This week’s column – Greenhouse again

At the end of each year, like migratory birds, the world’s international greenhouse diplomats over ten thousand of them hear a mysterious call. And each year the tell-tale trails of greenhouse gas seem to stretch yet further across the sky as planes descend on another exotic location. And another Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) takes place.

This year the 11th COP took place in Montreal, French Quebec from 28 November to 9 December.

The third of these migrations (COP3) occurred in Kyoto in 1997 producing the eponymous Protocol in which developed countries took on binding emission reduction targets. But Kyoto has it’s problems.

The developing countries never took on binding commitments, and their economies and their emissions keep growing like topsy. And the United States and Australia formed their very own Coalition of the Unwilling alone in our refusal to ratify Kyoto.

Before Montreal our Environment Minister Ian Campbell had been gloating that Kyoto’s targets were “just about finished”. But the migrating diplomats have just managed to stitch things back together again a little.

Montreal tidied up the administration of the ‘clean development mechanism’. That will allow developed countries to earn credit by funding emissions abatement in developing countries. It reaffirmed Kyoto by agreeing to negotiate new post-Kyoto targets. And it OK’d the entrapment of greenhouse gases within the earth a means by which Australia hopes to preserve the value of its prodigious coal and gas reserves.

But the major flaws remain intact. As the polar icecaps receded further, as the gulf stream that keeps Europe warm seemed to be slowing and as scientific evidence continued to marginalise the greenhouse denialists, the politics of international action remained mired in simple-mindedness.

The Coalition of the Unwilling are clearly rogues in this story. Trouble is, there aren’t many good guys. The environmentalists have the Europeans and the developing countries playing the good guys. Let’s take them in turn.

For years the Europeans frustrated the emergence of a sensible protocol. They were aghast at the idea of letting each country achieve their allocated target in whatever way they wished (including by teaming up with other countries and trading entitlements to pick all the least cost abatement options). They agreed to Russia being bribed into the Protocol with ‘hot air’ or excess emissions entitlements, but then sought to undermine the value of these entitlements by opposing their sale to other countries.

Branding emissions trading a ‘loophole’ they wanted us all to adopt ‘government knows best’ approaches like them mandatory targets for recycling, renewables, fuel economy you name it. This wouldn’t have reduced emissions as they’d already been agreed under Kyoto. They just wanted Kyoto to be character building by changing our lifestyle.

Oh but there was one exception. European countries formed a club which they called a ‘bubble’ and guess what? They were allowed to trade emissions, within the bubble and they could buy East Germany’s ‘hot air’! It took years to get the Europeans to agree to extend these privileges to other developed countries. Similar diversions await the renegotiation of post-Kyoto targets.

Then there are the developing countries. As the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said three years ago:

India’s contribution ¢â¬â indeed, the contribution of all the developing countries ¢â¬â to greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is very little, compared to that of the industrialized countries. This will be the case for several decades to come. Tragically, however, developing countries will bear a disproportionate burden of the adverse impacts of climate change.

Makes you feel like a heel doesn’t it asking them to do their bit? But together China and India account for most of the world’s growth in greenhouse gas emissions. If we don’t ask them we may as well not bother.

Imagine we were rationing water in a drought. The poor might seek compensation and some of us would be happy to pay it. But who’d want to exempt them from water restrictions?

Indeed, the bribing of Russia with ‘hot air’ provides a model by which we can get the developed countries to buy in. In addition to the threat of sanctions, developed countries should ‘bribe’ major developing countries’ into the system with ‘hot air’ the developed countries then buy back. But it will be years till anyone takes such an option seriously.

India remains intransigent. Meanwhile back in the ‘lets be grateful for small mercies’ department, China’s preparedness to back Son-of-Kyoto (though not to take on binding commitments itself!) has helped isolate America and shame it into further talks.

As we prepare for another summer in the hottest decade on record (perhaps the hottest for a millenium), I wonder how many years have to pass before we get all the nonsense out of our head, and act as if protecting our miraculous planet were more important than grandstanding from the Europeans, obfuscating from the Coalition of the Unwilling and finger-pointing from the developing countries.

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derrida derider
derrida derider
2024 years ago

I think the collective action problem here is so severe that we will *never* see effective global restraint of carbon emissions. Such restraint is definitely the first-best solution to global warming, but if it can’t be done we need to think about responses that aren’t so prone to free-rider and co-ordination difficulties.

It’s time we started thinking seriously about how we’ll deal with a hotter planet.

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

Coping with global warming was also a major aspect of COP 11. Pretty amazing that we can get as far as we can on free trade, but that we can’t manage a global emissions cap – or tax.

2024 years ago

I appreciate the realism inherent within the concept of ‘dealing with a hotter planet’, however I don’t think the human race is at all prepared to deal with that eventuality. The reality is that if the US can’t deal appropriately with a single hurricane, then there is no hope the world will be able to face things when they become 5, 10, or 15 times worse. Amending countries behaviour patterns is, I think, the be-all and end-all of our future, and it needs to happen in the next 10 to 20 years. The sad thing is – I can’t see that happening.