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Copenhagen accord: A polluter's manual

By Sunita Narain
January 29, 2010 10:45 IST
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We dumped Kyoto because of the US - but even the diluted US-inspired Copenhagen accord is in peril, says Sunita Narain.

As I visited the US last fortnight, one thing came home to me: The country has very little political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Policy-makers and media professionals talk about the climate change crisis. But any opinion on cutting emissions, based on historical or even current responsibility, is just dismissed.

The public perception, seemingly carefully nurtured, is that it is runaway pollution in China and India that will devastate the world. Indeed, any talk about serious action by the US is hushed up, for it will mean playing into the hands of the Republicans.

You are then sternly reminded that President Barack Obama is better than his predecessor, George Bush, on climate change. In other words, it is the responsibility of the world to now support his weak and meaningless actions. Else, the likes of Bush will be back. Talk about being held to ransom.

Currently, just to bring the reluctant US on board, the world is being asked to agree on the Copenhagen accord, literally a polluter's manual. With no targets for industrialised countries to cut emissions, it seriously undermines the world's fight against climate change.

Under the accord, how much each country must reduce its emissions by is not based on historical and current emissions. It is self-chosen, voluntary; never mind if it adds up to nothing.

The US has offered some 3 per cent reduction below what it emitted in 1990 - what is required of it is 40 per cent below 1990 levels. Add up all the current pledges and the world is on course for at least 3°C rise in temperature, says the UN itself. 

Yet, according to US chief climate negotiator Todd Stern, the accord is really clever: "You cannot underestimate the importance of a breach in the firewall between developed and developing countries".

The "breach" is that India, China and all others have to pledge what they will do to cut emissions (although in a separate schedule). Everyone is now part of the global deal to cut emissions.

This in itself is not a bad idea. But the fact is our entry facilitates a process to wipe out the principle that action must be taken on the basis of equity - country targets apportioned on the basis of historical and current contributions.

The accord, if it becomes the framework for future negotiations, will simply overwrite the principle of equity in burden-sharing.

The move also implies that once past responsibility is erased, industrialised nations will have no obligation to pay for the transition in the developing world or provide technology on favourable terms.

The burden of transition has already shifted. The UN's own estimate is that, based on the stated pledges of different countries, developing countries will cut double what Annex 1 countries will do by 2020.

Bluntly, the Copenhagen accord divides the world into "polluters" and "beggars". China, India, South Africa, Brazil and the like are being promised the right to pollute if they legitimise the right of the US and the rest to pollute.

The rest of the world, small polluters and the like, apparently hungry for money, are promised funds for compliance. Remember how, the last night of COP15, the US and the UK openly told the Maldives and Bangladesh that they would not get money if the accord was not operationalised because of the intransigence of big developing countries.

There is just no clarity on where this money will come from, and when. Fictional money, riding on a dishonest bribe.

But let's return to the US. Will this strategy work? Has the world stooped low enough?

Not enough, I suspect. Last week, the Democratic party lost a crucial seat - Ted Kennedy's constituency of Massachusetts - to the Republican party. With this, they lost their majority in the House.

There's more excuse to do less. Already, talk (in the power-media corridors) goes that the present Boxer-Kerry Bill, which sets out these weak targets, will not go through the Senate. It is even said the Bill, being recast as an energy-efficiency law, will be even weaker (if that is possible) than what's on the table.

In short, the world will have destroyed its blueprint for effective action on climate change all for the US, which will still renege and ask for even more. This is not new. In 1992 (the climate treaty), 1997 (the Kyoto Protocol) and 2007 (the Bali Action Plan), all ambitions were whittled down, stuffed with loopholes and made inconsequential, all to suit the US. Still, the US walked out. How low will the race to the bottom take us now?

The news is not good. For instance, the US government has written to the World Bank saying it must not fund coal-based power stations in the developing world. Based on these "instructions", the first such project, in Pakistan, has been cancelled. But the US goes ahead with its plants.

So, how will the world deal with the US? That is the zillion-dollar climate question.

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Sunita Narain
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