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CLIMATE CHANGE: Budgeting Environmental Justice

Analysis by Julio Godoy

COPENHAGEN, Oct 26 2009 (IPS) - There is a consensus that industrialised nations are mainly responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. It should be equally clear that such responsibility should have political consequences. But it isn’t.

One example: the government and legislature of the country that until recently was the biggest greenhouse gas emitter – the United States – refused virtually from the start of global talks to commit to emissions cuts accepted by other industrialised nations.

After President Bill Clinton signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that sets binding targets for developed nations to cut their emissions by 2012, the Senate refused to ratify it. And in 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew Clinton’s signature.

The U.S. government and Congress raised two arguments against the Kyoto Protocol: that substantial cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would hurt U.S. industrial competitiveness, and that fast-growing emerging economies like Brazil, China and India should be classified as Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol, thus binding them to emissions targets, regardless of the costs to their development.

The refusal by the United States – and other developed countries like Australia – to accept their responsibility for creating the conditions favourable to climate change continues to stand in the way of negotiations on a new global climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. A new treaty is to be adopted by the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.

But representatives of international bodies, scientists and even executives of multinational corporations have all predicted that no agreement will be reached in Copenhagen, because of the rigid stances of the United States and countries like India and China.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in an Oct. 19 news briefing in London that “I do not think that a fully fledged new international treaty” can be ratified in Copenhagen.

“If you look at the limited amount of time that remains to Copenhagen, we have to focus on what can realistically be done and how that can realistically be framed,” he said, stressing the need to “concentrate on the political imperatives that make it clear how countries are committed and engaging in cutting emissions, and what cooperative mechanisms they need to put in place.”

Christophe de Margerie, CEO of French oil giant Total, also said, on Oct. 22 in Paris, that “All the parties involved (in the negotiations towards Copenhagen) are not ready to make a commitment” and ratify an international binding treaty.

Over the weekend, the Danish capital hosted the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE International) Copenhagen Legislator’s Forum, which brought together lawmakers from the G8 – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States – as well as Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.

GLOBE International was founded in 1989 as an inter-parliamentary group among the European Parliament and the legislatures of the United States, Japan and Russia, with the aim of responding to urgent environmental challenges facing the planet.

The vice president of GLOBE, British MP Graham Stuart, told IPS that most of the measures needed to reduce emissions in industrialised nations do not require an international treaty.

These include setting emissions reduction standards for buildings, transport and electronic appliances, fomenting renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, and reforestation and afforestation policies.

Benno Pilardeaux, spokesman for the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), told IPS that environmental experts taking part in the preparations for Copenhagen believe it is impossible to reach an agreement in December.

“The most likely outcome is merely the establishment of a schedule and timeframe for further negotiations, to continue the debates in a new conference, to take place in March 2010,” said Pilardeaux.

The WBGU, made up of the leading scientists in all areas of human knowledge in Germany, advises the government on climate change issues.

As the talks bogged down, the WBGU drew up what it called “an innovative approach to solving the problem of climate change.”

The paper, “Solving the Climate Dilemma: The Budget Approach”, is based on the generally accepted idea that temperatures above two degrees Celsius – known as the “2°C guard rail” – more than the pre-Industrial Revolution era would bring about irreversible climate change dangerous to life on earth.

“The new approach is straightforward, transparent, fair and designed to serve as a framework of reference for climate policymakers. It could ease negotiations at the climate summit,” said WBGU Chairman Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

“Latest research shows that there is only a realistic chance of restricting global warming (to two degrees Celsius) if a limit is set on the total amount of (greenhouse gases) emitted globally between now and 2050,” the WBGU report says. It calls this total amount the global carbon dioxide (CO2) budget.

“Between now and the year 2050 not more than 750 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels may be emitted if dangerous climate change is to be avoided,” says the WBGU. “At the present time approximately 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide are being emitted worldwide per year. If emissions continue at today’s levels, the global budget will be exhausted in around 25 years.”

“By 2050 a maximum of approximately 750 billion metric tons (of CO2) may be released into the atmosphere if the guard rail is to be adhered to with a probability of 67 percent,” the study explains. But “If we raise the probability to 75 percent, the cumulative emissions within this period would even have to remain below 600 billion tons.

“In any case, only a small amount of CO2 may be emitted worldwide after 2050…Thus, the era of an economy driven by fossil fuels will definitely have to come to an end within the first half of this century,” it concludes.

Schellnhuber, co-author of the report and the German government’s chief adviser on climate change, told IPS that “out of a question of basic environmental justice, the global CO2 budget should be divided in equal parts among the global population.”

“Why should a German citizen have the right to emit more CO2 than someone in India or Tanzania?” Schellnhuber asked. “The rule to follow should be to fairly divide the global CO2 budget with which the Earth could survive until 2050 by the population of the planet.”

According to that equation, each person, regardless of their nationality, would have the right to emit around 110 tons of CO2 over the next 40 years.

Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said people in Germany emit an average of 11 metric tons of CO2 a year, compared to an average of 19 tons in the United States, 18 in Australia, 4.6 in China, and less than two tons in India and Brazil.

That means industrialised countries have already consumed their share of the CO2 budget as estimated by the WBGU, or will have done so within a few years. Even the budget of China, based on current emissions, will be exhausted in 34 years.

Schellnhuber argues that the use of the budget approach would make it possible to systematically establish fair and precise emissions reduction targets for 2020 for all industrialised countries, as well as allocating carbon emissions responsibility among developing and newly industrialising nations, in order to make the transition to a carbon-free economy in the medium-term.

The global CO2 budget must be at “the forefront of (negotiations towards) a new global climate treaty,” the WBGU paper says. “Combined with fundamental concepts of equity the budget approach provides concrete figures for each of the emission limitations, which all countries will have to accept in order to prevent the destabilisation of the planet’s climate system.”

The fresh data on emissions released last week by the UNFCCC Secretariat show that in spite of the Kyoto Protocol, CO2 emissions among the 40 industrialised countries that have “reporting obligations” under the treaty increased three percent between 2000 and 2007.

And although 2007 emissions by the smaller group of 37 industrialised countries that have targets under the Protocol were around 16 percent below the 1990 Kyoto baseline, much of the reduction was a result of the economic decline of economies in transition (countries in eastern and central Europe) in the 1990s, the UNFCCC reported.

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