only 5°C warmer than it was in the last ice age. ‘Rising sea levels and other climate-driven changes could drive millions of people to migrate: more than a fifth of Bangladesh could be under water with a 1m rise in sea levels, which is a possibility by the end of the century,’ the Stern Report observed.

For the G8 economies and their leaders it is also important to recognise that while the worst excesses of global warming and climate change will, in fact, be visited upon the poorest, most vulnerable communities across the world, and typically in the third world, this will mostly be because of their lack of coping capacity. Sooner or later a warmer earth and the extreme weather events this will cause will outstrip the capacity of G8 economies to cope. A 5-10 per cent increase in hurricane wind speeds, associated with rising sea surface temperatures, could approximately double annual damage costs in the US. In the UK, annual losses from floods could quadruple if average global temperatures rise as much as 3-4°C, and heat waves in Europe, such as the one which killed 35,000 people and caused agriculture damage worth $15b in 2003, could become common by the middle of the century. In fact, in a worst case scenario, as predicted by Stern, the global economy could shrink by as much as 20 per cent – measured as a fall in global GDP – whilst immediate action, global action, will cost roughly 1 per cent of the global gross domestic product.

Even if the industrialised North increases the volume of development assistance to countries like Bangladesh to help adaptations efforts, it makes economic sense for the leaders of the G8 to agree on binding emissions targets on the road to Copenhagen. In the long run even a few years of inaction could take decades of strong action to undo, and as the possibility of stabilising emissions at 450ppm CO2e gradually drifts out of reach, it becomes terrifyingly apparent that the pace of negotiations could put stabilisation at 550ppm CO2e also out of reach, and that level is already associated with environmental cataclysms of unprecedented scale.



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