Agenda for Tianjin, Cancun and beyond

  • 03/10/2010

It is in the interest of developing countries to agree to legally binding national emission limits alone to secure their fair share of the global carbon budget.

Climate change is a difficult subject for multilateral cooperation because of the limitations in developing a shared assessment of a challenge posed by competition for scarce resources. The evolution of the Climate Convention has only addressed the interests of developed countries to secure their lifestyles and not the long term interests of the global community. For example, the IPCC acknowledges (in a footnote) that its emissions reduction scenarios do not take into account lifestyle changes.

The atmosphere is a strategic resource needed to establish the infrastructure necessary for eradication of poverty and climate change cannot be considered only in terms of environmental damage. Consequently, legally binding national emission limits, or carbon budgets, alone will secure for developing countries their fair share of the global carbon budget. Such a step will also meet the concerns of developed countries that all countries should move towards similar types of commitments.

Developing countries need to be strategic in their response because of two recent developments.

First, the safeguards in the Climate Convention that developing countries were able to wrest at the last minute in 1992 are in danger of evaporating. Under Article 4.7, legally binding measures taken by developing countries for mitigation are contingent on the provision of financial resources and technology, and this requirement was waived at Copenhagen. The second safeguard, that eradication of poverty remains the overriding priority of developing countries is planned to be negated at Cancun by focusing the agenda on international monitoring of developing county mitigation actions ignoring the infrastructure needs for eradication of poverty, and the attendant inevitable increase in emissions of carbon dioxide.

The second development is that, it is being argued that the challenge of climate change is too complex for the ‘cumbersome’ current institutions to deal with. Informal institutions outside the Climate Convention decision making structure are being created. The UN Secretary General has also set up a Panel on Sustainability charged with recommending how a fifty percent reduction in global emissions can be brought about by 2050; a target first proposed by the G8. While this Panel, as a part of the United Nations framework has more legitimacy than other groupings, like the G 20 and the Major Economies Forum, the emerging framework is driven by developed countries seeking to legitimize their over occupation of carbon space.

A new agenda is needed because the global goal of keeping increase in temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius requires 15.5 Giga tonnes (Gt.) of emissions abatement by 2050 (or, 14 Gt. By 2020), whereas the firm pledges made after the Copenhagen Conference  for the period up to 2020 amount to only around 9 Gt, with developing countries contributing more than the reduction commitments of the developed countries (WRI, 2010). Moreover, the countries with per-capita emissions and incomes below the global average collectively would need at least as much carbon budget as the developed countries are about to take up from now until 2050, if the poor were to merely reach average global greenhouse gas emissions of 4 tonnes per capita by 2050, that is recognized as a legitimate aspiration in the Copenhagen Accord.

A recent report of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, on limiting the magnitude of future climate change, published in May 2010, also concludes that the “policy goal must be stated as a quantitative limit on domestic GHG emissions over a specified time period – in other words a GHG emissions budget …… national shares of global emissions need to be agreed at the multilateral level as the basis for developing and assessing domestic strategies”. The United Kingdom already has legislation establishing a national carbon budget.

The most authoritative recent analysis for the United States, prepared by the National academy of sciences, assumes that 200 Gt. Of Co2-eq will be available in the period 2012 – 2050, while for 2008 annual emissions from the United States were 7 Gt! The scientific analysis also acknowledges that ‘global least cost’ economic efficiency criteria for allocating global emissions among countries, as is being done by developed country institutions, leads to a lesser reduction effort for them as compared with an approach based on global ‘fairness’ concerns. 

Developing countries must push for a legally binding burden sharing arrangement because they cannot allow carbon cuts to be put on hold; otherwise they will loose their fair share of the remaining global carbon space/budget. The nature and scale of the problem is such that codes of conduct will not be enough and rule based approaches, like national carbon budgets, are needed to assess adequacy of national actions of all countries.

Therefore, the negotiating agenda for developing countries must be to propose new rules rather than just oppose existing ones. National carbon budgets, based on equitable allocation criteria that are legally binding for all countries, will focus national policy in all countries on the transformation of the world economy and human activity, leading to patterns of resource use that are common for all countries. The biophysical limits to growth should mean lifestyle changes not depriving the poor.