The recently concluded Doha conference lacked the anticipation and media focus of Copenhagen (2009) and the last minute climax as witnessed last year in Durban. One may have thought that the conference will deserve more seriousness than the outcome that it produced; it was preceded by the super storm Sandy and the relentless typhoons in the Philippines, which many climate scientists believe is the result of anthropogenic GHG emissions leading to higher global mean temperatures.

The spate of inclement weather patterns becoming pronounced over the last few years may have put pressure on the negotiators to proactively look for a comprehensive global deal. Given the fact that all countries had pledged to achieve the goal of limiting the mean temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade in 2050 by massive reduction of GHG emissions, the recent rush of extreme weather patterns had created the potential for Doha to diverge from the pattern set by the conferences in Poznan, Mexico and Durban. That, however, did not happen.

The long-term goals need to be incrementally calibrated from now till 2050. This is precisely what has eluded the negotiators; firm commitments by developed countries for reducing GHG emissions and providing adequate and predictable finance for adaptation and mitigation actions in developing countries are yet to become a reality. Affirmative action by developed world is at the heart of global climate regime and follows the principle of ‘polluters pay’, enshrined as Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR).

CBDR, in recognition of the fact that the present problem is the outcome of GHG emissions by developed countries over the last many decades, requires them to not only reduce them but also provide finance to developing countries to follow a low GHG emission pathway to economic development. Kyoto Protocol (KP) enunciates this principle and mandates developed countries to legally binding GHG emissions reductions.

As hazy as ever

The Doha agreement to extend KP is good news, but the fact that a handful of developed countries, accounting for 15 per cent of global GHG emissions signed up, has taken the sheen out of it. Canada, Japan and New Zealand walked out of the KP while the US never ratified it.

It is intriguing to note that with all good intentions, a plethora of meetings (there is a meeting every quarter since the last 4-5 years) and billions of dollars spent, the road to a universal treaty is as hazy as it was some years ago. The recent surge of weather anomalies and grim warnings by scientists that time is running out for limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade too has been unable to seal the deal. The presence of more than 100 heads of states in Copenhagen too was not enough. There seems to be something gravely amiss preventing the desirable outcome.

The reason given by the US, the second largest GHG emitter, for not ratifying the KP is that it feels any deal that leaves out major economies, in particular China, India, Brazil, South Africa, is not workable and will not lead to the desired goal. Thus, in the opinion of the US, KP, following the principle of CBDR, prevents developing countries from taking binding emission reductions (and now shared by other developed countries), and needs to be dumped in favour of a more inclusive global agreement.

It refers to the exclusion of China as the largest GHG emitter and India closely following as weaknesses of the present dispensation in dealing with the issue.

Economic leakage

Without taking sides, if one looks at the issue dispassionately, it will become obvious that the fear of developed countries is that of economic leakage, if the present arrangement is implemented. This argument gets implicit in various articulations, including the one about growing GHG emissions of the major developing bloc. The fact that the present regime requires developed world only to take GHG emission reduction could entail economic leakage.

GHG emission reduction in developed countries where the choice of technologies has already been made will necessarily entail lifestyle changes. Simply put, the countries will have to reduce their energy consumption (which is very high in comparison with developing countries) and governments will need to take necessary measures. One obvious way is the levy of carbon tax making energy consumption expensive and forcing consumption of low-energy-using alternatives. Thus, higher tax on petrol to achieve GHG emission targets could see demand swing against SUVs while at the same time major developing countries, not required to impose such tax, would continue to witness the growing demand for high-energy consuming equipment.

Making energy expensive in the US or Europe, in addition to demand shifts, could make domestic industry uncompetitive — and may well force many some to shift their base elsewhere.

The obvious candidates are the major developing countries (China, India, Brazil, etc.) where there are no cost additionalities. The long-term scenario, which is consistent with the global aspirational goal of 2050, could potentially transform the economic map of the world and therefore the balance of power.

Trust deficit

The demand to revisit CBDR, efforts to breach the firewall between developed and developing countries enshrined in KP by referring to major economies as distinct from other developing countries, including climate change issues in WTO and other international fora, are manifestations of the looming threat of economic leakages that, in the opinion of the developed world, the present climate change regime could perpetuate. This deficit of trust is one of the most important bottlenecks to arriving at a global agreement.

There could, however, be a way to bridge this trust deficit. It may also provide a pathway that is bereft of the present competing political and economic compulsions. The International Energy Agency has repeatedly pointed out that almost 60 per cent of GHG emissions could be avoided by energy efficiency interventions globally. Further, as projected by McKinsey in its analysis for India, significant energy efficiency gains are actually negative cost opportunities (see table) — the low hanging fruit in all economies that are yet untapped.

These actions are mostly related to enhancing energy efficiency, such as replacement of incandescent bulbs by CFLs/ LEDs, promoting high efficiency ACs/refrigerators and other energy using equipment, hybrid cars, etc, ensure recovery of additional investments in a short period of time.

Then, there are those positive interventions which require substantial investments, such as solar thermal energy, coal gasification. A concerted global effort with seed capital to kickstart the process could lead to unlocking of the potential. A global roadmap to promote large-scale energy efficiency interventions could not only enhance the energy security of nations but would also initiate affirmative action in GHG emission reductions.

McKinsey (see table) estimates that the investments would pay back in a couple of years. Serious engagement of the global community on energy efficiency could become the first important step to the elusive climate deal as it would help bridge the trust deficit.

(The author is Programme Officer, OzonAction Programme, UNEP, Bangkok.)

(This article was published on December 17, 2012)
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