I’ve finally recovered from a long and frustrating week at COP15 in Copenhagen. Like many, I never actually made it into the conference center itself – even though I had the needed secondary pass, registration lines were just too long. I bailed out when the Danish police started passing out coffee in the queue. Instead, I spent the week with the Climate Interactive team, analyzing potential proposals, talking to the press, and preparing briefing materials.
What unfolded was a bizarre flurry of contradictory official and unofficial draft texts of an agreement. In the final hours of the conference, language about hard targets, enforcement, and other encouraging steps gradually disappeared. In the end, the assembled parties approved a decision that merely “takes note” of the nth hour “Copenhagen Accord” presented by the US and BASIC countries.
Many were bitterly disappointed by this outcome. I wasn’t, primarily because my standards were low going in. It was clear from the start that individual country proposals did not add up to anything remotely like a future that limits temperature change to 2C (roughly 450ppm CO2 equivalent) or even 3C (550 ppm). A binding agreement for a massive change in course would have been astounding.
I also don’t mourn the lack of hard 2050 emissions targets, for three reasons. First, statements about 2050 emissions are probably worth a bit less than the average political promise, i.e. next to nothing. Second, it’s actually quite uncertain what emissions trajectory is needed to reach a 2C future. Our best guess is that global emissions would have to fall by 50% or so relative to 1990, but we could easily be unlucky enough to need 80% cuts or more. Third, while early emissions cuts appear to be cheap and beneficial in complementary ways, it’s uncertain how fast and deeply we can cut over the long haul.
While hard long-term targets don’t make sense, it does make sense to know where the world is aiming. I think it’s laudable that the 2C temperature goal language survived in the final document. If taken seriously, it implies an emissions path very different from what developing countries have been willing to propose: a peak in emissions by 2020 to 2030, and substantial reductions thereafter. That’s remarkably different from the kind of thinking I heard from Chinese policy analysts during a recent trip to Beijing and at a CNAS war game a year ago. The prevailing mental model – also evident in statements from India – seems to be that climate is a problem created by the developed world, so developing nations need time to grow their emissions, in order to build capital serving urgent human development needs and achieve some kind of emissions parity. The problem is that the physics of climate dictate that, even if emissions in the developed world go to zero tomorrow, emissions growth in the developing world must stop and reverse within two decades to reach targets like 2C.
It may be that a future with +3C or higher temperatures is viewed as “worth it” from a development perspective. Climate impact assessment is not my area, but it seems to me that with high population densities, monsoon climates, large coastal populations, endemic tropical diseases and glacial water supplies, China and India are particularly vulnerable. When you add in the possibility of knock-on effects from regional conflict, a very warm future seems like at best a great risk to take.
That should lead one to wonder whether growth founded on cheap fuel and free CO2 emissions, which will have to be undone within the lifetime of a power plant built today, is really development at all. Rather than seeking an emissions grace period, I think developing countries should be asking themselves what it would take in the way of policy and outside support to get on a greener path. That means breaking the perceived emissions-welfare link and getting foot hold in new non-carbon technologies rather than being locked into a fossil-energy-intensive infrastructure. I think there’s a lot of merit to such a path, even if one considers only the narrow self interest of countries, rather than the enlightened self interest of the world.
Copenhagen and Beijing were interesting studies in technology paths. I saw more electric bikes in a week in Beijing than I’ve seen everywhere else put together. However, the car was clearly king of the new streets, striking fear into the hearts of pedestrians and cyclists, even more so than in some US cities. In Copenhagen, on the other hand, bikes were low-tech but ubiquitous. Clearly the difference is not a matter of wealth, but of deliberate choices: to tax cars heavily in Denmark, while providing excellent infrastructure for cycling. To be fair, Beijing is 10x the size of Copenhagen, but it seems that there must be choices China could make today that exploit its technical and manufacturing capability to move toward a development pattern like Copenhagen, not Dallas.
The trick is to choose a new path without triggering near term disruption that leads to political revolution (a topic that came up repeatedly in conversations about actions that might slow China’s GDP growth). In that sense, China and the US are really in the same boat. Both went to Copenhagen empty handed, because neither had the political basis needed to find a common ground with stronger commitments.
The challenge for the coming years, I think, is not about extracting promises of deep long term emissions cuts from the developing world. Instead, the developed countries should be thinking about how to set a credible example in the near term, by taking effective action to reduce emissions and support adaptation. Only that will create a basis of trust sufficient to enable developing countries to take the next step.