The Farce In Copenhagen
Protestors in Copenhagen (Creative Commons licensed)
The world is going to war against carbon dioxide, it seems. But delegates at this week's UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen may as well be talking about who should be allowed to have more guns or grow more crops, because the same fundamental interests are on the table.
Countries in the best financial position to reduce their carbon emissions, like the United States and members of the European Union, have little incentive to fundamentally rework their economies for far-off rewards. And countries that are most willing to change now, like many in Africa and Asia, require outside assistance to do so.
Most African and Asian delegates have said the Kyoto protocol, reached in 1997, already does what they see as necessary: it limits the carbon emissions of developed countries without putting limits on developing countries. The United States famously never signed the Kyoto protocol.
Now, the U.S. would like to kill Kyoto and forge a new agreement that places emissions limits on developing countries. Mostly, the U.S. is looking at China, soon to become the world's top carbon emitter. But in a globalized economy, no country is likely to support a hindrance on itself that does not apply to all of its competitors.
China, a hybrid of developed and developing, has adopted a negotiating posture that is very similar to that of the United States. At Copenhagen, it's basically saying: "We'll handle this issue on our own, and we don't need anyone looking over our shoulder while we do it."
One of the big sticking points in the conversation is that China and its allies would like the West to subsidize the green technologies that will be required for any country to meet significant carbon reduction quotas. The U.S. is telling them to go to hell, while pushing developing countries to agree to emissions curbs without guarantees for funding.
Imagine being a country like India, finally hitting its stride in the global economy after serving as a British colony throughout the Industrial Revolution. Now, you're being told that your finally-respectable manufacturing base is bad for the planet and must be radically overhauled over the next 10 years or so.
Nevermind, you're told, that the United States and Europe had free reign to create this mess during 200 years of fossil fuel burning. They'd like your help in cleaning it up, and are not inclined to foot the bill to do so.
So, it's no surprise that India is fighting to protect Kyoto. It must be mentioned that the European Union has pledged more than $20 billion in support to developing countries, and to reduce its carbon output by 30 percent by 2020. As such, the EU has become a cheerleader for a deal between some highly entrenched competitors.
The result so far for Copenhagen and the larger debate is, as Naomi Klein put it, "a lose-lose game of chicken." Countries like the United States, China, and India would rather let the seas boil than give up the right to self-determination over their own economies. Furthermore, although most governments acknowledge that climate change poses a legitimate threat, very few are actually in a position to do anything about it.
In a cruel irony, the countries who contributed least to the climate crisis, most of them in the so-called "third world," will be hit hardest by the effects of global warming.
The only way a global carbon emissions deal will come about, and it won't happen this week, will be if the United States and China can mobilize themselves domestically. Eban Goodstein of The Bard Center for Environment Policy lays out a timeline for success this way:
Next spring, the Senate commits to cap and trade, albeit with a weak target; in the next few years, the Chinese beat their targets for efficiency investments; the Senate reacts to emerging Chinese leadership in green technology with serious clean energy investments; the Chinese acknowledge the reality of the climate threat by finally adopting reduction targets of its own; the Senate responds by ratcheting down US targets to those that science and justice demand.
Though the back and forth between the U.S. and China seems plausible, we should be wary of cap and trade. The "cap" part is vital, but as Annie Leonard lays out in her brilliant "The Story of Cap and Trade," the "trade" part may turn out to be a total scam. Indeed, the loopholes in a market based on carbon credits could actually allow polluters to break the cap while making exorbitant profits.
The truth is that the United States has no intention of getting anything done in Copenhagen. Nor does China. No meaningful agreements will be signed anytime soon, and promises made by Obama and other world leaders later this week will be empty.
Progress on climate change will depend on the countries of the world finding a vehicle that combines cooperation and competition, be that a carbon credits market or another solution. Apparently the fate of the planet is not a sufficient incentive.